Scoring big: Why the music of Stranger Things, Game of Thrones deserves credit
It’s been a few days since Netflix dropped on us the best news of the week: that it’s renewed Stranger Things for a second season [insert grinning emoji here]!
In the time we’ve had to digest this information, the following happened: (1) we watched the season two teaser trailer on loop at least 35 times, (2) Reddit did what it does best, and dissected each frame of the trailer, and (3) we fell in love once again with the awesomeness that is the music of Stranger Things.
Watching the season two teaser in all its '80s neon lo-fi goodness, in the same form/font and set to the same background score as season one, immediately evokes the '80s nostalgia made famous by Stranger Things this summer. Not only is the opening track fabulously retro, but without any scenes or dialogues, it still manages to transport you to the eerie, alien-inhabited world of 1983 small town Indiana.
The music of Stranger Things is so effective in invoking this nostalgia and atmosphere that despite the abundance of throwback influences on the show, Rolling Stone, in a profile of Survive (the band that created the synth score), rightly proclaimed, “No part of Stranger Things activates the nostalgia circuits like its soundtrack of eerie, droning analog synths — an alien transmission from the VHS era to the Netflix generation.”
It’s true: like the '80s homages, bicycle riding kids, and Dungeons & Dragons, the music itself is a character that helps develop the horror, the atmosphere and the storyline. And Stranger Things isn’t alone; it’s just the latest in a long (pretty awesome) list of movies and TV shows that use music as more than just something that plays in the background.
At Universal Studios in Singapore, amidst all the Battlestar Galactica and Transformers exhibits, there’s an entire section dedicated to the Spielberg classic Jurassic Park. As you walk through the section, nothing evokes the excitement and dread of the movie’s dinosaur-island adventure more than when the epic Jurassic Park waterfall descent theme starts playing. Even walking between the life-size t-rex and raptor figures can’t compare to the music! Listen to 25 seconds of that theme, and you’re transported to a remote tropical island off Costa Rica, about to embark on an unlikely dinosaur adventure.
There’s John Williams’ legendary opening theme for Star Wars Episode IV, which perfectly captures the “epic space saga” tone; play the military overtones of the Imperial march for someone who hasn’t heard it before and they’ll instantly know it’s got something to do with a ruler/dictator, a regiment of soldiers, and an impending war.
How perfectly does Almost Famous’ compiled soundtrack capture the late '60s-early '70s music scene, and what it’s like to be an aspiring music journalist trapped between the ego clashes of a band poised on the brink of stardom? And can you think of a better tune for a classic standoff than Ennio Morricone’s seminal track for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly?
On television, there’s Game of Thrones (GoT) with its opening theme that has inspired countless versions and painting a fitting picture of a Middle Age war of dynasties/families for a throne. But the more important piece of music from GoT is the The Rains of Castamere, a song so haunting and poignant that every time it plays on the show, the audience knows something unsavoury is about to go down!
Over the years, there have been countless iconic and memorable television opening themes that convey exactly what the shows are about: The Brady Bunch’s nine-box family introduction that showed the kids growing over the years, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had a young Will Smith rapping about his reasons for moving from Philly to his uncle’s mansion in Bel-Air, Dexter’s opening sequence that stylishly conveyed the vigilante psychopath-getting-dressed-for-work morning ritual, the opening words and sequence for Star Trek (“Space..the final frontier”) leaving no doubt in the minds of viewers about the show’s premise, Downton Abbey’s combination of timeless music and lingering shots of an early 20th century English country estate, and The Simpsons with Danny Elfman’s iconic score set to the family’s evolution over the years (Bart’s chalkboard punishment has kept changing to include political commentary, pop culture references, and direct interactions with critics!).
In all these instances, music helps set the tone for what’s to follow. Literally. Some movies and TV shows use music as a tool to further the storyline or impact the viewer with the right emotion at the right time. Think Forrest Gump: the music acts as a character in the movie, letting the audience know which decade Forrest, Jenny, Lt Dan and the others are in; we know it’s the '50s when a young Forrest breaks through his childhood leg braces while dancing to Elvis, and we know it’s the late '60s, at the peak of the Vietnam War protests, when Forrest sees Jenny off on the bus to DC just as The Byrds’ Turn, Turn, Turn starts playing. The music travels with us, just as we travel with Forrest as he runs cross country to Willie Nelson’s On The Road, a literal pointer to the time period and a figurative one for Forrest’s emotional journey.
Television has its examples too: few shows have managed to illustrate, through music, the socio-political upheaval of the Vietnam-war era as well as The Wonder Years. From Joe Cocker’s radical rearrangement of The Beatles’ A Little Help From My Friends through six seasons of incredible coming-of-age storylines set to even more incredible songs (eg Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth when the neighbours’ teenage son dies at war and The Doors’ Riders on the Storm when the boys set off on their first midnight adventure).
Some of the most popular shows of our times have had stellar music; a quick look through the F.R.I.E.N.D.S. soundtrack proves this, and an afternoon reminiscing about certain episodes of the show will invariably have you wondering about specific pieces: we remember that Ross dedicates U2’s With or Without You to Rachel after the ill-advised list-making of Rachel’s “pros and cons” or that Celine Dion’s All By Myself is the song that wistfully plays on while Chandler and Joey are temporarily separated as roommates. But what song plays when Rachel hits the jukebox in the dream sequence of a flashback episode from season 3? The answer, in case you’re wondering, is The Zombies’ Time of the Season. Thank god for the internet!
The bottom line is that music often elevates a piece of visual art. And movies and TV shows aren’t all, we’ve got Jockey and Levis ads, and video games with amazing songs and soundtracks. Look through a list of the greatest opening credit sequences of all time and you’ll see that most good movies have a kickass score.
Sometimes though, a movie with a great director, a famous cast, a riveting story and some incredible action still needs perfectly orchestrated music throughout the movie to be truly effective: a good example is Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill — Volume 1. As huge fans of the movie, it’s difficult to accept it, but try watching the movie on mute. For all of Uma Thurman’s blonde-haired lithe yellow jumpsuited wondrousness and the beauty of the Crazy 88 fading to black and white during a fight sequence, the movie is lacking without the music. It needs the music.
Sure, the wedding chapel carnage would be shocking even otherwise, but its effect is fully felt when the screen fades, the title of the first chapter shows up, and Nancy Sinatra starts singing Bang Bang. The music did play and the people did sing.
Again and again.