October 21, 2012

Music to Tease By

Showtime’s series Homeland returned for its highly anticipated second season a few weeks ago, freshly anointed with six Emmys including a fully expected and fully deserved Best Actress win for Claire Danes, a more surprising but also worthy Best Actor win for Damien Lewis, and the top prize for Best Drama Series, thwarting Mad Men‘s hopes for a five-peat. The season has kicked off with no loss of quality, and I’m confident it will progress just as thrillingly as last year’s.

None of which matters, because this post isn’t about Homeland.

It’s about the trailer for Homeland.

Sort of.

And before I can explain that, I need to jump back two years. So…bear with me here.

One of 2010’s best movies (many people would say 2010’s single best movie; it was #2 for me) was The Social Network. Not only is it a fantastic movie, it was backed by a fantastic marketing campaign with a standout trailer featuring a haunting cover version of the early Radiohead hit, “Creep.”

The musical assemblage of angels and demons responsible for that version of the song is Scala & Kolacny Brothers, a Belgium-based group consisting of siblings Steven and Stijn Kolacny and a choir of 30-40 women ranging in age from 16-26. As detailed on their website, the brothers formed the choir back in 1996 and soon built up a following in Belgium performing  traditional classical music by the likes of Beethoven. It’s fitting that their version of “Creep” is what launched them to international fame, since the song was also what prompted Steven to consider adapting pop and rock songs in the first place. After what may have been a shaky start with this new, unconventional direction, the band’s vision quickly earned them a following around Europe, and additional fans across oceans, including Social Network director David Fincher. The prominent use of “Creep” in his film’s trailer led to a whole new level of curiosity about Scala & Kolacny Brothers. Their popularity expanded, and soon their music was being sought by other directors and producers. The BBC’s trailer for Season Two of Downton Abbey used their cover of U2’s “With or Without You”…

…and to bring it back to the beginning of the post, their version of The Police hit “Every Breath You Take” was used in the Season Two trailer for Homeland this summer. (Those who have yet to start on this show, don’t worry – nothing you see here will spoil things for you.)

While doing some research for this post, I learned that Scala & Kolacny Brothers’ “Every Breath You Take” was also used in the BBC’s trailer for the first season of Downton Abbey, which aired a few months after The Social Network trailer hit. A look at these makes it easy to understand why their music is so desirable. I don’t know about you, but I get chills up and down my spine at the marriage of their recordings and the compelling imagery and dialogue teasing us with the promise of what we hope will be great movies and series.

And that is, after all, the job of a good trailer: to tease viewers and create in them a desire to experience the full course meal. It’s not easy. How many times have you seen a trailer that gave away too much of the movie? It’s a frequent and valid complaint that trailers too often spell out exactly what will happen or at least spoil key plot developments. Still, they have always been one of my favorite part of the moviegoing experience, and when I think about some of my favorite movie trailers ever – and yes, I’m the kind of person who has favorite movie trailers, which probably tells you a lot about me – it is almost always the music that cements their status. Music may be the most vital ingredient of a great trailer. Consider Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. Those aren’t words I say very often, as I tend to feel that the less time spent considering Michael Bay’s work, the better off we all are. But I have to admit, I love the Pearl Harbor trailer.

That movie looks fucking awesome!! Unfortunately, it turned out that there’s more heart, emotion, power and filmmaking skill on display in that nearly three-minute trailer than there is in the entirety of the actual three-hour movie. And it’s all about the music. Don’t believe me? Here’s the exact same cut of the trailer, scored differently.

Oh, the music swells and it tries to stir, but it just doesn’t get there. Certainly not when compared to the first version, which is so compellingly tied together by an exceptional piece of music called “Journey to the Line,” from composer Hans Zimmer’s Oscar nominated score for The Thin Red Line. An issue over the rights meant that “Journey to the Line” couldn’t be featured in the trailer that appears on the Pearl Harbor DVD, hence the alternate – and vastly inferior – version.

It’s common for music from one movie to be used in a trailer for another movie. You’re not going to hear something famous and instantly identifiable like Star Wars, James Bond or The Pink Panther used to promote a movie outside of those franchises, but anything else is fair game, and there are some tracks that have been used over and over again. You may never have heard of a 1989 movie called Come See the Paradise, starring Dennis Quaid, but if you attended even one movie in the 90’s, you probably saw a trailer featuring a piece of music from its soundtrack by Randy Edelman, titled “Fire in a Brooklyn Theater.” Here it is, put to great use for A Few Good Men.

Did that ring any bells? According to Soundtrack.Net (an indispensable resource for all things soundtrack-related, and the place to go if you ever hear music in a trailer and want to know where it came from), music from Come See the Paradise was used in 27 theatrical or TV trailers (for 24 films) between 1990 and 2003, including Clear and Present Danger, The Chamber and Rob Roy (all 27 may not have used “Fire in a Brooklyn Theater” specifically, though I’d guess most did).

Among the other soundtrack cuts that have been used most frequently in trailers are James Horner’s “Bishop’s Countdown” from Aliens, Wojciech Kilar’s “Vampire Hunters” from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and David Arnold’s score to Stargate; I can’t pin down exactly which track(s), though Independence Day is among the trailers to feature it.

Sometimes a trailer will utilize an alternate version of a different movie’s music, as when Clint Mansell’s score from Requiem for a Dream was reinterpreted for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers trailer. The preview begins with music from the series itself, but around the 1:38 mark, the Requiem variation kicks in, to magnificent effect.

This is actually my favorite version of the Requiem theme, though I do love the original pieces as composed by Mansell. The theme recurs throughout the movie, in various forms, through cuts on the soundtrack such as “Summer Overture,” “Hope Overture,” and the title under which the piece is most frequently identified, “Lux Aeterna.” It was rearranged and performed anew specifically for use in The Two Towers trailer, becoming so popular and inciting such demand from fans that it was eventually released commercially under the name “Requiem for a Tower” …a fact I was unaware of until writing this post. I’ve always wanted to get my hands on it, and I’m pleased to say it now lives in my iTunes library…and if you’re a fellow film score geek/film geek/generic geek, it can reside in yours to, courtesy of iTunes or Amazon. (Oddly, the initial release of “Requiem for a Tower” was done in three, less-than-a-minute movements on an album alongside original music by the composers who revamped it. The continuous piece of music, as it appears in the trailer, became available later.)

The trailer for the next movie in the franchise, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, went a step further, raiding its own music by concluding with a stirring version of the film’s Gondor theme that was never actually featured in the movie. After using some different selections from The Two Towers, the trailer introduces a melding of composer Howard Shore’s Gondor theme with an original piece commissioned just for this, written by Simone Benyacar (who had a hand in “Requiem for a Tower”) and Craig Stuart Garfinkle. Yup…Simone and Garfinkle.

Simone and Garfinkle’s piece, titled “Epicalypse,” can be heard here, sans Shore’s Gondor theme, while the trailer excerpt can be heard in isolation here. It’s not clear to me whether this piece is available commercially, though one ray of hope for us geeks is a rarities CD from the Lord of the Rings recording sessions, which accompanies the book The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films by Doug Adams. The CD track list includes a piece called “The Return of the King Trailer.” Hopefully that means this piece.

Trailers are usually produced so far in advance of a movie’s release date, that the movie’s own score is not recorded yet, and may not even be written. Rare is the trailer that features music written for the movie it’s advertising. But one exception was the first teaser for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. For a world besieged in Harry Potter mania, the first glimpse of the first movie adaptation was massively anticipated, and I remember watching the trailer upon its release and thinking afterward, “What is that music from?!?” I was surprised when I learned that it was actually the movie’s theme. John Williams had done it again. I can’t even tell you how many times I watched that teaser online over the next few weeks, but I know that it soon became less about my excitement for the movie and more about just hearing that music again.

Of course, there’s no rule that trailers have to use music from other movies. There are companies that produce original music specifically to be licensed out for use in movie trailers, one of the most well-known within Hollywood being Immediate Music. Their work has been used in countless trailers over the last 20 years, with two tracks in particular – “Redrum” and “Code Red” – ranking with “Fire in a Brooklyn Theater” as among the most popular for trailer use.

Established classical music has proven great trailer accompaniment as well. Another of the most oft used pieces of music in trailers has been “O Fortuna,” composed by Carl Orff as part of his Carmina Burana cantata. The instantly recognizable composition has been used in such trailers as Glory, Cliffhanger and…

One early 90’s trailer that stood out for me at the time was the Stephen King adaptation Needful Things, and what made it pop was a piece of classical music I hadn’t encountered before that I came to love: Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from his Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46.

Nothing special as a trailer, and I’ve still never seen the movie, but I couldn’t get enough of that music.

Lest we think effective trailers rely on instrumental music, or choral pieces like the work from Scala & Kolacny Brothers, rock and pop songs can make an equally strong impact. The trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Casino has always lingered in my mind, for its use of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” The trailer tries to convey Casino‘s rise-and-fall structure, with “Gimme Shelter” accompanying “the fall.”

The song is a Scorsese signature, having been featured in GoodFellas, The Departed and Casino itself. He described it in Entertainment Weekly at the time of The Departed‘s release as “dangerous,” saying that when you hear that song, “you know something’s going to happen.” The Casino trailer definitely sells that, especially in the great shot with the camera gliding across Joe Pesci’s menacing face, full-frame. You really can’t go wrong with “Gimme Shelter.” It’s currently featured in the trailer for the Denzel Washington drama Flight, and its use there, combined with how the trailer is edited to cast mystery around the events of the story, makes for another solid coming attraction. Note that just as in the Casino trailer, the song kicks in after a more lighthearted opening. Danger indeed, Marty.

Another favorite trailer of mine is for 2002’s Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman collaboration, Adaptation. It employs Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” which is an upbeat pop song befitting a comedy such as this. But the trailer also hints at the movie’s sadder themes, and to my surprise, the song seemed to fit those just as snugly, forever changing how I hear it. Now I always think of this trailer when it comes on, and its generally buoyant sound is tinged with a sense of longing and regret.

But that’s probably just me.

I’m not alone, however, in proclaiming that last year’s best trailer was for David Fincher’s follow-up to The Social Network. The dynamic teaser for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo consisted of a pulsing, dialogue-free montage cut to Karen O’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” It set the tone brilliantly.

There’s really only two words to say after watching that: Fuck. Me.

What the pieces in all these trailers have in common is not only that they’re melodic and memorable or just great songs, but that they contribute so effectively to the sensation the trailer attempts to present. When matched well, music is often a trailer’s best tool for creating mood, suggesting suspense, getting your blood pumping or tugging the heartstrings. The performances by Scala & Kolacny Brothers are ideal for having that effect. The combination of vocals and instrumentation are haunting and powerful on their own, and when laid over images of characters crying, howling in pain or anger, running across a battlefield amid explosions or seeking a connection across cyberspace, they can take on entirely new depth or be seen in a different light. Last year, NPR ran a piece about the making of movie trailers, illustrating that trailer and TV commercial production is most definitely its own industry within the movie industry. And while hearing trailer producers refer to their work as an art form may make you snicker, every now and then a trailer like The Social Network or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comes along and shows that even these two-minute advertisements can indeed be artistic achievements in their own way. And in almost every case, the music is essential in the difference between a great trailer and an average one.

Then again, a little self-awareness can be all it takes to do the job well.

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