Would ‘Gangster Squad’ Have Benefitted From a Little More Hip-Hop?

By  · Published on January 10th, 2013

The trailer for Gangster Squad brought us right into the world of 1940’s Los Angeles, where gangsters ruled the city under the unflinching thumb of Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) as ominous undertones vibrated against the sounds of punches and gunshots. This is a Los Angeles where crime and punishment rule rather than glitz and glamour, and the clothes, the hair, the makeup, the cars, and the guns alone let us know we are in a different time.

But then a commanding female singer’s vocals cut through the chaos telling us to “get low,” while a hip-hop beat started to drive the action. This 1940’s world suddenly got a jolt of good ol’ contemporary R&B as Mr. HOV himself, Jay-Z, breaks in with his track “Oh My God.” His lyrics may be from a song released in 2006, but they do not feel out of place here saying: “A journey seldom seen / The American dream.” Gangster movies are appealing because they give audiences a glimpse into that dangerous world and Mickey Cohen has clearly convinced himself that what he is doing is simply living the American dream his way.

Unfortunately this unique pairing of modern music with a period story exists solely in the trailer, while the film instead opts for an exclusively 1940’s feel. With a soundtrack full of songs from artists of that time such as Pee Wee King, Big Jay McNeely, and Peggy Lee it is this idea of taking itself too seriously that seems to be Gangster Squad’s inevitable downfall. Hoping to be a gangster flick for this generation, Gangster Squad instead feels like something we have seen before, and does not quite prove why we needed to see it all again.

The confusing tone and choppy dialogue certainly did not help the film’s cause and I found myself thinking back to the film’s trailer, wondering if the contemporary music that made the trailer vibrate would have helped shake up the otherwise by-the-numbers story and differentiate it from ones we have previously seen. Using a catchy song to grab audience’s attention in a trailer is nothing new, but knowing Jay-Z will soon be scoring another period piece (and one that also uses a Jay-Z track in its trailer) makes combining current day hip-hop with a story set in the past more than just an interesting idea, it is an inevitable fact.

In honor of this upcoming pairing, Los Angeles’ KROQ pulled quotes from The Great Gatsby (that other period film coming out later this year) and lyrics from Jay-Z’s music to have the staff try and guess who penned which – Jay-Z or F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was surprising to realize that based on just the words, it was difficult to guess the source, despite the fact that the works were from two very different periods in time, proving that the combination of these two seemingly different forms of media is more than just an interesting idea, it actually works.

It is clear Gangster Squad’s Ruben Fleischer wanted to create a film that was strictly 1940’s, from the style to the story to the music, while Baz Luhrmann is more apt to use more contemporary music to drive his films (regardless of when they take place), but Fleischer’s choice unfortunately proves casting popular actors is not enough to bring a genre we have seen done before to an updated place

Jay-Z’s music would feel out of place in period films like Anna Karenina, a story rooted in drama, but films driven by action or those that are highly stylized may actually be perfect fits for this pairing. A high stakes shoot out is exciting, but having a hip-hop beat follow Gangster Squad’s slowed down shots may have not only made them more interesting, it would have made them more memorable.

The soundtrack for Gangster Squad is available through WaterTower Music.

1. “The Hills of California” – Johnny Mercer & The Pied Pipers & Paul Weston & His Orchestra
2. “Mr. Five By Five” – Imelda May
3. “Early Autumn” – The Gangster Squad Movie Band
4. “Chicken Shack Boogie” – Delandis & The Gangster Squad Movie Band
5. “Bull Fiddle Boogie” – Pee Wee King
6. “A Little Bird Told Me” – Kitty, Daisy & Lewis
7. “Big Jay’s Hop / Blow Blow Blow” – Big Jay McNeely
8. “Chica Chica Boom Chi” – Sharmila & The Gangster Squad Movie Band
9. “Ole Buttermilk Sky” – Hoagy Carmichael
10. “Bless You (For the Good That’s In You)” – Peggy Lee
11. “Early Autumn” – St. Vincent & The Living Sisters
12. “Bless You (For the Good That’s In You)” – Delta Rae

Do you like the idea of modern music driving period pieces or do you prefer to have period pieces stay true to their roots? What other period stories do you think would pair well with a hip-hop soundtrack?