Classic Soundtracks Are a Trailer’s Greatest Weapon

By  · Published on December 4th, 2014

Walt Disney

Nostalgia is a powerful thing (don’t believe me? Ask Don Draper). If no one felt any pangs of remembrance for cool old movies where people shot proton torpedoes into thermal exhaust ports or giant lizards ruined a theme park test tour, nobody would have given last week’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Jurassic World trailers a second thought (also, if nobody was nostalgic for them, there wouldn’t be a The Force Awakens or a Jurassic World in the first place).

But people love their Star Wars and their Jurassic Park, and so last week was an undeniably huge nostalgiafest. Yet in watching those trailers again (like everyone else, I’ve seen each a good five or six times), something sticks out. That sense of nostalgia – that all powerful, sequel-producing, Don Draper-forced-to-tears urge – seems to stem from one source above all others.

The music.

Both Jurassic World and The Force Awakens offered a liberal helping of classic John Williams theme music. And without that music, there’s no way those trailers would be anywhere near as powerful. Even if we’d still watch them over and over again, regardless.

Take The Force Awakens. Which, if you have an internet connection and any vague interest in summer blockbusters, you’ve no doubt seen by now. Why not watch it for the 16th time?

The music serves two purposes. For the first 60 seconds of this 90 second trailer, the soundtrack is set to a low simmer. Some atmospheric strings, punctuated with a little bit of brass every time the trailer shows off something worth punctuating (John Boyega having a outer space panic attack, for example). Not much changes… until the final shot. Then it’s nostalgia on overdrive. Familiar sights (Millennium Falcon, TIE Fighters), familiar sounds (that strangely one-of-a-kind TIE Fighter sound effect) and familiar music. Star Wars music. Which has the uncanny effect of making every single person watching flash back to their first Star Wars experience.

The first minute is new: new characters, new lightsabers, new menacing Andy Serkis voiceover. The last little chunk is a bazooka of concentrated nostalgia, aimed right at our collective face. Pretty cool.

Jurassic World is different. Structurally, it’s far more rigid. The Force Awakens is a teaser, which works perfectly fine as a loose collection of images, while Jurassic World is more a theatrical trailer – something that apes the three act structure of the movie it’s pitching.

Instead of the John Williams’ classic, this is sparse and empty – one hand plunking out the melody on a piano. And instead of popping in at the absolute last second, the theme carries through the last 40 seconds or so. It’s not the heavy, bouillon cube-concentrated nostalgia dose that The Force Awakens is, but it’s the same general idea: end your trailer with the classic music, and tie the whole piece together, smelling just like the movies of yesteryear. Even if that trailer is just a bunch of LEGOs, it still works. (admit it, when that LEGO TIE fighter swoops towards the screen… you still feel something stir).

It’s pretty straightforward. The reason sequels/remakes/reboots get put into production is entirely because of the nostalgia factor (what, you think someone scripted a sequel to Twins because that story just had to be told?). Naturally, a trailer (that is, an advertisement designed to make you want to buy a ticket) is going to bank on the film’s biggest weapon: memories.

Which is why so many late in the game sequels pull the same move you just saw above.

Like Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.

Or Terminator Salvation.

Also, Rocky Balboa.

Sure, there are slight variations in each. Indy deploys his nostalgia bomb early; Terminator deploys it at the last possible second. Rocky Balboa tries an odd mix on the formula, opening with the classic Rocky theme (a bold move) and choosing an alternative piece of nostalgia music for the end: a hip-hop remix of “Eye of the Tiger.” Even if it’s not so successful, and feels like someone’s tried to craft an aging Stallone into some kind of hip-hop cyborg.

Really, each of those three trailers are a testament to the power of nostalgia via trailer music. None of the clips above are marvels of trailer editing or creativity (also, the films themselves are no great shakes), but slap on a few bars of classic theme music and the trailer gets an instant face lift. All those happy memories of fresh-faced franchise classics come rushing back.

Now, here’s where things get weird. What if a trailer for a sequel-to-the-classics eschews the classic tune? It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, the results aren’t pretty.

First, a technicality: Superman Returns.

Which, if we’re nitpicking, does actually use its own Williams classic. But not very well and not for very long. We get ten seconds of real, classic Christopher Reeve when Clark’s floating up into space, starting at around the 1:35 mark. His face stirs with the fires of determination; so does the classic theme. And just when Supes swoops and the song gets to the best part, there’s an awkward audio cut and suddenly we’re into generic trailer music territory.

Just awful. Why, in a trailer for a film was based entirely around the concept of “Hey, weren’t those old Christopher Reeve Supermans great?” would you back away from a crucial part of those same films? Why use generic inspirational music when you have something so much more potent languishing in the back corner of an editing suite? It’s baffling.

But at least the music’s in there somewhere. Unlike another, sadder case: Robocop.

Yes, the 2014 Robocop wasn’t a sequel (unlike these others) and thus might try to set itself apart from the original. Also, the Robocop theme, while awesome, is less recognizable than that of Rocky or Star Wars. But Jose Padilha’s Robocop uses the original theme in its opening credits, and if you’re using it in the actual movie (to drum up feelings of nostalgia, perhaps?), you could use it in the ads.

And the trailer ends with “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me,” so clearly someone’s trying to cater to the old Robocop audience.

Also, if the Robocop theme can bring a powerful sense of Robocop remembrance to a bunch of exploding penises (MASSIVE NSFW WARNING: like 50 exploding penises), it could probably do the same for a Robocop TV spot or two.

But nearly every trailer for Jaws 6 or Harry Potter 12 knows what its selling, and that you don’t put out a classic trailer with a classic theme any more than you would sell a pretzel without mustard or Monopoly without the little dog or the hat. Those that don’t are outliers. Ridiculous, laughable outliers.

So now you know. You, the audience, you’re being used. When the “Star Wars Main Theme” blares away at the end of the The Force Awakens trailer, it’s been finessed in there just so, for a specific reason – to give you the warm and fuzzies and ensure you’re buying at least six tickets next December.

It’s all a conspiracy, aimed right at your wallets. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch that trailer at least four more times. Maybe five.

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