Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy

Mix-Tape Scores: An Assenting Opinion

A friend of mine announced on Facebook a few years back that he hates mix-tape scores. You know — when a movie or a TV show accompanies the action, often in a montage, with a familiar song, one that the viewer associates with good times or bad, sadness or happiness. It’s a trend that probably started in the movies of the 1970s, most likely after the soundtrack album for Saturday Night Fever shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 (though as far as I can recall the score to Saturday Night Fever was made up entirely of original BeeGees songs). The first mix-tape score I can remember, though, was the blend of old and new Simon & Garfunkel songs that Mike Nichols used in his brilliant 1967 comedy The Graduate.

Nowadays the mix-tape score has become so common, even cliched, that it was parodied in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy by giving the main character an actual mix-tape, which he plays on an aging Walkman throughout the film (and at the end of the film they give him a new mix-tape to play in the sequel). The music choices weren’t necessarily from my all-time favorites list, but I never get tired of watching Chris Pratt kicking alien lizards to the accompaniment of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.”

Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy: Alien lizards get their kicks with Chris Pratt’s mix.

At some point the trend skipped across media and became common on television, to the point where some shows even give a credit for Music Archivist. (T-Bone Burnett got one on both seasons of True Detective.) Frequently the song is saved for the final scene and often plays right into the credits. You could always tell when an episode of Mad Men had reached its denouement when a thematically and period-appropriate song began to play over Don’s or Peggy’s or Pete’s realization that whatever had just happened amounted to some kind of turning point in their lives.

I don’t hate mix-tape scores. In fact, I kind of like them, at least when they’re done right. Maybe they’re a cheap way for a movie or TV show to project unearned emotions on scenes that would fall flat without some assistance from a singer-songwriter who might well have died before his or her song found new life on a soundtrack. But when the emotion is earned by the story, the burst of familiar music can take a scene right over the top, working with the action to create something that approaches the sublime.

Mad Men was terrific at this. Sometimes the scene where the closing song came in was the only moment in the episode that made me realize it had been worth watching. The one that for some reason sticks in my memory was in an episode where Don Draper holds on to his suave pretensions and talks about his career with a reporter, carefully omitting any mention of his impoverished rural upbringing. But the camera pulled back and the soundtrack told the real story, using the song  “Tobacco Road,” a 1964 hit by The Nashville Teens (a British-invasion group, despite their name). I’m old enough to remember the song and the smile on my face was almost as wide as our large-screen TV.

Don Draper on Mad Men

Don Draper has an epiphany on Mad Men.

And I don’t know if this will inspire a chorus of groans or cheers, but the Leonard Cohen song (“Nevermind”) that accompanied the opening credits of True Detective‘s second season was the best part of the show. Of course, given how the season turned out, that’s about like saying Josef Stalin was the nicest mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century. But I love Cohen’s work when he’s in a dark mood (which has gotten even darker in the last few months) and the song perfectly fit the dark mood that the show was trying, if generally failing, to achieve. (NOTE: This was written before Cohen died.)

The mix-tape score I want to talk about here was in last Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, “The Cell.” If you follow the show and haven’t seen the episode yet, you should stop reading here. Spoilers will follow. The Walking Dead is a show that people love to hate, but I hugely admire the skill with which they keep coming up with new ways of pressing old buttons. In “The Cell,” Rick’s gang finds themselves trapped in the nastiest town of survivors yet and the opening number, the Jam’s “A Town Called Malice,” underscored that point. But then the show’s musical archivist found an obscure piece called “Easy Street” (no relation to the song of the same name from the musical Annie) by a one-shot group called The Collapsable Hearts Club and used it as sleep-deprivation torture on poor Daryl, who had made the mistake two episodes earlier of attacking the town’s evil dictator. It’s an extremely happy song, which would seem to contrast ironically with “A Town Called Malice” yet if you listen to the two songs sequentially they have remarkably similar uptempo drum tracks. For a song about evil, “A Town Called Malice” borders on the cheerful.

This uptempo beat recurs throughout the episode and it is indeed an ironic contrast to the horror of the story. (If you follow The Walking Dead at all, you know that the horror very rarely comes from the eponymous zombies. It comes from the people who have managed to survive those zombies.) Yet at the end they switch the tempo entirely, when an unexpected frenemy of Daryl’s does him the kindness of switching his torture song to Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” one of the saddest songs ever written and one that never comes even close to being uptempo. Daryl, who has been stoic throughout his torment, finally gives way to the enormous grief that he’s been bottling up and starts sobbing uncontrollably as the show goes to credits.

Daryl tortured on The Walking Dead

Daryl tortured by “Easy Street” on The Walking Dead.

It was a remarkable use of mix-tape music, with “Easy Street,” a song intended to promise Daryl the paradise that could be his if only he’d kiss the evil dictator’s posterior, actually underscoring his own carefully studied emotional denial and Roy Orbison finally blowing it wide open.

It was one of the subtlest, most remarkable, even most moving uses of a mix-tape score I’ve ever heard. Hell, as far as I’m concerned, it justified the concept all by itself.

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Situations: The Walking Dead

When asked why I enjoy genre fiction, by which I mean fiction that wouldn’t be put on the literary or even straight fiction shelf at the bookstore but on shelves with names like science fiction or fantasy or thrillers, I reply that it’s because I like stories about how ordinary people will react when placed in extraordinary situations. There’s more to it than that, but it’s sufficient for a short answer and it’s the closest I can come to an accurate one that wouldn’t have to be expressed at essay length. When I was younger the best fiction in the science fiction and fantasy genres was being done in written form but today much of it is in movies and on TV, especially on TV. Of those TV shows I’m familiar with, the best one about ordinary people in extraordinary situations is, without question, The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead

It’s a show about an extraordinary situation that’s become so familiar, even cliched, over the nearly half century since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead first appeared on movie screens that you’d expect it to be dead now itself, yet like the creatures that it’s about, it just keeps coming back and back and back. And somehow it just keeps getting better. Movies, video games and TV shows about the walking dead — colloquially known as zombies, but almost never referred to by that name in the stories themselves — continue to appear on a regular, almost monthly basis, and currently The Walking Dead is the best of them. It’s a TV show just winding up its fourth season that’s already on its third showrunner — that’s the producer-writer responsible for day-to-day decisions on the creative aspects of the show — and it just keeps getting better with each one. The characters — those ordinary people caught in the extraordinary situations — continually become deeper and more interesting, and to anyone whose been following the show since the beginning they’ve become almost like members of the family. The cast of The Walking Dead and the writers who create the characters that they play are as good as any actors and writers on a television show today, and unless there’s something I’m missing (I haven’t seen Orphan Black yet, so it’s still in the running), The Walking Dead has become the best genre show currently being produced on television. In fact, it might be the best show, period. Yes, even better than Game of Thrones, which (though I love the books, especially the first three, and think that the adaptation to television is masterful) sometimes becomes a little too complicated for its own good.

Last Tuesday night Amy and I had the good fortune to a see a presentation at the Writer’s Guild in Beverly Hills hosted by Chris Hardwick, star of Talking Dead, the show that follows The Walking Dead every Sunday night on AMC. His guests were Scott Gimple, the show’s current showrunner, Bob Kirkman, creator of the comic book that the show is based on and a frequent writer for the show itself, Lauren Cohan, who plays Maggie, and Steven Yeun, who plays Glenn. The program ran for two hours and, as you can imagine, it was much too short.

Walking Dead Panel

From left to right, Chris Hardwick, Scott Gimple, Robert Kirkman, Lauren Cohan and Steve Yeun.

Much too much happened for me to give you a full report, but I can make a few observations:

  • Bob Kirkman is one of the most outgoing writers I’ve ever seen and took immediate command of the room. If Hardwick hadn’t been available to host, Kirkman could have done the job handily with no preparation whatsoever. He was witty, smart and obviously quite proud of, and amazed at the success of, his creation.
  • Scott Gimple is a quiet, intelligent man who probably shouldn’t be put in a chair next to Kirkman, because Kirkman’s larger than life personality (which goes with his somewhat larger than life physique) pretty much left everyone except Hardwick in his shadow. I think Gimple’s the best showrunner the program’s had yet, as proven by the masterly way he’s divided the cast up in recent episodes so that we can get to know the characters better through individual vignettes on the way to what will obviously be their inevitable reunion after the battle with the Governor and the destruction of the repurposed prison they had been living in sent them all scampering into the woods at the end of the first half of the current season.
  • Steven Yeun, as Amy noted after we left, is a lot like his character Glenn on the show — quiet, sweet, handsome and softspoken but with enough stage presence (and distance on the panel from Kirkman) to hold his own in the conversation.
  • Lauren Cohan is nothing like her character Maggie, except that she also seems to be a nice person. She was raised in New Jersey until the age of 13, at which point her family moved to England, so she has one of those peculiar mid-Atlantic accents that fluctuates back and forth between American English and British English in a way that would have made her origins hard to pin down if I hadn’t looked them up on Wikipedia first. So naturally she plays someone with a rural Southern accent. She’s also quite beautiful and cleans up nicely when not covered with zombie guts.
Partial Walking Dead Panel

From left to right, Scott Gimple, Robert Kirkman, Lauren Cohan and (partially cropped) Steven Yeun.

It was a great evening and I was glad that we went. If you don’t watch the show because it’s about zombies, you’re making a mistake, because like any good genre show (or book) it isn’t really about the implausible elements that make up its premise. It’s about the people who become involved with those implausible elements. And on this show those people are so brilliantly depicted that by the third season — which is when I think the show goes from being good to being great — you’ll be so caught up in the lives of these people that you’ll forget that you were ever put off by the idea of a zombie show, even when you’re watching very sharp knives being driven into the brains of the restless undead. The first three seasons are available on Netflix Streaming and I suspect the fourth will be shortly.

(For those of you following my discussion of video games as virtual reality, it should return in my next post.)