“Play it as real as you can, even if it’s crazy absurd,” says director Adam McKay when talking to his actors, who he encourages to improvise on set. It’s an approach that’s worked for him.
The director made his name with comedies Anchorman and Stepbrothers but achieved greater critical acclaim tackling serious topics in The Big Short and acerbic Dick Cheney biopic Vice.
He maintains that playing it straight with cinematography is the way to go with his brand of satire, too.
“You don’t shoot like it’s a comedy. You shoot like it’s a film, and it’s very real. And that makes it funnier,” says McKay.
Now that his latest movie, Don’t Look Up, is Netflix’s second-biggest of all time, we’re trying to find out whether the film’s music is played as straight as other elements.
To do that, we’ve looked at other doomsday movies to see how the soundtrack and score of Don’t Look Up compare to straightforward end-of-the-world dramas such as Deep Impact, Armageddon, 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow.
First, looking at original soundtracks, we can see that straight-down-the-line apocalypse movies tend to be dominated by electronic, ambient and classical genres. Look at the colour breakdown where dark turquoise, yellow and light turquoise are the most common colours.
By contrast, when we add end-of-the-world comedies into the mix, it’s clear that the palette of genres opens up. None more so than in Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World (see below). But overall, when comparing genres breakdowns for these films, they tend to mirror their non-comic counterparts fairly closely. Again, note the prevalence of electronic and ambient genres. So far, a tick for playing it straight.
Based on original scores alone, Don’t Look Up most closely mirrors the genre breakdown of alien invasion comedy The World’s End.
In our more granular breakdown below, you can also compare the genre breakdowns of other apocalypse movies. For example, note the deep sincerity of Deep Impact’s tone and score (mostly classical, in light turquoise), versus the rock-fuelled pomp of the Armageddon score (orange).
Looking at the genre breakdown for Don’t Look Up (top of the above graph), it seems the film’s score composer Nicholas Britell had the latitude to shrug the tropes of the disaster movie genre, incorporating jazz and indie elements.
Beyond genre, our AI can also detect the mood of music tracks. When we compare Don’t Look Up’s score with the scores of other disaster movies, there are further correlations.
Unexpectedly, though, Don’t Look Up’s original score has far more neutral moods than the broader disaster movie genre – possibly because of the film’s deadpan delivery. You can also see the darkness of the score (in black) on the diagram below, representing dark moods in Nicholas Britell’s score. Spoiler alert: We posit that this is due to the film’s hopelessly bleak narrative and ending.
A particular highlight of musical satire in the score comes from Nicholas Britell’s sad but rousing track titled “The Prayer For Stuff” which accompanies Jonah Hill’s absurd prayer for “sick apartments and watches” as rockets sit on the launchpad poised to destroy a comet hurtling towards Earth.
The most similar track that we found among other disaster movie soundtracks was in 2012 when a scientist is giving an impassioned speech about saving people – quite the contrast.
With all that said, the scores only give us half the picture of music in these movies. We must also consider the soundtracks; are there any trends that we can see among the tracks synced in disaster movies?
When looking at the genre breakdowns of songs placed in disaster movies, we have to view them in the context of when they were made. When we look at the score and soundtrack from a movie such as Armageddon, there’s a lot of rock. In 1998, the film’s release year, rock was still enormously popular.
Anecdotally, we know that synced tracks tend to follow current musical trends, but can our AI detect those changes over time so we can map evolving sync trends within genres? It sure can.
The biggest trends we can see with this (albeit limited dataset) is the increased popularity of hip hop and the dwindling popularity of rock, in line with global music trends.
This chart also shows how we can map shifting trends, such as the minor popularity of indie songs in the niche genre of apocalypse comedies in the early 2010s.
A soundtrack for the end of the world
Does Don’t Look Up play the music as straight as Adam McKay’s directed improv or shooting style?
It’s difficult to quantify, but we can say that the genre and mood breakdowns for Don’t Look Up most closely mirror other doomsday comedies.
Beyond that, we can also note that our Use Case classifier only tagged one track as a ‘comedy’ track: the Mills Brothers 1947 hit “Across The Alley From The Alamo”, which plays during the final dinner scene. Compared to other disaster movies, oddly, that’s not many.
What do you think? Were there musical choices that you thought were played for laughs in Don’t Look Up? What were your favourite musical moments? And what kind of analysis would you like to see in the future?