A brief breakdown of pop music in movie trailers

Monday, October 15, 2018 - 5:02pm

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in 'A Star is Born'

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in 'A Star is Born' Buy this photo
Warner Bros.

When the trailer for Bradley Cooper’s (“American Sniper”) remake of the classic musical drama “A Star is Born” dropped early this summer, it became an instant viral sensation, though not just for its dramatic editing, its visual splendor or its meme-worthy dialogue; the biggest tell-tale sign the film was going to be a hit was the moment when aspiring songstress Ally (Lady Gaga, “American Horror Story”) strides on stage, grabs the mic and bellows a volcanic howl, launching us into the film’s defining ballad “Shallow.” Brief as this snippet was, Gaga’s powerhouse vocals, matched with the now-iconic chorus and the intense montage of scenes from the film, were enough to send chills down moviegoers’ spines and elicit a whole lot of Oscar buzz.

So rare are we able to resonate with a pop song from a movie trailer, let alone one that was made specifically for a film that hadn’t even come out yet. Then again, the sudden popularity of “Shallow” and its strangely profound cultural impact speaks to a larger pattern of how pop music plays a role in heightening the anticipation and commercial success of a film. Just as a trailer clues us into what to expect from a movie, the inclusion of a pop song allows movie producers the opportunity to appeal to the pop culture sensibilities of audiences everywhere.

As someone who watches movie trailers on an almost unhealthily daily basis, I can attest to the effect of this phenomenon. From the orchestral, melodramatic compositions of old Hollywood to the excessive, moody renditions in modern cinema, movie trailer music has evolved from a remarkable fusion of two mediums into an integral part of film advertising.

Some trailers have successfully capitalized on trendy, chart-topping hits. M.I.A.’s timeless “Paper Planes” in the trailer for 2008’s “Pineapple Express” comes to mind, with its classic gun-shot-cash-register hook transforming the stoner comedy’s absurd antics into a thrilling spectacle. Scala & Kolacny Brothers’s haunting cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” was the perfect choice to showcase the chilling ambiance of “The Social Network.” And Sam Cooke’s wholesome jingle “Wonderful World” oddly worked in the background of the “Inherent Vice” trailer, revealing the humanistic heart beating underneath the film’s zany late-’70s weirdness.

But in most cases, the inclusion of a pop song in a movie trailer can sometimes pose as a manipulative and overambitious marketing tactic. In fact, most trailers have the tendency to overuse pop songs for genre films: The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” is almost always guaranteed to show up in the trailer for a Scorsese gangster flick. Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” is the go-to anthem for pretty much every war-themed drama. And the gloomy strings in Clint Marshall’s “Lux Aeterna” seem almost too on the nose when they’re featured in trailers for sci-fi and post-apocalyptic thrillers.

Though modern movie trailers also suffer from busy sound design like the overblown “bwong” noise (courtesy of “Inception”) or the more recent “60 voices rising” effect, incorporating a pop song can be just as cheesy, messy and borderline laughable if the execution falls flat. If trailer editing companies choose a song that contradicts the tone of the film they’re making entirely, it’s downright sacrilegious.

This summer’s shark-themed B-movie “The Meg,” for instance, had the audacity to remix Bobby Derrin’s “Beyond the Sea” into a bloated loop during the trailer’s absolutely bonkers outro. The company that edited “The Meg” trailer made the bold yet insanely dumb choice to use a song whose jazzy instrumentation and romantic lyrics neither fit nor reflected the movie’s ridiculous plot.

Like a baby boomer trying to show millennials that they’re “hip” to the “musics” of today, it seemed as though the company behind the trailer for “The Meg” googled “songs about the sea,” saw the title of Derrin’s song, looked at the film’s footage and immediately went: “Bingo.” This attempt clearly didn’t pay off at the box office, as “The Meg” narrowly surpassed its $130 million budget with a $142 million domestic gross.

In the opposite case, a pop song can be a good luck charm when it both reflects the tone of a movie and orients its audience toward what the film is going to be about. Aside from “A Star is Born,” the best current representation of this is the use of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” in the second trailer for the star-studded crime mystery “Bad Times at the El Royale.”

Though the song’s soul-stirring lyrics and Valli’s swoon-worthy tenor contrasts with the film’s promise of pulpy visuals and Tarantino-esque violence, it’s recontextualized as a heart-stopping, foot-stomping jingle, its tempo perfectly syncing to the trailer’s action beats. When “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” first emerges halfway through the preview, a concierge bell rings in between each of the song’s horn notes, building a twisty amount of tension and suspense. During the trailer’s breathtaking climax, the song ascends into something heavenly and surreal. While both “The Meg” and “Bad Time” capitalize on nostalgia-heavy tunes, their effect in each film’s trailer is drastically different. Where the former fails as a form of disingenuous pandering, the careful attention to detail with the latter gives the trailer an extra oomph factor. Whether or not “Bad Times” becomes a box office success remains to be seen, but its trailer certainly made a lasting impression — with several online commenters praising it — and exemplifies the potential for solid movie marketing.

For all intents and purposes, movie trailers aren’t the best reflection of the stories they attempt to condense into 90-120 seconds, and more often than not, a pop song can be a major cause of this distortion. They can mislead audiences into thinking that a not-so-great movie is actually really good (see: “Suicide Squad”) or that a really good movie is more obnoxious than it appears to be (see: “Blockers”). “A Star is Born” is the rare example in which the song and trailer work in tandem, allowing for an emotionally and viscerally satisfying viewing experience. The epic nature of “Shallow” plays off well with the trailer’s unabashedly sensational tone and the budding romance between Ally and Jackson Maine, illustrated beautifully through Gaga and Cooper’s natural chemistry. A trailer can still work well without any music whatsoever, but with the right song, it can turn an ordinary film into pure magic.

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