You'll see plenty of ink spilled (digital or otherwise) over the merits (and maybe failings) of Zack Snyder's The Watchmen – arguably the most anticipated comic adaptation of all time – and I'm not about to contribute to more of that kinda noise. But as one whose eyes rolled up in his head in musical ecstasy over that 300 trailer scored to Nine Inch Nails' “Just Like You Imagined,” I have to admit that a Zack Snyder movie also involves a total sonic experience, and Watchmen is no exception... remember the goosebump-inducing trailer with music by Smashing Pumpkins? (That song's not on the soundtrack, by the way.)
Given the magnitude of this event, I thought it would be best to tackle not only the decade-hopping hodgepodge of source music that is the official soundtrack album, but also the original score by Snyder's go-to composer Tyler Bates (who scored most of Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and all of 300, awesome trailer notwithstanding).
I: The Soundtrack
Given the eclectic nature of a soundtrack that ping-pongs through the twentieth century at breakneck speed, this collection of several decades’ worth of popular tunes doesn’t break any new ground, but frankly it’s hard to critique a collection of iconic hits like these – far greater minds than mine have already had multiple passes at these songs when they were new, and many of them have been reworked by other artists over the span of nearly 40 years. Who am I to judge?
The immortal Bob Dylan gets three nods – first with the heavily-hyped cover of “Desolation Row” by My Chemical Romance, a proto-punk version that closes the film. It retains little of the original’s essence beyond the lyrics, but stands well on its own as a nihilistic rebel anthem. Dylan’s original version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” suits the movie’s themes perfectly: beyond the literal meaning of the words, it also serves as a chilling foreshadowing of the story’s alternate-reality depiction of the US winning the Vietnam war, which on the surface seems to cancel out the song’s counter-cultural message, but in fact signals the dark turn that the story is about to take. Dylan’s lyrics also figure in Jimi Hendrix’s righteously rocking rendition of “All Along the Watchtower,” one of the few times another artist actually enhanced Dylan's sublime songwriting.
Many other iconic songs here – including Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable,” Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” and even KC & the Sunshine Band’s “I’m Your Boogie Man” – obviously have far less subtext than the Dylan material (if you’re looking for deeper meaning, you’re probably over-thinking this stuff), but at least serve as useful signposts along the story’s spiraling path. But oddly enough, it’s emotionally pure tracks like Billie Holiday’s “You’re My Thrill” and Nina Simone’s “Pirate Jenny” that resonate above the others – partially due to the fact that, unlike the others, we haven’t been beaten over the head with these songs through countless movies, TV shows and ads. I’d include Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as well, but it’s also been ravaged by overexposure thanks to a raft of hip, post-modern filmmakers. I only wish they'd included some Led Zeppelin – albeit for totally selfish reasons, since that was the music I chose to listen to when reading the comic for the first time.
We also get two instrumental contributions on this disc: the first is a medley of two Philip Glass cuts from his score to Koyaanisqatsi, which not only is one of the avant-garde composer’s greatest-ever works, but thankfully remains one of the few that hasn’t ended up being sampled in ads for luxury cars or painkillers. The other is the Budapest Symphony’s recording of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” which even the opera-clueless will recognize as the theme played over the loudspeakers during the Air Cav assault in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – a movie that, come to think of it, seems to share some of Watchmen’s nihilistic philosophy. But then again, maybe I’m ignoring my own warnings about reading too much into this stuff.
II. The Score
Far more memorable – and worthy of your time and cash – is Tyler Bates' extraordinary original cues. Bates had once told Rolling Stone that he was hardly a comic book aficionado, and had never read the Watchmen comic until Snyder was on track to make the film. “To be honest with you, I’m not a real comic geek,” he told the magazine. “The first time I read it was just understanding when to look at the pictures and then read the bubbles.”
This outsider’s perspective is exactly the kind of purity the film needs to propel its complex story, but his effort is doubly awesome thanks to his decision to draw on ‘80s music influences to find its heart and soul. “Some moments cried out to be supported with more of an ‘80s vibe,” he explains, “but it’s still a contemporized expression of that.” He took his inspiration from a wide range of recognizable ‘80s electronic musicians – everything from Vangelis’ massive synth washes for Blade Runner (evident in cues like “We'll Live Longer” and “Just Look Around You”) to the day-glo pop glitz of Jan Hammer (the man behind the Miami Vice theme) to the gloomy pulse of post-punk icons Joy Division and the early thrash-tastic output of Metallica and Slayer.
With the exception of the pulse-pounding “Rescue Mission, the climactic “Countdown” and “Prison Fight” (which is featured as a b-side to the “Desolation Row” vinyl single), the Watchmen score is far less heroic in scope and feel than Bates’ work for 300. Instead, this is a more eccentric, personal effort that reflects the dark, character-driven heart of the story: check out the droning, atonal cues in “Who Murdered Hollis Mason?” and particularly “I’ll Tell You About Rorschach” – a piece which fits the sociopathic anti-hero like his signature dirty fedora – and the sleazy-sounding “Edward Blake – The Comedian.” Both are thumbnail sketches of their respective characters, and called to mind my first impressions of them from reading the comic nearly 20 years ago.
Despite these personal touches, Bates is known for thinking BIG when it comes to film scores, and Watchmen doesn’t disappoint in that area either. Bates packs majestic, sweeping orchestral passages and bombastic choirs into the mix, but unlike the superhuman heroism of 300, I hear a heavy undercurrent of sadness through cuts like “Just Look Around You,” and the pain that underlies more classic themes like “Don’t Get Misty Eyed,” “The Last Laugh” and “The American Dream” is genuine and serves the story perfectly. Bates himself contributes guitar to the pensive “You Quit!” and the final cut “I Love You,” an echoing ballad which in the film serves as a subdued lead-in to the bombastic end-title arrival of “Desolation Row.”
Weighing each disc on its own merits, it's still a no-brainer for me to go with the score, and not only because I'm a long-time fan of Bates' music (particularly his dark, sensual side-project Roseland), but because the soundtrack CD offers little merit when taken out of the context of the film – after all, you can purchase any or all of the individual tracks separately without detracting from their individual impact, whereas Bates' score flows smoothly and organically as a complete work, best listened to in one sitting to recapture the movie experience. Still, there's a lot to be said for the ultra-cool vinyl picture disc of “Desolation Row”... I'd say shell out for that, then combine it with Bates' score and you've got a winning combo.