That Old, Familiar Tune

Is this what some people feel like when they watch a Quentin Tarantino film? There I was, watching the penultimate episode of The Night Of, HBO’s 2016 prestige crime/prison/courtroom drama. (Beware spoilers for The Night Of, but also for The Man Who Wasn’t There.) In its final, expertly staged scenes, the is-he-or-isn’t-he-innocent protagonist Naz becomes a willing accessory to a swift, bloody jailhouse murder. As the scene begins, violins start playing a melancholy tune – one that I immediately knew: the makers of The Night Of had taken a page out of the Coen Brothers’ songbook, using a theme written by composer Carter Burwell for The Man Who Wasn’t There to colour a scene of ruthless brutality.

The Man Who Wasn't There

It’s not that the tune doesn’t fit: there is some resonance between The Night Of and particularly the scene in which Naz turns from someone who may well be innocent of having killed someone into someone who knowingly makes a murder possible and The Man Who Wasn’t There‘s ironic twist in which a man gets away with killing his rival but is wrongly arrested, sentenced and put to death for murdering another. Both the Coens’ film and the HBO series ask questions about justice, law, innocence and guilt, and both derive dramatic irony and tragedy from their twists and turns.

Nonetheless, the moment the music started, it took a few seconds for me to place the tune – and to be taken out of the scene. Did the director Steven Zaillian intend for the audience to think of The Man Who Wasn’t There and the thematic resonance, or did the production team simply look for something mournful to act as a counterpoint to the brutality of the scene? It felt more like the latter than the former, but in either case, where I was emotionally in the episode beforehand, the choice of music pretty much came and pressed Mute on my emotional remote control, at least with respect to the thing I was actually watching.

I don’t remember if The Night Of used much, or indeed any, music composed specially for it apart from Jeff Russo’s main theme. A quick look at IMDB suggests that most of the soundtrack was pre-existing – but for me it makes a huge difference whether a song or a classical piece of music is sourced or whether a film or a TV series uses music composed for and used in other films and series. It may well be that this happens all the time and I simply don’t know because I don’t know, or have forgotten, the tracks and their original use, but when I notice, it tends to take me out of the moment, as if the storyteller had jumped on the brakes, opened the passenger door and rudely shoved me out of the car before speeding off again – in particular if I felt a strong emotional reaction to the original material in which the music appeared.

For me, it’s very different if a tune is used in a way that either makes it clear that the music and the baggage it brings with it comments in some way on the new material – or when it’s done so well it practically becomes a new thing. Quentin Tarantino frequently uses music from other films all the time, in particular the music of Ennio Morricone for The Hateful Eight, but to my mind Tarantino is a master of the remix, making the various influences, references, allusions and straight quotes into something entirely his own, something different from what they originally were.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to the creative minds behind The Night Of and they made a very conscious choice to use “The Trial of Ed Crane”. It may be equally unfair that I am perfectly okay with filmmakers using familiar rock and pop tunes, even though those are as much taken out of context as music sourced from other films and series. Perhaps I’ve seen 99 such scenes neither recognising the music nor making the connection, and in the one case where I do I overreact. But this use of ransacking other properties’ scores very often rubs me the wrong way. Not because I think it’s lazy: there’s nothing intrinsically more lazy about using a track from an old film or TV series compared to using a classic rock tune, and often it’s the latter that is done as a lazy kind of shorthand – as is evidenced by every second Vietnam film’s use of “White Rabbit” and “Fortunate Son”. No, what bothers me is that most of the time it takes me out of the story I’m watching, making me a disengaged observer rather than someone who’s caught up in what is happening on screen, and that I cannot abide. The Night Of staged its chilling prison murder expertly – and in one simple needle drop made me think about The Man Who Wasn’t There instead. Granted, there are worse films to be thinking about, but that’s beside the point. So, my plea to filmmakers? Choose your music wisely and be wary of ransacking other films’ and series’ scores; otherwise you risk that when the music starts, the movie stops cold.

Or, alternatively, be Quentin Tarantino.

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