“More of this is true than you would believe,” or so we are warned at the beginning of George Clooney’s recent movie The Men Who Stare at Goats. It deals with a man who was trained in a top secret unit of the Army – the First Earth Battalion – that took Star Wars seriously.
We are asked to believe that somebody, or somebodies, in the Army took seriously that scene when Obi-Wan Kenobi finds that a storm trooper is blocking his way. Remember what happened? Wily old Obi-Wan puts his hand on the shoulder of the storm trooper, who then relents and lets him pass. As a Jedi warrior, Obi-Wan can do mind control, don’t you see.
The premise of The Men Who Stare at Goats is that there were enough Star Wars fans in the upper ranks of the Army that they got some money allocated to train guys to become Jedi warriors for real, and use mind control for military purposes. Hey, it could have happened. Crazier things have happened in the military. Enough people believed the premise that this movie, made mostly in New Mexico, returned a nice profit to the investors. (It cost $25 million to make and made about $70 million worldwide.)
The Men Who Stare at Goats has a respectable lineage in military black comedies such as M*A*S*H and Dr. Strangelove, and part of the problem with it is that it’s a little overwhelmed by these two great movies. They were so wild, so over the top, that they’re hard acts to follow.
The trouble is, we can’t decide whether we’re supposed to take Clooney seriously, or dismiss him as a buffoon. He goes on a road trip with the Ewan McGregor character, and wants him to believe that he has magical powers, but he obviously doesn’t, so who is he kidding? Himself or us? There’s no way to tell. So we can’t figure out how to take him either, and—how can I put this politely—our attention wanders.
It was a song that made me realize all this, and it gave me an odd experience. Director Grant Heslov uses Boston’s 1976 hit “More Than a Feeling” several times during the movie. This is one of those big anthemic songs that rock groups started to make after Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” The big sound of that song, which overwhelmed everybody at concerts with the big sound that Bruce and the boys got out of stacked Marshall amps, inspired others to make big songs, too. The obvious example is Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” but there’s also Jefferson Starship’s “We Built This City on Rock and Roll.”
The Men Who Stare at Goats wants to use “More Than a Feeling” as a reminder of the Star Wars era, and as an ironic counterpoint to the action. (Notice that this is altogether different from what another Hollywood heavy hitter named George, George Lucas, did in American Graffiti, where the music evokes the pre-Beatles era so well.) Trouble is, it doesn’t work. From time to time I found myself listening to the music and forgetting about the movie. I was thinking things like, “Gee, what a great song! I haven’t heard it for a long time, and I’d forgotten how great it is. Those guys can really sing!” Stuff like that. In fact, I got so into the song that it annoyed me when the music stopped and the dialog of the movie continued. This is definitely not the reaction that Heslov was going for.
So all you wannabe filmmakers out there can stare at The Men Who Stare at Goats and think of it as a cautionary tale. If you want to use rock and roll in your movie, let it evoke the era, if it’s a period piece like American Graffiti, or let it reinforce the theme, like Springsteen’s song that opens Philadelphia. (Notice how smart it was of director Jonathan Demme to put the song at the very beginning; that way, there’s no danger that we’ll start listening to the Boss and forget about Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington.) But you’d better make sure that your movie is riveting enough to stand up to the competition of the song. If you think that your viewers might do what I did, and get lost in the song, and forget about the movie, then don’t use the song.
Now that I think about it, I realize that the power of rock and roll has threatened movies from the very beginning of the rock era. In Elvis’ first movie, Love Me Tender, he comes out onto the porch of a wooden house, and sits down and sings the title song. I saw Love Me Tender when it first came out, and to this day I remember how the girls gasped and started to fidget in their seats. They didn’t care about the plot of Love Me Tender any more than I cared about the plot of The Men Who Stare at Goats. The King overwhelmed everything and everybody with his presence. And rock songs, even ones not sung by Elvis, have the potential to overwhelm any movie that they’re in. Even movies better than The Men Who Stare at Goats.