Friday, September 04, 2009

The Best Way To Write A Movie Theme Song.

I write today to help revive a long-lost art form that the world sorely needs: The Movie Theme Song.

Theme songs have largely disappeared from our world, victims of remotes and DVRs and of Seinfeld, which is the first instance I can recall of a show not having a theme song at all, just that little jazzy, peppy thing that introduced the show and each scene after a commercial. That's a far cry from great theme songs of television shows past, theme songs like the Three's Company Theme or the Diff'rent Strokes theme or The Facts of Life, or, even further back, Gilligan's Island's song telling you just how they got on that island and setting out the characters.

I'm not too sad about the end of television themes, because I wonder about their need. If you've got a complicated show like Arrested Development, maybe you need a theme that explains (like that one did) the show so that people who don't watch the show regularly might get what's going on, the concept of Arrested Development not being one you could immediately grasp. Then again, if you've got a complicated show like Arrested Development, most people aren't going to tune in anyway. Nobody, really, will watch good, complicated shows that require your intellect and attention, except for those 0.0001% of people in the world who like that stuff. They're smart and they'll keep watching, so you don't need to keep explaining everything every week via your theme, and, in any event, you won't be explaining it for long, because your show will be cancelled quickly and replaced with reruns of Yes, Dear, a show that needed no explaining.

(Although a Yes, Dear theme song might have made that show a little more tolerable. Just a little, though, because any show that casts the ubermean telephone communications girl as a loveable wife has an uphill battle right from the start.)

If themes were used by TV shows to explain what was going on, you have to marvel at how far we've come since the 1950s and 1960s. Back then, a show like Leave It To Beaver required an introduction, each week, to remind people who The Beav was and that this was a family. Gilligan's Island, which was such a good show it deserves a second mention, constantly had to explain the whole shipwreck again, even though the plot of almost every episode was "Let's repair the ship and try to get off this island," so it would seem that even the most casual Gilligan viewer could have pretty quickly gotten up to speed on the plot. Sure, he/she might have been a little lost, wondering why Ginger acted that way and, more importantly, why it was that Gilligan constantly slept in the hut with the Skipper instead of just moving in with either Ginger or Marianne, but those were secondary to the plot, anyway, and any bewilderment you had over the plot would have been replaced by bewilderment at the idea that the Professor was able to make superglue out of island materials but yet never thought to maybe distill some rum and get the party started.

No, television show themes aren't that great and aren't that necessary and, truth be told, I'd just DVR past them, anyway, nowadays, unless they were really good. (You take the good you take the bad... just doesn't cut it. But that groovy beginning to Diff'rent Strokes: the world don't move to the beat of just one drum. That could get me to sit through it, I suppose.)

But movie theme songs are a different matter altogether. When did we lose these, and why? Why do movies nowadays feature plenty of old and new songs that were just splattered into the movie at random, that appear in more than one movie, and that most importantly don't serve as little aural advertisements/reviews of the movie?

There's no reason not to have a movie theme song, after all. Nobody can fast forward through the movie theme song; we're all stuck in the theater while the opening credits roll, or during the musical montage showing how the main character lost all his hair/climbed that one mountain/secretly became a fireman, or at the least we're waiting patiently for the people on the end of our row to get up already so we can go instead of sitting and watching the end credits.

On that subject, as an aside, am I the only one who feels a little weird, sometimes, getting up and leaving during the credits? Every now and then a movie will put some little scene into or after the credits, like The Hangover or Dawn of the Dead did, and they don't generally tell you that they're going to do that. That means that sometimes I get up to leave as the credits come on, and I'm usually in a hurry because I like to get the Extra Large Soda and I don't like to use the restroom during the movie, but sometimes people in the theater don't get up so quickly, making me wonder if I'm supposed to wait because there might be some little extra scene that everyone will be talking about and I'll have missed it. It would be nice, Hollywood, if you'd just tell us about that extra scene. Just put it right in the beginning: After the movie, if you sit through the credits, you'll get to see an outtake of a scene in which the actors hilariously mispronounce each other's names.

We can't skip through the theme song, and most people don't watch movies repeatedly and every week, so the boredom-through-repetition aspect of theme songs doesn't factor in, either. With movies, too, the theme song serves as an advertisement and outline for the movie, playing on the radio and over the commercials and trailers and helping people like me know what the movie is about and whether we want to see it. The lyrics, the tempo, the music, all serve as cues and hints about whether I'll like the movie or not.

Plus, Hollywood, movie theme songs are free little commercials for you. Everytime a DJ played Ghostbusters or Xanadu or something, everyone hearing it would listen to, and dance to, and make out to, your commercial, which was not only airing for free but was probably generating money for you, too, if you played your cards right.

On that note, I'd like to point out that I never actually made out to Ghostbusters, but I totally would.

Despite there being no good reason not to have Movie Theme Songs, and plenty of good reasons to have them, movies persist in not having Theme Songs. Instead, they just take some dumb Modest Mouse song or something, plaster it over the trailer, and call it a day. What a waste! If I wanted to listen to Modest Mouse, I'd have my sister illegally copy all their CDs and send them to me so that I could have their music without paying them royalties. But I don't need to do that, because she already did that, so I can focus on Movie Themes, instead. (Sorry, Modest Mouse, but I'm sure you're doing okay even without the extra $27.99 I'd have spent on your CDs, and, really, there's only like five good songs between them all, so if I had bought them, you'd owe me.)

I don't understand why there's no Hangover song, or (500) Days Of Summer, or The Transformers or ... what was another movie this summer? I don't get out much. Whatever movies were released, the theme songs for them don't exist. I don't get to turn on the radio and hear a DJ say Now, let's hear that number one hit, Terminator: Salvation by Beyonce.

I think that we've moved so far away from Movie Themes, by now, that even the last few James Bond movies didn't have a theme, and that's a dang shame, because those movies, at least, could be reliably counted on to produce the sole Movie Theme song we'd get each year. A View To A Kill? Goldfinger? Live and Let Die?

Actually, I'm not sure that last one was made for a James Bond movie, but let's just count it anyway.

I came to the conclusion the other day that Movie Themes weren't going to come back, at all, unless I did my thing and gave everyone a little help. I will now do so as part of my ongoing contribution to society, and also as a way of convincing you, the people of the world, that I have something useful to contribute (something I keep trying to convince everyone of in case an asteroid hits Earth and ends civilization as we know it, forcing us to rebuild society. I don't have any marketable skills and I'm terrible with a hammer, so my only hope of being accepted into the next society as something other than monster bait is to convince people that I'm useful in some way) I am therefore providing you with The Best Way To Write A Movie Theme Song, a series of steps designed to help you, me, them, or the next society create Movie Themes again, because Movie Themes were awesome, and because I really, really don't want to be monster bait.

Step One: Use The Movie Title:

This sounds obvious, but if it was obvious, then we wouldn't be hearing Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A' Changin' over The Watchmen's opening scene, we'd be hearing The Watchmen by Bob Dylan. (And why weren't we? If you're presenting a parallel world to our own, wouldn't it have been better to hire Dylan to make a song called The Watchmen and mimic, to a degree, The Times..., indicating that the Watchmen world has Dylan, too, but he made a different song? God, I'm a genius.)

"Spies Like Us," the only song on this list that I came up with on my own (Sweetie had to come up with the rest, using her peculiar powers to identify movie themes when my own abilities, such as they are, failed), shows the simple power of titling your song after the movie. The whole rest of the song, really, has nothing to do with the movie: The movie was about a couple of bumbling decoys sent out to distract the bad guys from the real spies, while the song features lyrics like: No one else can dance like you/so what's all the fuss, there ain't nobody that spies like us.

But that didn't matter, because McCartney does step one just right: He called the song Spies Like Us, and then, after making a song that has nothing to do with the movie, he decided to spend the last minute or so repeating Spies Like Us over and over (a lyrical laziness that gives a listener the feeling that the day he wrote the song, it was getting on towards 5 o'clock and the Arsenal match was coming on and Sir Paul just said "o, to 'eck wif it," or something like that.)

McCartney didn't need much more than that; people hearing the song on the radio, back in the 80s, driving around in their Fieros, would absorb Spies Like Us into their skin like so many audio ShamWows, and end up blurting that phrase out when they approached the box office, inadvertently getting a ticket to the Chevy Chase movie, which would not feature any dancing, that I recall.

Still, as good a song as Spies Like Us was, it didn't achieve immortality, because it only made it to Step One, and there's more to it than that. So, it's on to...

Step Two: Give The Listener An Idea What The Movie Is About:

Spies Like Us failed to hit this mark, but Flash Gordon, by Queen, marches right up to Step Two and pwns it, as the kids like to say. Or, liked to say, since I hope they'll stop using that stupid word now that I've used it . Step Two, like Step One, seems obvious, but everything seems obvious once you're told it. It seemed obvious to me that my wallet was in my dresser drawer once Sweetie found it there, but it hadn't been so obvious the first two (okay, three)(fine, FOUR) times I looked there.

If Step Two was so obvious, don't you think Sir Paul would have mentioned, in Spies Like Us, that the movie was about Spies? (Like Us?) Do you think you're a better songwriter than Paul McCartney? I suppose you think could come up with a song about a serial killer and make it as catchy as Maxwell's Silver Hammer was. You do, don't you?

Well, you can't. Don't even try. You could, instead, hire me to write a script and turn that song into a movie, and it would be a great movie, too. Just listen to that song:

Note: I only just realized (three days after first posting this) that I had copied the wrong video in there. So if you clicked that and thought to yourself, What? That's the same song! then I have to say: Sorry. And also: Are you really re-reading this?

That's got Movie written all over it. Probably starring that guy that played Gilbert in Revenge of the Nerds as Maxwell.

Also, you know what Beatles song would make a great movie? The Continuing Adventures of Bungalow Bill:

Anyway, Flash Gordon, by Queen, serves as a great example of how to give the listener an idea of what the movie's like, not just by telling a little of the plot but also through the music and the way you sing and the generally-sort-of-insane way you just keep repeating Flash and having screaming guitars and all. It's impossible to listen to Flash Gordon and come away expecting anything but the movie you got, all lasers and Ming The Merciless and Dale Arden in clingy shirts and hawkmen and bad special effects. The pulse-pounding beat, the space-age-but-in-a-retro-way guitars and synthesizers, music that sounds as though instruments from our time fell into a time warp and arrived in the future, where they were gathered by aliens who then fell into another time warp and had to go back to the 1800s where they were instructed on what the future would be like by Grover Cleveland, all of that, combined with snippets of dialogue like:

"Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the universe!"

Set out in a nutshell precisely the movie you were going to see.

Still, things could be better, as we see in

Step Three: Make The Song Stand On Its Own.

To truly move beyond "Oh, hey, it's that one song from that one movie" territory, a Theme Song has to become it's own thing, has to take on a life of its own. It's one thing to incorporate a couple of lines of dialogue, or intercut movie scenes with the band playing some cool instruments. It's another thing, entirely, for a song to tell a whole story on its own, a story that somehow jibes with the story you'll see on the screen while also being an entirely independent thing, and Ghostbusters met that second mark, going Flash Gordon one better (and Spies Like Us two better. Tough break, Sir Paul. I hope Arsenal at least won that day.)

Ghostbusters took the key points from the movie: ghosts, busters, and who you gonna call, and then made up its own story. Starting, seemingly, where the movie lets off, as though it were a spinoff of the movie, Ghostbusters mentions something strange in your neighborhood, then talks about an invisible man, lying in your bed, a ghost that, I hear, likes the girls, and then, for good measure, tacks on it's own catchphrase: "I ain't 'fraid of no ghost." (Ray Parker, Jr., maybe flew a little too close to the sun in that song, trying for not one, but two, catchphrases: after establishing the cool I ain't 'fraid of no ghost, he also threw in a "Bustin' makes me feel good," but we can forgive him for that, because the rest of the song is so awesome.)

There's only one real way to make your Movie Theme better than that, and that's

Step Four: Totally Give Away The Ending So That The Song, Not The Movie, Gets the Benefit Of The Emotional Wallop.

As I noted, I not only couldn't come up with any of the songs on this list except Spies Like Us, but, to my shame, I also completely forgot what might well be The Best Movie Theme Ever: Convoy.

Convoy looked at the first three steps and drove through them like Rubber Duck through a blockade of Smokies, and then, for good measure, established, and ran over, Step Four.

It's hard for me to write about this song because I'm listening to it as I type this, and, as always, I'm getting goosebumps and a lump in my throat. This song does that to me, building slowly but sturdily (just like a real convoy! Wow!) and generating momentum. Beginning with C.W. McCall's near-monotone reading of the lines detailing the start of Rubber Duck's mythical quest -- an Odyssey for the CB Radio era -- and slowly amping up with quotes from the movies and the chorus of angelic-sounding women (no doubt with feathered, long hair) telling us that the convoy's getting bigger (we got a little old convoy... turns into we got a big ol' convoy, and then We got a mighty convoy, ain't she a beautiful sight!), Convoy uses the title of the movie and tells us what to expect (Truckers & Bears!) and supplements the movie by adding details...

...and then goes a little further: We hear the convoy rolling up interstate 44 like a rocket sled on rails. The Illinois National Guard is there, a thousand screamin' trucks, and then a CB radio intercuts and lets us know that the long-haired Friends of Jesus need to move up because Rubber Duck's hauling dynamite, and they aint'a gonna pay no toll... leaving the trucks to crash through the barricade and the angels jump in again, singing and cheering jubilantly, the implication being...

I can't say it. I'm tearing up. I'll miss you, Rubber Duck!

So anyway, let's get cracking out there, songwriters and movie producers. I've shown you the way. All you have to do is find a movie, think of a song about it, write the song, record it, get it released, and get it on the air. That's the easy part. Especially because Ray Parker Jr. isn't too busy these days, I hear.

As for me, I'll be busy. I've got a great idea for a movie. It's called Monster Bait, and it's about this guy who...

1 comment:

Petri Dish said...

I've had the Ghostbusters theme song stuck in my head all day thanks to you. Damn synthesizers!!!