‘War Dogs,’ ‘Suicide Squad,’ and the Lost Art of the Movie Soundtrack

Once upon a time, filmmakers and their music supervisors worked to find the right songs to tell their stories – not just the obvious ones.

I first heard Leonard Cohen thanks not to my own inquisitiveness, a cooler friend, or a cultured relative. I first heard Leonard Cohen because of Oliver Stone. The soundtrack album to his 1994 film Natural Born Killers was one of my most-spun discs that summer after high school graduation, a remarkable collection that was, like the film it was attached to, a wild hodgepodge of styles and ideas. Cohen appears twice on the Trent Reznor-produced record, which also included my first exposure to L7 and Cowboy Junkies – one of several soundtracks that paved the way from full-time movie geek to occasional music geek. Pulp Fiction introduced me to surf rock and Urge Overkill. Stealing Beauty was my gateway to Portishead and Nina Simone. High Fidelity introduced me to John Wesley Harding, The Beta Band, and good Stevie Wonder.

But these soundtracks weren’t just curated mixtapes for audiophile neophytes like me. That was just a nice side effect. They were the result of careful work by filmmakers and their music supervisors to find the right songs to create their moods, situate their characters, and tell their stories – not just the obvious ones. And the difference between those ideas rings clear as bell in two recent releases, which combine to illustrate the sad state of pop music in pop movies.

The new one is War Dogs, the based-on-a-true-story war profiteering comedy from co-writer/director Todd Phillips (of “the Hangover Trilogy,” as the ads keep insisting, as if that’s how anyone but him thinks of those movies). Here’s your thumbnail review: as Phillips’s attempt to ape Adam McKay (The Big Short) and Michael Bay (Pain and Gain) in making the transition from meathead movie to Dudebro American Dream Satire – it’s a sub-genre now, look it up – it’s adequate and little more, with an occasionally inspired Jonah Hill and a less-than-memorable Miles Teller (weird decision, by the way, to cast two guys whose speaking voices are so interchangeable) delivering sporadic laughs and occasional jabs. Phillips, meanwhile, cribs so much of his style from GoodFellas that it’s almost an uncredited remake: non-stop “here’s how we did it” voice-over, freeze-frames and chapter headings galore, dialogue heavy on ball-busting and masculinity-as-camaraderie, even a start-near-the-end/flashback structure.

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And, of course, lotsa pop songs. Scorese’s never been a slouch in the soundtrack department either, from the doo-wop and Stones in Mean Streets to the crooners in Raging Bull to the fierce punk and mournful blues of “T.B. Sheets” in Bringing Out the Dead. But War Dogs’ song selection is, to put it mildly, a tad on the nose. Here are a few highlights:

  • When business booms as our heroes smoke a lot of weed, we get a montage set to “Sweet Emotion.”
  • Their earlier party-boy jams are “So Whatcha Want” and “Jump Around,” which might make sense if the film were set in 1992 instead of 2005 (or if the 22-year-old heroes would’ve been weed-smoking teenagers when those songs were released).
  • When they first travel abroad, the tune of choice is Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” He is the passenger – and so are they!
  • When they go to Las Vegas, the needle drop is, I’m not kidding, Gram Parsons’ “Ooh Las Vegas,” quickly followed by that opening horn riff of Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,” which has been in more Vegas movies than the goddamn Stardust sign.
  • When they get the big deal that’s gonna make ‘em rich, we hear Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.”
  • When it all falls apart, they’re led out in cuffs to the verse of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes.” You know the part: “Nobody knows what it’s like to be the bad man…” BECAUSE THEY’RE BAD MEN, YOU SEE.
  • Swear to God, not making this up: when our boys, doing a gun run into Baghdad, are saved by the U.S. Army, Phillips fires up “Fortunate Son” to accompany the choppers, which have apparently flown in from 1968 Saigon. (Critic Matt Zoller Seitz allows that this may be a “meta-Vietnam film comment,” but I think he’s giving the movie too much credit – and either way, as he notes, Jarhead already did it.)

This isn’t curation – this is typing keywords into your iTunes search bar and downloading the top result.

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But auto-pilot music supervision is, by no means, an infliction confined to War Dogs. Two weeks ago, Suicide Squad set its opening Louisiana setting by playing “House of the Rising Sun,” and used “Sympathy for the Devil” (which has, per IMDb, been previously heard in something like 50 television shows and films, including Robert Zemeckis’s Flight, no slouch itself in the obvious-needle-drops department) for its opening credits, because you see, they’re villains, like the devil, but they’re the heroes, so we should have sympathy for them. Bad girl Harley Quinn is introduced with “You Don’t Own Me”; chrome-domed Will Smith displays his marksmanship skills to the accompaniment of “Black Skinhead.” They chopper into the city to “Spirit in the Sky” (they’re in the sky, see). When the crew is first gathered, we hear “Seven Nation Army” (they’re forming an army, you guys), and when they suit up in their wacky outfits, we hear the wacky sounds of Eminem’s “Without Me.”

Oh, and when they introduce Croc, guess what they play? FUCKING “FORTUNATE SON.” (Apparently because he was born on the bayou; they can’t even get the obvious Creedence song right.)

So what the hell is going on in these movies? It’s hard to believe all the music supervisors suddenly went out to lunch. It feels, instead, like a reflection of the general laziness that’s crippling mainstream moviemaking, across all quadrants. If the plotting is half-hearted and the dialogue is boilerplate and the actors are interchangeable, then why not select music cues that blatantly signal the most obvious emotional responses? It’s all generic product anyway – they might as well try to provoke some kind of engagement by shoplifting whatever emotional baggage a song like “Sympathy” or “Fortunate Son” has gathered in its fifty years on earth. All these movies are just rearranging the same elements every time anyway; why should the music be any different?

And that’s what I found myself contemplating as War Dogs came to a close – with Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” Good song, evocative. Previously heard in The Program, Exotica, Pump Up the Volume, The King of Kong, Homeland, and last month’s The Infiltrator. Kinda starting to lose its punch.

War Dogs and Suicide Squad are out now in wide release.