The Watchmen – How a Great Soundtrack Can Ruin a Good Movie

So I saw The Watchmen last night. I was a big fan of the comic, so I had been eagerly anticipating this film for a while. I haven’t seen 300 or the Dawn of the Dead remake, so I didn’t really know what to expect from Zack Snyder. Overall verdict: a success. Visually it totally works. The actors were for the most part pretty effective, although comic book dialog and film dialog are very different and it shows. They didn’t fuck with the story too much (except the ending, WTF?) and most of the thematic material was present and clear.

Ok, so now to the achilles-fucking-heel of the movie: the soundtrack.

Holy crap.

The movie starts as the comic starts, with the dramatic murder of the character known as The Comedian (not really a spoiler, the film is based on this event). Shot very well, very stylish. Soundtrack: Unforgettable by Nat King Cole. Hmm… The ironic use of a touching old-timey ballad to contrast with the disturbing on-screen content. It worked when Terry Gilliam used What a Wonderful World at the end of Twelve Monkeys, but the dramatic effect of this technique has lessened ever since. But, fuck it, it’s the beginning of the movie, I’ll give it a shot, fine.

Next, opening credits. Song choice: The Times They Are A’Changing by Bob Dylan. In its entirety… Ok now. This is getting kinda Gumpy. Please tell me this isn’t going to be one of those Time Life soundtracks where they use blatantly iconic songs from the 20th century in a lazy attempt to give weight to the scenes…

That’s exactly what the entire movie was.

Every time I would be digging the film’s many awesome qualities, they’d plug in these tired movie music clichés.

Here’s a sampling:

Sound of Silence – Simon & Garfunkle: during a wistful ponderous scene

All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix: during an intense suspenseful scene

Ride of the Valkyries – Wagner: During a war scene

Mozart Requiem: After a main character dies…

Guh… and the rest. 99 Luftballoons, Me and Bobby McGee, KC and the Sunshine Band…

The absolute worst though: Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah during a graphic sex scene. No, not one of the many awesome, sexy covers of this song. The Leonard Cohen version. Now, I love this version, but it’s anything but sexy. It made the entire audience view the sex scene as a joke. It was almost grotesque.

It was possibly the worst music I’ve ever heard for a film. It made Forrest Gump’s soundtrack seem subtle and obscure. Some of the more scorey music was ok. Music from Koyaanisqatsi was used somewhat effectively, but you kinda got the idea that Zack Snyder was like, ‘Who’s a famous living composer? Philip Glass? Let’s use something by him!’.

In all seriousness, during the moments when these songs were used (usually in their entirety!) it brought this highly polished professional film down to the level of a high school class project. They were an awkward blight that pulled a well-crafted film into the depths of banality. I found myself basking in the moments of the film that didn’t have an iconic song forced over it, but I knew that the following scene would be ruined by another Time Life hits-of-the-20th century-ass tune.

Maybe it’s because I’m a musician, but the selection of a song to complement a scene is part of the craft. Don’t take it lightly or, as Gurf suggested, let Warner execs pick your songs for you.

Here’s a few examples of the masters of song choice at work:

Jackie Brown opening credits – Music by Bobby Womack

A great example of a song choice that is lively but doesn’t compete with the visuals and vice versa.

Barry Lyndon – Franz Schubert

Not only is this simply one of the most beautiful scenes in film history, it’s also an example of perfect pacing between film and music. He lets the piece breathe and patiently edits the film to meet it.

Punch Drunk Love – He Needs Me from the Popeye Soundtrack

Totally unlikely but it completely works, gives the great vibe of that silly ignorant exuberance that accompanies new love.

Badlands – Blossom Fell by Nat King Cole

This is how you use Nat in a film. It’s not quite ironic, not quite serious, yet emotionally totally honest. Hell yeah Terrence Malick. (start around 3:00)

I really wish I could post something from The Watchmen, but it’s still too early. Go see it. It’s a good movie based on a great comic. You’ll absolutely see what I’m talking about though.


I found the infamous (and quite NSFW) clip of the sex scene with Cohen’s Hallelujah. Watch and cringe.


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3 responses to “The Watchmen – How a Great Soundtrack Can Ruin a Good Movie

  1. Chris Becker

    Plan to. I just finished the com – er, graphic novel and plan to see this with someone who actually read this when it first came out.

    I was wondering if My Chemical Romance would somehow make a cameo as Pale Horse (even though we never actually SEE them in the com – graphic novel?) That guy can REALLY scream – but I was disappointed by their Dylan cover…I’m sure I’ll be cringing at the music as you were.

  2. Chris Becker

    Dude, I actually loved the scene you hated…hearing Cohen during Nightowl and Silk Spectre’s scene was sublime. I was expecting the cringe but…that didn’t happen. And I was in an IMAX theater so the whole scene was blown up to a ridiculous size (with Cohen’s voice coming through how many subwoofers?)

    I was lucky enough to hear Jeff Buckley sing that song at two different shows in New Orleans before he passed. But Cohen’s version was the one to use in this film. People have had really different and really extreme reactions to this film which is kind of fascinating.

  3. Mafoo

    Man, I’d dig Paul Blart Mall Cop if I saw in an IMAX. But seriously, really? Snark aside, was humor a factor in your enjoyment? I’ve heard some people mention that the scene may have been intentionally ironic. I love the Cohen version but it it seems so emotionally dry for the scene (but which is why I like the song). Maybe I have to see in the IMAX.
    Btw, I burn with envy over your seeing Buckley live. I didn’t start listening to him until it was too late..

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