Ready Player One : Game Over Music Supervisor?
Last week, I attended a screening of Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” with the man himself present and it was evident from his introductory words that his youthful enthusiasm and desire to continue entertaining us remains undimmed. He is, unquestionably a genius of our time and I cherish his continued prolific output. I’m looking forward to his biopic on Bernstein and the next Indiana Jones (let us hope he makes amends for the last outings’ rare miss).
Now, I’m no movie critic and my personal opinion on “Ready Player One” may go against the general consensus. However, amongst the largely positive reviews, I couldn’t help notice a distinct lack of comments made on the film’s music, which is odd, as the soundtrack is full of hits. I have a theory on why.
For those who are not familiar with the Ernest Cline novel, which the film is based on, we are in 2045 and everyone is looking to escape the desolation of the real world by entering the virtual reality world called OASIS. Its creator, a fan of 80s pop culture has died but has promised full ownership of OASIS to whomever can find 3 hidden keys. And so, our main heroes work together to unlock the clues.
I’m a boy of the 80s. I love the movies and music from that decade, more so now than back then. When a song from that era plays on the radio, I just want to turn up the volume. When they are used in films of today, (a rarity) it puts a smile on my face and I’m very likely to remember the scene. Consider films made in the last 20 years and which make brilliant use of 80s music. Who can forget Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister dancing to The Pointer Sisters’ “Jump” in “Love Actually” or the guys waiting in line, dancing to Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” in “The Full Monty”. The music choices and how they drive the narrative make those scenes unforgettable. So much so that we relieve those scenes whenever we hear those songs. So why, for me at least, didn’t the 80s music in Ready Player One leave any lasting impact?
Cline’s novel features over 30 musical references yet Spielberg opted for other songs, ones I’m guessing he loved, to sit alongside Silvestri’s score. The likes of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule The World”, Van Halen’s “Jump”, New Order’s “Blue Monday”, and Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive”. I love them all, and whilst I’d bet almost anything that hearing them on the big screen would have made any scene memorable, it wasn’t the case in “Ready Player One”.
Perhaps, it was a case of over-familiarity?: Take the Bee Gees “Staying Alive”. Used in a scene in which our two heroes’ avatars are dancing in a club flirting and planning their next move, the music feels both predictable and lacklustre. Something less familiar and on the nose like Men Without Hats “The Safety Dance” which also screams out for a choreographed dancing scene could have been a far better choice. Or was it a case of not what but how the music was used?: We hear Tears for Fears “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” at some point, but I genuinely can’t remember the scene. It almost felt like Spielberg (or someone in the team) thought, “I love this song – I want it somewhere in the film”.
So, in searching for a reason why the soundtrack didn’t deliver as much as the picture itself, I can offer one theory: With the music budget unlikely to have been an issue, the lack of a music supervisor involved played a role. Steven Spielberg, having so much nostalgic fun in making this film, picked and placed songs he loved, believing job done. Spielberg is a brilliant film-maker but isn’t a Quentin Tarantino when it comes to choosing music and its interplay with the picture. When you’re not a director who thinks music before visuals, your best option is to work closely with a supervisor who takes direction. A top supervisor would interject and suggest when and what music would work best (in this case, from the director’s playlist of personal favorites).
Steven Spielberg is no stranger to adapting scenes around original score. His dream-like creative partnership with John Williams has meant the vast majority of his films have not required any commercial music, so the role of music in “Ready Player One” and the critical need for a music supervisor is uncharted territory for him.
In my humble opinion, this was a missed opportunity in bringing to life music from the 1980s and enhancing the viewing experience. With the support of a music supervisor, music would have been as memorable as the visuals. Knowing and loving music isn’t enough. How to best use music in film (and of course ensuring you can actually license it) is a finely tuned craft expertly performed by few and misunderstood by many. And So, no! it is definitely not Game Over Music Supervisor.