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Music Review: Various Artists – Watchmen: Music from the Motion Picture

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Soundtracks are a tricky thing. Music is an integral part of any film, especially one like Watchmen, which uses popular songs in a thrilling new context: The post-modern superhero saga. But it's one thing to hear a song in a movie, as it's coupled with moving images, adding to the onscreen thrill. It's another to hear that song lumped together with a bunch of other songs. Such has always been the problem with soundtracks, though a few, like Quentin Tarantino, have managed to overcome it.

Watchmen is an interesting case. The surprisingly good film, and the brilliant comic book upon which it was based, largely take place in an alternate 1985 in which Richard Nixon is on his third term, superheroes are outlawed, and the Cold War is about to result in nuclear disaster. So it's very important that its soundtrack be able to replicate that bizarre, desperate atmosphere. To some degree, it does, but its major fault is that it doesn't really hang together as a cohesive work.

Starting with My Chemical Romance's punky, nervy cover of Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row" is probably a mistake. As someone who's more into movies than music, there are a lot of bands I don't get around to, and My Chemical Romance is one of them. So I'm not familiar with their larger body of work, and while this cover isn't at all bad–it is, in fact, surprisingly badass — it doesn't start things off on the right foot. It's the song used over the closing credits in the movie, and by the time we hear it, it's just the catharsis we need. It hits you in the gut. But as an opening track, it's relatively weak; it's got the energy, yeah, but it doesn't really take us anywhere.

The second track, Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable," as the first song we hear in the movie, would've been a much better opener. It's a weird fit for a superhero movie, but then again, so is the whole film. It catches us unawares, and its lighthearted, jazzy swing lilts us into a false sense of security. In the movie, it's a sense of security shattered by a violent fight scene, wonderfully underscoring the brutality of the sequence. Here, it doesn't have the same advantage, but it's still a lovely, unexpected choice.

Then we move on to a series of late 60s/early 70s standards: Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence," and Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee." They're all great songs, and in the movie, they're used to great effect, especially "The Times They Are A-Changin'," which plays over a stellar opening title sequence chronicling the rise and fall of the American masked vigilante. It's without a doubt one of the greatest opening title sequences ever crafted, and the spine-chilling use of Dylan's song is a major part of that. Likewise, the haunting, melancholy "Sound of Silence" establishes the perfectly haunting, melancholy funeral (especially considering it's for a soldier whose best days died with Vietnam in the 60s). But these songs taken together just make you feel like you've tuned into any classic rock station on the planet. Then there's "I'm Your Boogie Man" by KC and the Sunshine Band, which is a fun song, but when taken side-by-side with the three preceding classics, doesn't really stack up.

Luckily, the second half of the soundtrack offers a more exciting, varied selection. Like "Unforgettable" earlier on, Billie Holiday's "I'm Your Thrill" is another unexpected choice, and is a nice break between the classic rock set and the weirdness to follow. We get a taste of the Philip Glass Ensemble's score from the 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi with "Pruit Igoe & Prophecies." As with most Glass compositions, it's spellbinding and soaring, and taken as a part of the Watchmen experience, has more than a little bit of an ominous undertone. It takes us to another world, which is the desired effect, considering it's used as a theme for Dr. Manhattan, the otherworldly being who takes refuge from his earthly troubles on Mars.

Following that with the original version of Leonard Cohen's oft-covered "Hallelujah" is a masterstroke both tonally and emotionally, as it's another utterly mesmerizing piece of work which transports us to not only a different world, but a different state of mind. It's truly one of the most beautiful songs anyone's ever recorded, and it's got exactly the right low-key emotional potency to bring us down from Philip Glass. It also makes a sort of sense that Jimi Hendrix's immortal cover of "All Along the Watchtower" (the third and final Dylan song in this set) comes right after, renewing our sense of immediacy and urgency.

It's a shame, then, that the final two songs feel out of place and tacked-on. The Budapest Symphony Orchestra's performance of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" is as powerful and as enjoyable a recording I've heard of the material. But it doesn't add anything to the proceedings, and feels like an awkward segue into a live version of Nina Simone's "Pirate Jenny." It's another great song, and another more traditional and unexpected number, but it doesn't feel like it belongs, and certainly not as the closing track. In fact, "Pirate Jenny" isn't in Watchmen at all, rather in its direct-to-DVD animated companion piece Tales of the Black Freighter. I haven't seen it, though I'm sure the song fits like a glove, given the pirate theme. Still, it's got no real business here.

Watchmen the comic book was so crammed full of ideas that you could read its 400-some pages numerous times and still find new details and nuances each time. It's a testament to the filmmakers' skill that Watchmen the movie manages to fit in many of those ideas in under three hours, and without sacrificing too much of their power. But nothing's perfect, and it looks like Watchmen the soundtrack is the one arm of this project that's been allowed to fall short of the standard. Individually, all of the songs here range from good to great. If we're being honest, most of them are fantastic. But if we're being honest, we also have to realize that though this can be a fun listen, it was never meant to be a unified whole, and as such, never is.

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About Arlo J. Wiley