The Movie Marketing Blog: The movie studio addiction to classic rock

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 / Marvel Entertainment

Classic rock radio is profitable for a reason. People, particularly those over 40, love reliving the music of their youth, either the stuff they grew up on themselves or what they discovered while going through their parents’ old record collection.

While there’s no formal definition for what’s encompassed by “classic rock,” a useful shorthand is that it spans from The Beatles to Nirvana, or roughly 1963 through 1991, at least based on what makes up the playlists of radio stations devoted to that broad genre. That might seem overly generous for those of us who were firmly in high school when “Nevermind” hit record stores, but in 2017 that album is over a quarter of a century old so maybe we need to embrace our age and get over it.

Classic rock radio trades in nostalgia, specifically the idea that we all want to relive the songs that played on our first date, the one that played the first time we rolled the windows of our first car down, the one that played at a concert we’ll never forget. Considering Hollywood trades in large part on the same heartstrings — guiding us to relive our childhood through endless sequels, reboots and franchises — it makes a ton of sense that movie marketers would gravitate toward music that supports that goal. Hip-hop and rap started sampling oldies, bringing those tunes to new audiences who may not have grown up with them. And that’s kept tunes by AC/DC, The Who, Styx and other bands at the top of everyone’s mind, never fading far from fans of the originals but always being discovered by someone new.

The continued relevance of classic rock has been proven in a pair of new trailers that have dropped in recent weeks.

The Movie: Kong: Skull Island

The Song: The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”

More than just nostalgia, the usage of this song is very intentional and designed to evoke several memories or feelings in the audience.

First, anytime you put music and 70’s era military helicopters together you’re going to make people think of the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” scene from Apocalypse Now, wherein Robert Duvall’s Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore leads his men on a beach assault with the Wagner epic playing in an attempt to intimidate the enemy. The comparison is strengthened when you view John Marlow, played in Kong by John C. Reilly, as this movie’s equivalent of the slightly insane photojournalist made famous by Dennis Hopper.

Even more clear is the connection with the 1986 Vietnam movie Hamburger Hill, which featured this song playing over a scene of a group of soldiers flying in helicopters into a dangerous landing zone. Between the two examples, it’s clear the team behind the marketing of Kong has done their homework and is trying to positively associate this new movie, at least in the minds of cinephiles familiar with these two older wartime classics, and the new film.

The song’s usage is more than just pure nostalgia, though. Released in 1965 it became a favorite of American soldiers in Vietnam for its bleak lyrics of helplessness and yearning for relief. The title has been appropriated for a 2015 book on the music of the Vietnam era that provided the soundtrack for the military in-country. That makes it clear the usage of the song isn’t just the marketing team going for something clever or simplistic call-backs to earlier movies, they want at least parts of the story to feel authentic and time-period appropriate as Kong does take place in 1973.

The Movie: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The Song: Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”

First off, did you know this was the only song on Fleetwood Mac’s iconic “Rumours” album that was co-written by all five members of the group? Because I did not. That’s in part due to it being the result of cobbling together bits and pieces from previously unused material from other projects, with a bit of connective tissue added in the studio.

Moving past that interesting factoid, it’s easy to understand why the marketing for GotGV2 would go back to the classic rock well. The trailer for the first movie heavily featured Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and the rest of “Awesome Mix Vol. 1,” the soundtrack to the first movie, was a collection of classic rock tunes. That plays into the story of the film as it’s a parting gift given to Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) by his dying mother.

Even more than that, though, the lyrics of the song make it a great choice for the movie. Those lyrics speak to the power of love and connection. Seeing as how the trailer emphasizes how the motley collection of galactic heroes aren’t friends, they’re family, that’s thematically appropriate.

Classic rock will continue to show up in movie trailers. The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” and The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” are used so often they made a recent list of the most overplayed songs in trailers. This music creates an instant connection in the minds of the audience and maybe offers a bit of an idea about the movie’s story.

By going classic, the marketers don’t run as much of a risk of the trailer seeming dated six months down the road in the same way it would if more modern music was used, even if the movie is very much in-the-moment. Look at the trailers for last year’s Suicide Squad, which used Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” to great effect, timing the action to the musical cues.

This is a trend that’s not likely to end anytime soon, no matter how many articles are written about how rock in the late 2010s may no longer be relevant. When it comes to selling movies, it seems, rock is just as relevant and vital as ever.

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Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a writer and consultant

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