“Zoolander,” a 2001 comedy starring Ben Stiller, is one of those movies that my friends and I still quote from and laugh about. The soundtrack, however, did not stick in my memory the way certain lines did. In the book Understanding Movies, author Louis Giannetti describes how “moviegoers are not usually consciously aware of how sound affects them, but they are constantly manipulated by the mixer’s synthesis” (Gianetti p 208). An effective soundtrack enhances and supplements what is going on visually and through dialogue. As I looked at “Zoolander” again, this time with a critical eye (and ear), I noticed the strategic choice of songs.
In one scene Derek Zoolander’s roommates suggest that an Orange Mocha Frappuccino would cheer him up. We next see the male model friends driving in an open Jeep, bopping to the sounds of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” performed by WHAM!, beverages in-hand, waving to people and laughing. The song is fun and upbeat and captures the light-hearted mood they are in. You can imagine they have cranked the song up on the car radio. The song continues when they pull into a gas station and begin to playfully fling water at each other using the window washing squeegees. Derek’s attention is drawn away and he leaves the action. He looks back with fond amusement to see them now spraying each other with gas from hoses. Suddenly the song goes into slow motion as Derek notices one of the guys about to light a cigarette. The next second the car blows up and the song cuts off. “Music can be used as foreshadowing, especially when the dramatic context doesn’t permit a director to prepare an audience for an event” (Giannetti p 214). The lyrics “You take the gray skies out of my way, You make the sun shine brighter than Doris Day, Turned a bright spark into a flame” (Metro Lyrics) are a subtle but helpful cue to the audience of the abrupt change from happiness to horror. That last line comes shortly before the car bursts into flames. I see a lyrical connection between the lyrics and the whole scene.
In the book Everything’s an Argument, authors Andrea A. Lunsford and John J. Ruszkiewicz believe that you can use pathos to create an emotional appeal that will make the scene stronger and more memorable for the audience. My emotions were at a high watching these guys have a great time together in the early part of the scene. The song is very fun and makes you want to join in the dancing with them. When the music changed my emotional reaction was an immediate “oh no, what is about to happen?”. Without the music, it would have been pretty odd to have these guys bopping around in the car and goofing off at the gas station.
A song that is used to advance the meaning of a certain scene is “Relax.” Derek Zoolander has been brainwashed to kill the Prime Minister of Malaysia and this song is the audible trigger for Derek to strike. Later on in the movie, as Derek takes to the runway during a fashion show, the song starts up again and you automatically wonder if he will go through with it. It is slightly ironic, though, that the lyrics are “relax, don’t do it.”
The scene in which Derek and Hansel are trying to find files in a computer exemplifies the points that “music gradually increases in frequency as the scene moves towards its climax” and “the faster the tempo of sound, the greater the tension produced in the listener” (Giannetti p 208). Unfortunately, these two models are not the brightest of the bunch. They think there are literal file folders trapped inside the machine. The scene begins without music but then slowly adds it in as they start hitting the computer to get to the folders. The music gets louder as their intensity grows and their behavior becomes increasingly ape-like. It seems to me that the song is there to add drama to the comedy. The logic behind it was to create the intensity in the scene, to show how this is really a battle of man versus machine. Those who recognize the song will smile to hear the theme from the 1968 movie “2001: a Space Odyssey” that featured apes, a computer and the topic of intelligent life. Without the music underscoring their actions, it would seem a little ridiculous that the scene devotes 47 seconds to their hitting the computer. The song choice for this scene was spot on. I felt that the song made the scene very effective.
I enjoyed going through the “Zoolander” soundtrack. It is fairly upbeat overall, with many of the songs having a dance feel to them. This was especially true in runway scenes when models are walking to the beat of the song. The songs were appropriate and did not detract from the clever dialogue and acting of Ben Stiller, Will Farrell, and others.
Giannetti, Louis D. Understanding Movies 12th edition. NJ: Pearson, 2011. Print.
Lunsford, Andrea; Ruszkiewicz, John. Everything’s an argument. MA: Bedford, 200