Cultural Osmosis: Movie Melodies

Well, here we are again with my second look at the tunes that have permeated our modern society; sticking in our ears like so much wax.  But unlike video games, where the industry has only just matured within the past decade to the point of a truly mainstream activity, films have had about a century to wow us, albeit we didn’t have “talkies” until Al Jolson’s 1927 film The Jazz Singer.  (That, incidentally, is a film you’re probably better off only watching in a film studies context, much like Birth of a Nation.)  Well… as I backpedal away from the lingering edge of controversy allow me to bring up my main premise.  Films are diverse and a relatively mature medium.  And as films in general are far more “mainstream” than games, it can be a little tricky to pick out what themes are truly part of the culture and which only exist in your own bubble.   I find that the ones that I can immediately pick out have some key characteristics:  the themes are catchy, the source material is beloved – and often parodied, and the films are meant for general audiences.  All of these are fairly obvious reasons why something might become a part of our worlds individually, but combined create a wonderful triple threat.

So let’s take a look at some classic movie themes that have stuck with us – yes this is not as good a hook as I usually write.  

Exhibit A:  The Star Wars Theme

Yeah, if this wasn’t literally the first thing you thought of then I feel the rest of this article may be wasted upon you as you are clearly some form of alien – which is kind of appropriate now that I think about it.  Yes, of course, Star Wars, the franchise that will never end.  We all know what a massive success the original trilogy was and what varying levels of mild disappointment the prequel and sequel trilogy have thus far been. But no matter what film it is (unless it’s Rogue One) they all start with the same incredible theme by John Williams.  What makes this theme so iconic is not just that it comes from an absolutely ground-breaking film series, but that the melody itself has such a timeless feel.  Sure it sounds sci-fi to us now because we have the context, but I think a quote from Empire of Dreams explains it quite well, and I’m paraphrasing here so no blockquote for you: “At a time when disco was burning up the charts, John Williams chose to use a classic, orchestral soundtrack.”

I’ll add this one additional comment.  While this is sort of true of the other exhibits mentioned here, Star Wars also has a twist on its ubiquity.  How many parodies have we seen where they choose not to use the Star Wars theme for copyright reasons but invariably use a melody that sounds almost like it?  And it grates on our nerves because we know what they are trying to do but aren’t.  Because we WANT to hear Star Wars, damn it.

Exhibit B:  Lord of the Rings – Bridge of Khazad Dum

With Peter Jackson finally breathing some respectable film life into J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings (and subsequently butchering beyond recognition The Hobbit) we were given some incredible songs, any of which might be recognizable to the average person.  Certainly the main theme, with its eerie, seductive string work, lulling us in like the power of the One Ring itself has its own brand of catchiness.  Or the peaceful Shire theme “Concerning Hobbits” which will be forever etched in my mind as the melody of that innocent realm.  But the one I see the most (and one often mistaken for the main theme, though it’s a recurring motif to be sure) is “The Bridge of Khazad Dum”.  Why does this one stick out more than the main theme? Because it plays during all the kick ass parts of the movies, that’s why.  Crossing the bridge of Khazad Dum with an entire army of Goblins chasing them? Kick ass.  Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli hopping out of the boats at the Fields of Pelennor with the army of the dead in tow? Kick ass.

The Lord of the Rings has always been rife for parody too, but the Peter Jackson films gave us so much more.  Parody is one of the best ways for ideas to spread and music comes right along with that. I find that this theme gets used quite a bit for parody purposes – even just the theme itself.  I’m now going to share Taking The Hobbits to Isengard (which uses this theme, though is primarily a parody of “Concerning Hobbits”) because I can.  And because we must never forget.  And if you want a good, mostly faithful retelling of The Hobbit, stick to the Rankin/Bass version.

 

Exhibit C:  The Pirates of the Caribbean Theme

As much as this one is a part of my personal bubble I’ll admit it is definitely not as strong a contender as the other entries on this list.  But it’s still fairly well known.  Pirates of the Caribbean was an enigma of a franchise.  It’s a film series about a ride at Disneyland.  Okay…  But it’s got Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightly and Geoffrey Rush!  I think just about everybody agrees that the first film got it right – swashbuckling adventure with great characters and just the right touch of the supernatural without getting weird.  And it had that incredibly catchy theme that made us all want to be pirates!  Then it became a franchise and got weird. But hey, that theme still kicks ass, right?

And because this video is literally everywhere in the wake of the release of Sea of Thieves, I’ll share it here because why not? Headphone warning: this gets ear-blastingly loud.  

 

Exhibit D:  Harry Potter – Hedwig’s Theme

Okay well I’m going to wrap this up here because there are literally so many more we could go on with.  I could talk briefly about some classic horror themes like Tubular Bells from The Exorcist.  I could talk about some of the classic crooner songs from Casablanca.  I could talk about just about any genre and they’d all be partly true depending upon your own experience, but these articles are not meant to catalog every example known to man, but merely point out some common themes between them.  Harry Potter is a special case here – this one got us when we were kids.  At least for my generation.  I was in the lucky era where we grew up with the books, and the movies in turn.  Where I started reading The Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone) as a middle-schooler and watched the last movie in the theatres as a grown man.  There’s a special nostalgia, and admittedly a personal touch with this one.  But I think it’s safe to say that we can all remember this melody whenever we want a little bit of magic in our lives.

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