You’re looking at now,” intones Col. Sanders in one of the many classic scenes from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs. Dark Helmet is looking for Lone Star and his friends and so is reviewing a videotape of the movie they’re in the middle of making to find a clue. It’s a funny bit of fourth-wall breaking that plays with the idea of linear time but which is really just a gag about the home video market.
The drive to create something urgent, something that feels like it belongs to only this moment and therefore has to be consumed immediately so as to be part of the zeitgeist is an important one in marketing. And it’s particularly in movie marketing, especially around big tentpole franchise blockbuster releases, because opening weekend is literally the do-or-die moment for those movies.
That emphasis extends, in some cases, to the soundtrack. While the overall role of the soundtrack in the marketing mix is different from one more to the next – some push it to the forefront while it’s of little note in other campaigns – there are two recent examples where the album has played an integral role in helping to forge the movie’s public persona in advance of release.
Suicide Squad: The Case for Being Hip
The first is last year’s Suicide Squad. From the moment Warner Bros./DC Entertainment unveiled a “first look” at San Diego Comic-Con in 2015, music was a major element of the marketing. That non-trailer featured a slowed-down, moody cover of The Bee Gees’ “I Started A Joke” by Becky Hanson, which fit in nicely with the footage of Harley Quinn and Joker in particular.
It continued with the first official trailer, which opened with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the song was a focal point of the entire spot, with footage cut and edited to coincide with musical cues. The way it ends, with the line “Nothing really matters to me” was the perfect accompaniment to the whole trailer and the hedonistic, “we’re the bad guys” vibe it was working to give off.
The second trailer once more features a modern remake of a classic song, this time Grace and Easy-E doing “You Don’t Own Me,” originally recorded by Leslie Gore in 1963. As the trailer shifts from exposition to action, the music too changes to the more upbeat 1974 party anthem “Ballroom Blitz” by Sweet.
While there’s certainly a classic rock focus in the marketing, that’s in stark contrast to the rest of the movie’s soundtrack. Pull up the track list to the full album and you’ll see new contributions from Rick Ross, Skrillex, Eminem, Grimes and other artists that you’re likely to hear while browsing the Funko POP figure selection at your local mall’s Hot Topic. The Becky Hanson version of “I Started A Joke” is there but “Ballroom Blitz” is completely absent. And while “Bohemian Rhapsody” is there, it’s in the form of a cover by Panic! At the Disco. The only full-out classic rock track here is Creedence Clearwater Revival’s original recording of “Fortunate Son,” which isn’t in the trailers at all but does play during one of the seven montages that open the movie.
So the marketing team wanted to have it both ways. They wanted to use the familiarity of classic rock songs to help sell the movie across demographics but then put together an album that was so acutely timely it was likely out of style a mere month after it came out. This latter approach was evidenced by the release of “Heathens” from Twenty One Pilots as the first single from the soundtrack, including a video that featured footage from the movie.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Nostalgic Hooks as Movie Marketing
Compare that to this week’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Throughout the campaign, the emphasis has been on the classic rock that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever gone on a Sunday afternoon drive with their dad. The “sneak peak” released by director James Gunn used Blue Suede’s “Hooked on a Feeling,” which was featured prominently in the first movie, a great way to let people know they were back on the same ground they’ve already covered.
The teaser trailer begins to introduce some new old tunes to the mix, communicating that it’s not just the same stuff, but a new collection of the same type of stuff. That begins with the use of “Fox On The Run” by Sweet (a nod to Suicide Squad?) as the action starts to amp up. That heavy backbeat provides the music for our first real good looks at Baby Groot, Mantis and the rest of the characters both new and old.
Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” is featured prominently in the final trailer, with the iconic bass line from halfway through the song starting just as we see Groot plug in a tape player. As I wrote about earlier, that song is thematically appropriate for the movie’s themes of family and being stronger together than they are apart.
The core difference between the two seems to be one of intent. Suicide Squad was using classic rock-filled trailers to sell something that was meant to be immediate and timely. It seems to have wanted to drift off the positive associations and brand recognition of songs like “You Don’t Own Me” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” to hook the audience, then feeding them a movie that was more thematically consistent with the Twenty One Pilots song. Not only that, but anyone who then went looking on iTunes for the movie’s soundtrack was confronted with a bunch of Skrillex.
Guardians of the Galaxy – both the sequel and 2014 original – on the other hand, embraced that classic rock vibe. Sure, the version of “Chains” in the Vol. 2 might be a little amped up toward the end, but that’s the exception, not the rule. And anyone seeking out the full soundtrack is going to get exactly the kind of mix the music in the trailers promises.
These are just two examples of how movie soundtracks – or at least the promise of what those soundtracks would be – were used as part of the movie marketing cycle to lure in audiences. In only one case, though, was the value proposition created by the usage of soundtrack music actually fully delivered upon.