Watchmen Soundtrack Merges History & MoneyMarch 11, 2009
Few comic books have knit together as many artistic, cultural and political strands as Watchmen, which has finally made the jump from graphic novel to popcorn blockbuster. That’s perfect for studios searching for product tie-ins but perhaps not such a great thing for fans of the comic.
Take the music of Watchmen, for example. Like few that preceded it, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comic sampled pop culture’s musical history like skilled DJs. From Wagner, Billie Holiday and Elvis to the Dead, Dylan and Iggy, Watchmen cited music in nearly every chapter to keep its dense narrative afloat. Sure enough, some of those tunes made Watchmen‘s official soundtrack, released Tuesday, which is great news for fans incapable of making their own playlists or mix discs.
The slightly good news is that some of the music that made it into the film, but not the comic, didn’t make it to the soundtrack. The bad news? Some lousy songs made both the film and the soundtrack, but never made the comic at all.
(Spoiler alert: Minor plot points follow.)
As a comic, Watchmen‘s panels are rocking with musical content. Its first chapter is bookended by lyrics (pictured above) from the Bob Dylan epic “Desolation Row,” Highway 61 Revisited‘s 11-minute closer, which is either about a place in Mexico or New York’s Eighth Avenue, depending on whether you ask Dylan or his organist, Al Kooper.
The Grateful Dead covered “Desolation Row” at length in its legendary live shows, and the song is cited when a detective scans a concert poster in Chapter 5 of the Watchmen graphic novel. (“Heh,” grumbles the detective, “I used to own the record [that] had this sleeve design.”) Meanwhile, for the film’s credits and soundtrack, emo noisemaker band My Chemical Romance revised “Desolation Row” in deafening fashion. It even filmed a video for the song, directed by Snyder, that features the band’s own live show performed against a backdrop of Rorschach inkblots.
The rabbit hole goes deeper on Chapter 1 alone. Ten pages in, two top-knot punks blast Iggy Pop’s “Neighborhood Threat,” Lust for Life‘s trashy rocker co-written by David Bowie and Ricky Gardiner, whose fearsome lyrics (Look down your back stairs, buddy/Somebody’s living there an’ they don’t really feel the weather) perfectly bookend Rorschach’s dark prowling. If that’s not enough, the chapter concludes with Hollis Mason’s theory on why German composer Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” is the saddest thing in the world. (His father’s boss committed suicide to it.)
Wagner’s epic, which was a favorite of Adolf Hitler, a fact known to Moore and Gibbons while writing their exegesis on superheroes and fascism, has seen more than its fair share of cultural appropriation. It has been used for riot or action scenes by D.W. Griffith, Federico Fellini and Francis Ford Coppola, who immortalized it for baby boomers in his Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (at right). It’s also been lampooned in The Blues Brothers and by animation legend Chuck Jones in “What’s Opera, Doc?” For his part, Snyder cites not just the tune but also the same Apocalypse Now scene that literalized the score for post-’60s pop culture.
But “Ride of the Valkyries” is pushed aside for more conventional fare on the soundtrack to Watchmen. Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” and Holiday’s cover of “You’re My Thrill” both make the cut, and rightly so: The tunes soundtrack Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II’s conjugal encounters, in costume and otherwise, in the comic. However, in the film “You’re My Thrill” plays during Silk Spectre II’s truncated foreplay with multiple Dr. Manhattans (don’t ask), while Leonard Cohen’s oft-covered “Hallelujah” soundtracks her sex with Nite Owl in Archie the Owl Ship. (In a clever move, Snyder fires up the ship’s thrusters during the climax. Nice.)
Cohen’s “Hallelujah” didn’t make the comic but it did make the soundtrack, as did Simon and Garfunkel’s brilliant “Sounds of Silence,” which Snyder uses behind The Comedian’s funeral. The same goes for non-comic tracks like Janis Joplin’s cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” and, most lamentably, KC & the Sunshine Band’s disco hit “I’m Your Boogie Man.”
That popular party track is used by Snyder to score Nite Owl and The Comedian’s riot-control patrol from Chapter 2 of the graphic novel, a scene that unravels once The Comedian indiscriminately opens fire on crowds of protesters.
The juxtaposition of disco and degraded superheroes just doesn’t work, especially when Iggy and The Stooges’ anthems like “Down on the Street” or even Iggy’s “Neighborhood Threat,” which sadly isn’t included in the film or the soundtrack, would have worked just fine. No, the awkward inclusion of “I’m Your Boogie Man” feels like it has less to do with Moore and Gibbons’ comic than it does with the fact that Warner Music Group’s Rhino Records now owns KC & the Sunshine Band’s back catalog.
Meanwhile, Nena’s forgettable Cold War hit “99 Luftballons,” whose German electropop is so mired in the ’80s it should have stayed there, lucked into the film during a throwaway scene where Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II meet after the latter leaves Dr. Manhattan. Since it doesn’t take more than a sample of that song to induce cringes, it is a wonder that it made the film at all. Perhaps the studio knew this when it left it off the soundtrack, or maybe it secretly knows that few people will pay for “99 Luftballons” when it can be downloaded guilt-free where no one is watching.
Other musical allusions that made the Watchmen comic unfortunately didn’t appear in the film, including The Police’s “Walking on the Moon,” Elvis Costello’s “The Comedians” or anything by Devo, who Nite Owl refers after showing off his goggles for Silk Spectre II. More importantly, the other Elvis — Presley for you young folks out there — doesn’t show up at all, even though Hollis Mason cites him as one reason Watchmen’s forebears The Minutemen hung it up. “Had we fought a war for our country so that our daughters could scream and swoon over young men who looked like this, who sounded like that?” the character writes in his faux autobiography in Chapter 3.
Speaking of The Minutemen, the Los Angeles art-punk band of the same name from the ’80s were not included, even though the group, like Moore and Gibbons’ legendary comic, railed against Reagan and fascism in brilliant releases like 1981’s The Punch Line and, conveniently for our purposes, 1984’s The Politics of Time. To date, no one has conclusively pinned down Moore on whether he knew of the band and its similar artistic and political stances when he wrote Watchmen with Gibbons.
Any of the Minutemen’s tracks would have worked better than “I’m Your Boogie Man,” that’s for sure. For a film that nods in so many directions, Snyder’s Watchmen could have nodded off less on Iggy and The Minutemen and spared us Nena and KC & the Sunshine Band. That would have been music to our ears.
Photos: Watchmen Soundtrack/Reprise Records, Watchmen Panel/DC Comic