All Along the Watchmentower

This is not a review of Watchmen. I had a fine time with the movie, and the subject of whether justice was done to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “unfilmable” graphic novel is being discussed at length just about everywhere else.

The thing that drove me crazy, though, was the use of music in the movie.

It’s not that “Watchmen” director Zack Snyder (or his music supervisor) picked bad songs to underscore certain scenes in the movie. It’s more that those choices hit the screen with the obviousness of a jackboot to the face. Not wrong choices, but easy choices. Lazy choices.

Warning: Possible Spoilers!

–Costumed Hero History montage: “The Times They Are A Changin’.” Yes, they are, we see that. Check.

–The Comedian’s Funeral? “Sounds of Silence.” hello darkness my old friend…yeah, a sad song from the sixties that’s associated with death. Check. (Side note: I betcha the Comedian wasn’t a Simon and Garfunkel fan)

–Ozymandias? “Everybody Wants to Rule The World.” Um, check.

–Long shot of Rorschach and Nite-Owl trudging through the snow to confront the bad guy in his lair? two riders were approaching and the wind began to howl… Hendrix’ “All Along the Watchtower,” hey wow, the lyric tells us what’s happening on screen…check.

To a certain extent it’s what we call “See and Say,” where the music so directly reflects what’s on screen it’s painful. Sort of like the “Literal versions” of 80’s music videos that are floating around.

One wonders why Snyder didn’t go all the way and stick “Bad To The Bone” under Rorschach’s entrance.

Now of course, as the astute reader will point out, “All Along the Watchtower” is used in the graphic novel, over the same sequence. Is it possible that in its lyric-only form in the book, stripped of the familiar Hendrix lead guitar and vocal, the reference is considerably less cringe-inducing (more of a hint than a bombardment, as a friend of mine put it)? Or is this just a lazy choice we can pin on Moore and Gibbons rather than Snyder?

(Though I will admit that, despite my dislike of the song placement, I thought that matching the guitar gliss in the middle of the solo with Archimedes cresting the cliff was a pretty genius move.)

Here’s another thought about the music. From a certain point of view, many of those songs should not have existed. Snyder seems to want to evoke an era by using music from that era, but that’s not what he ends up doing. Instead, he evokes an era in one universe by using music from the same calendar years in another universe. It’s shorthand for the audience but it’s slightly dishonest.

The world of Watchmen diverges substantially from our world when the costumed heroes appear, and then becomes almost completely unrecognizable when Dr. Manhattan shows up, and everything in the art direction and dialog reflects that. And the pop music of the 60s, 70s, 80s would too. With a different situation in Viet Nam and a totally different government response to domestic protests, rock would not have been what it was. Look at the scene where the hippy girl puts the flower in the National Guardsman’s rifle…and then he blows her away. Fantastic scene, very powerfully evocative, but do you think in a world where that happens CSNY would have written “Ohio?” Probably not, because if that was the response to protests in 1967 (the Washington Star photo that inspired this sequence was taken on October 21, 1967 at a protest march on the Pentagon), protests would be all done with by 1970, when the Kent State shootings happened. Also, dissident musicians may well have been rounded up and imprisoned in that world. So extrapolate from that, CSNY goes away, Creedence never writes “Fortunate Son,” they lock up or disappear Lennon, the Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, Country Joe and the Fish, and on and on, eradicating a healthy chunk of late 60s/early 70s music. And all the people those bands inspired…by the mid-80s you can bet “99 Luftbalons” or Tears For Fears wouldn’t be anywhere to be found; popular music in the world of Watchmen would be substantially different. So, many of the music choices violate the logic of the world that’s been created.

We talk about this in film and theatre: creating a believable world. Once you’ve created an alternate world or timeline, you shouldn’t break the rules of that world or timeline by introducing things that didn’t happen there. It breaks the contract you’ve made with your audience.

Or does it? Where’s the line between being bound to the logic of a created universe and giving the audience a signifier by which they can readily identify a setting, regardless of whether that signifier makes sense in context?

About toxicbag

Toxic Bag Productions, Inc. provides sound effects and music for independent films, animated shorts, theatrical productions, dance performances, podcasts and video games. They work out of their studio on the north side of Chicago.

Posted on March 7, 2009, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. If Sounds of Silence is in it, I definitely must see it!

  2. I think, sir, you are right on the freaking money.

    That may be the best analysis of why the music doesn’t (and shouldn’t) work than anything I’ve read.

  3. I never looked at it that way – I agree with your assessment.
    Here’s my follow up question – how would you fix it? What music would you have used?

  4. They should have created new music for the film that adheres to the sounds that define each era… That would have been brilliant – to take these songs that are familiar and recreate/adjust them to fit this new world – the signifiers would still be there in those chord progressions and riffs and those vocal stylings, but the lyrics would be specific to the Watchmen world the way they were so specific to ours. I think you’re absolutely right that protest songs wouldn’t have existed in that world… and that’s fascinating. For instance, how bizarre would it be to hear familiar protest songs with lyrics that were once so scathing and voices that were once so angry be scrubbed clean in fear of punishment for any kind of dissent?

  5. Excellent point. When altering even one point in history, the repercussions don’t end with basic chronology.

    I think he could have had a great time commissioning artists to a) write new music based on potential technology and musical trends (that may have been similar in sound and evoke the 80’s) or b) alter existing lyrics to reflect national events.

    99 Luftballoons = 99 Meter-Blaumann

    One of my main beefs with the music is the use of Sounds of Silence. I pretty much hate it when ANYONE uses it. Does nobody listen to the lyrics? Sure, there are plenty of interpretations to go around, but a pretty consistent exegesis is the chilling replacement of human interaction for technology.

    In this context, it’s used as a backdrop for the funeral. Used in this way, it makes no sense and reveals only a cursory knowledge of the music choice.

    The only time I have liked its use in a film is the Graduate.

    **Yeah. I just used the word exegesis.

  6. Thanks all!

    JLG: We’ll go see it. You’ll enjoy it. And Happy Birthday!

    Dianna: you’re right, the clear follow-up question to any such criticism is “well, then what would you do to make it better, smartypants?” And it is a challenge. Short of totally brooming the idea of songs in the soundtrack, Kate and JJ have a great idea–write new songs that fit into the world and make sense there. They did it with all the technology and signage, why not with the music? The tradeoff, of course, is that no one will be familiar with any of that music and you’ll lose the immediacy of the associations that you gain when much of your audience knows the material already. Though I did see at least one person on IMDB asking what that song they played over the funeral was. (Note to self: stop reading IMDB messageboards.)

    Though the familiarity problem would be addressed with JJ’s idea of rewriting existing tunes to better fit the times–as if maybe the artist had his/her lyric rewritten by some government censor before it could be recorded. I like that a lot.

    JJ: Exegesis? I guess I’ll have that fifty cents back now.

  7. Good points. But you fall short, kind sir. It most certainly IS Snyder’s fault. It IS a big deal, and it DOESN’T happen to other directors!

    So the music choices for the film appear to be made by someone with the intelligence of hockey helmet wearing, short bus riding, 5th grader. Should we really be surprised? Looking at Zack Snyder’s body of film work, (And I just threw up a little in the back of my mouth at the concept that Zack Snyder HAS a body of film work) the Crappy DOTD remake in 2004 and 300 in 2006, his one and only style is a rather childish “IN YOUR FACE” obviousness. As a director Snyder’s an uncoordinated lout who wouldn’t recognize subtlety if it smacked him in the face with a shovel.

    Of course he’s going to go with the painfully obvious. It’s his bag, baby. What should we expect from a pig but a grunt?

    But I’m sure in the commentary track on the DVD he will proudly announce that the music choices were all his and they are “Just what Watchmen fans wanted to hear.”

    Like a wise man once said, he should be shot in the groin…Twice.


    BTW, Are your comments implying that in the Watchmen universe Lennon would still be alive? (Albeit in Guantanamo…)

  8. Don’t mince words, Blood, let me know what you really think.

    “wouldn’t recognize subtlety if it smacked him in the face with a shovel” is my favorite phrase of the day.

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