When history and music collide...
Surely you've read, heard, and seen a lot of Watchmen lately. The movie has grabbed a decent slice of million dollar bounty in its adrenaline-run through world theatres, getting bouquets and rotten tomatoes along the way. Watchmen the movie is not a patch on the book; a book that is the only graphic novel to be among TIME's 100 Greatest Novels of the last century, and has done a brilliant job of mixing narratives and deconstructing superhero culture in a way that would have made Derrida proud. Yet, for a novel that has often been called “unfilmable”, the movie does a splendid job of condensing a 12-part novel in a 3-hour Hollywood blockbuster.
Making a faithful reproduction also demanded a soundtrack that flowed with the movie, lifting each scene, adding to tension, and recreating the era from the 1930’s to the 80’s. Listening to the Watchmen OST, one is assured that the music has been well chosen, keeping in context- place, time and the era.
Outside in the cold distance/ A wild cat did growl/ Two riders were approachin’/ And the wind began to howl.
These lines conclude Chapter 10 of the novel, as Rorschach and Night Owl drift in the Antarctic snow towards Adrian Veidt and impending doom. The lines are from Bob Dylan's "All along the Watchtower". While Dylan's song focuses more on the lyrics, while the music plays in the background; the OST contains the version by Jimmy Hendrix; a rapacious guitar solo with Hendrix magically infusing a shivering energy into the music raising the song to another level.
Interpretations of the song differ but many commentators believe it refers to passages from the Bible where the two riders are Death and Hades. The OST sticks to the themes of the book by including the song — confusion in a chaotic world, existentialism, and inevitable death.
One of the best picks of the album is the absolutely riveting “Pirate Jenny”. Originally a song in the first act of The Threepenny Opera, a musical by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, the song is originally a revenge fantasy by one of the protagonists against her boss and customers. Nina Simone covered the song and made it her own. A chilling forecast of the Black Revolution with the "black freighter" indicating the civil rights revolution, the song shivers with tension in every sentence. Giddy with nervous energy as the protagonist decides to kill the chained up people "right now".
Noon by the clock/ and so still by the dock/ You can hear a foghorn miles away/ And in that quiet of death/ I'll say, "Right now./ Right now!"
The song takes another meaning in Watchmen- the novel and the movie; where a character is reading a comic, Tales of the Black Freighter. Often independently judged as a brilliant work, Tales recounts the story of a mariner's descent into mental chaos and insanity while he attempts to save his family from the 'Black Freighter' that is approaching their town. The comic is dark, grisly and often disturbing - a counterpoint to the placid calm and impending doom that is the Watchmen universe. Both stories explore themes of doom, delusion and eventual madness, and “Pirate Jenny” is the perfect score for the storyline.
Watchmen earns full marks for a brilliant three minutes opening credits scene with Dylan's classic "The Times They Are-A Changin" making the perfect background score.
An iconic protest song musing about change and time's irreversible flow, Dylan recorded it a month before Kennedy's assassination; and the movie uses the song to reflect on events that have marked world history, re-imagined for a world where super-heroes exist; in the parallel universe of Alan Moore.
Amidst all these songs of change, protest, and revolution, Nat King Cole soothes frayed nerves with the sonorous 'Unforgettable'. In the book, “Unforgettable” is the music accompanying an ad for Adrian Veidt's perfume ‘Nostalgia’. In the movie, the song ironically serves as music in a violent minute where The Comedian is hurled towards his death after being thrown out his apartment window by the murderer.
That's why, darling, its incredible/ That someone so unforgettable/ Thinks that I am unforgettable too.
Janis Joplin's posthumous Number 1 single- "Me and Bobby McGee" is another timeless melody about lost love and lost freedom. The song plays in a Vietnam scene in the movie, and incidentally, was a hit during that period. It also stresses the ironies of the Vietnam war:
Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose/ Nothing don't mean nothing honey if it ain't free, now now.
One of the most ironic song placements in the movie, yet a great pick is "I'm Your Boogie Man" by K.C. & The Sunshine Band; played over a scene where The Comedian is dispersing an angry mob of rioting hippies by firing bazookas at them. The song is an energetic disco number and in the movie, The Comedian is the ‘Bogeyman’ killing the peace mob, proclaiming himself the “American Ideal". Somehow, these words hold resonance even today; who is the Bogeyman? Uncle Sam or Bin Laden?
Dr. Manhattan is my favourite character in the series. Originally a scientist, he is transformed into a super-being (in a clichéd experiment-gone-wrong) who becomes increasingly distant from good, bad and moral conundrums. He is aware of Kennedy's impeding assassination; yet does nothing to stop it. The nuclear energy that has created Dr. Manhattan also obliterates, like a real nuclear weapon; all emotions, human nature and things that make us human- and just leaves plain matter. This is good, and bad - Manhattan's character can be troubling and unsettling for every reader with his strictly utilitarian code of ethics—where killing a million people is justified for the sake of saving a billion.
Philip Glass' music from the Koyaanisqatsi OST- "Pruit Igoe" and "Prophecies" is merged and included in the OST. The music is repetitive and foreboding; and fits perfectly as the music for the transformation of Dr. Osterman into Dr. Manhattan.
The grand "Ride of The Valkyries" (performed by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra) is the music for the scenes of Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian in the Vietnam War, and reminds viewers of scenes from Apocalypse Now. "The saddest thing I can think of" according to the first Nite Owl—the Valkyries score complements the scale of the Vietnam War, and Dr. Manhattan winning the war for America amidst the destruction all around. Rampaging helicopters, and people being blown to smithereens against a proud and rousing symphony defining a nation gone wrong.
Other notable songs from the soundtrack include Billie Holiday's sumptuous "You're my thrill", "The Sound of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel, and a punk cover of Dylan's "Desolation Row" by My Chemical Romance. Leonard Cohen"Hallelujah". graces the soundtrack with the majestic
Overall the Watchmen soundtrack is a beautiful collection of classic sounds from the past few decades, that define a slice of world history filled with unforeseen events, wars, and revolutions that have shaped and reshaped lives around the world. The Watchmen inhabit such a parallel universe, and the movie and the novel attempt to deconstruct their place and role in society. Ultimately, the ringing question is: "'Who Watches the Watchmen?” a question that we can also ask ourselves about our own time. A time being pounded ceaselessly by spasms of terrorism, human rights atrocities, and a crazy rash towards environmental doom. In a generation that watches mutedly while atrocities like the Darfur War or Guantanamo Bay happen around it, who will watch the watchmen?