Soundtracking Classic Comics: Watchmen

By Elizabeth K. Keenan

Soundtracks are delicate creatures. When the Watchmen movie came out, the opening credits set the musical tone: a nearly five-minute montage of events from the 1940s to the 1980s, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.” It was appropriate enough—Alan Moore quotes the song at the end of one of Watchmen’s chapters—but, in the context of the opening credits, it seemed a little too on-the-nose.

Fast forward to the sex scene between Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre. The interminable scene offers some of the least sexy sex in movie history, with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in the background. Sure, it’s a great song, but it’s been used in so many movies and TV shows (especially in the Jeff Buckley cover version) that the song has become a lazy shorthand for conveying complex emotions.

By the time I left the theater, I felt kind of dirty, like the movie version of Watchmen was a one-night stand I’d like to forget. I still feel that way, two years later. So, in order to erase the badness from my memory and resurrect my good feelings about the source material, I’ve come up with a new soundtrack that draws on the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons material. Some of these do overlap with the film soundtrack, as Moore often features song lyrics in the background of his scenes.

1. Rorschach’s Theme: Black Sabbath, “Paranoid.”

Who says Marvel’s Iron Man gets all the Sabbath? The song’s driving tension fits Rorschach’s mental state and general creepiness. And guy who makes a pun about “human bean juice” in his first verbal interaction with the Nite Owl isn’t sane or normal.

2. The Comedian in Vietnam: David Bowie, “China Girl.”

The Oriental fetishism of the song stands in stark contrast to the way that the Comedian violently disposes of his pregnant Vietnamese girlfriend. The juxtaposition of two views of Western men’s treatment of Asian women resonates with other portrayals, from Madame Butterfly to Miss Saigon.

3. Doctor Manhattan’s Departure from the Earth/Reflections on Mars: Joy Division, “Atmosphere.”

Post-punk’s widely spaced recording style pairs with the desolate feeling of Doctor Manhattan abandoning the earth’s populace. The feeling of abandonment in the lyrics also works with the growing isolation from humanity that Doctor Manhattan feels.

4. Cheesy, Obligatory ’80s Instrumental: Duran Duran, “Tiger Tiger.”

At the close of every issue of Watchmen, Alan Moore placed a relevant quote. The film uses several of these as its basis for incorporating Bob Dylan songs. At the end of Rorschach-centric issue 5, Moore quotes William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger,” which also gives the title “Fearful symmetry.”

5. Song from the Film Soundtrack that Returns to Its Rightful Place: Billie Holiday, “You’re My Thrill.”

In the graphic novel, the song plays as Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre rescue the inhabitants from the burning building, right before the big sex scene. In the film, “You’re My Thrill” appears much earlier. Similarly, Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” would stay, since Moore put it there.

6. Really Silly ’80s Song for Doctor Manhattan: Pointer Sisters, “Neutron Dance.”

No, it’s not appropriate sonically, but it was a hit in 1985, when the action of Watchmen opens. Doctor Atomic, he’s just burnin’ doin’ the neutron dance. (Sorry about this choice.)

7. Trip to Antarctica: Bob Dylan, “All Along the Watchtower.”

The film uses the more recognizable Jimi Hendrix version. Here, I would reinstate the original because, as the record company notes, nobody sings Dylan like Dylan.

8. Sam and Sandra Hollis Visit Sally Jupiter/End Credits, a la Moore: John Cale, “Sanities.”

The end quote of the series slightly misquotes the ending of this John Cale song. However, some of its other lyrics are on point for the contentious relationship between the Silk Spectre's: “She was so afraid/since her mother, white with time/told her/she was a failure.”

9. End Credits: REM, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

Ozymandias’s plot to bring about world peace via a faked alien invasion offers one of the more disturbing and convoluted endings to any comic. But the moral ambiguity of the entire graphic novel comes out in the ways that all the characters react to their fates. Doctor Manhattan goes off to create some humans of his own (but not before disintegrating Rorschach), Ozymandias has questions about whether he did the right thing, and Silk Spectre and Nite Owl get bad dye jobs and live happily ever after.

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