Halfway into my viewing of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, when the film seemed like it was actively defying me to pay attention to it, I was reminded of November 22, 2010, when Complex published a Kanye West cover story and a photo gallery, coinciding with the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, detailing West’s recording process and “Rap Camp,” a revolving door of rappers, producers, and songwriters. One of the photos in particular struck me:
It’s a funny enough mix of sensible and eclectic rules for recording an album. “JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP SOMETIMES,” is one I think about often though, and it’s advice that I’ve learned to take to heart as I’ve grown older, and I think Suicide Squad should have too.
Let me get this out of the way: I think Suicide Squad is a bad movie. It’s confusingly paced, its character motivations are unclear and unearned, it’s 70 percent exposition (and yet, somehow not enough?), and maybe worst of all, it’s really boring. But I’m not interested in a point-by-point take-down of what I believe to be the failings of a film birthed by a committee. Better, smarter writers than me already have that covered:
Instead, I’m interested in what were perhaps Suicide Squad’s most irritating failures: its perplexing musical choices and its refusal to “JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP SOMETIMES.”
Nowhere is Suicide Squad’s soundtrack problem more apparent than one of the film’s first establishing shots, which is an aerial view of Belle Reve Penitentiary. Belle Reve is the prison-slash-sanitarium that houses the main members of the titular group. Belle Reve is also located in Louisiana. We know all of these things because the film tells us so with conveniently-placed captions. We also know this because the accompanying song is The Animals’ 1964 cover of The House of the Rising Sun, a song that mentions New Orleans.
It only gets more on-the-nose from there, and I wish I was exaggerating when I say that from that shot onward, in the span of about 10 minutes, we go from House of the Rising Sun to Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me (admittedly, an inspired choice with which to introduce Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn) to The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil (a really uninspired choice in a movie about sympathetic villains). Not a single scene goes by in those opening minutes without licensed music explicitly telling you what’s already happening on screen. It’s a telling sign that a film has little confidence in what it’s trying to convey, and it’s downright insulting to its audience. I know the film takes place in Louisiana because you’ve already told me explicitly in the text. There’s no need to kick my shins about it for the next 10 minutes.
Music in film is an immensely powerful tool. It can communicate complex ideas, manipulate a viewer’s emotions, or provide a striking complement to a film’s visual style. Consider the opening credits to Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film, Drive:
It’s a brilliant scene, because the music tells you everything you need to know about Drive. It’s simple, it’s stylish, and it’s cool. It takes the trappings of ’80s cinema and wraps it into a slick, neon-pink package. It also tells you underneath it’s aesthetic trappings is something sinister, a hint at the explosive violence in the latter half of the film.
Going back to comic book movies, we can just look at the opening credits to Zack Snyder’s Watchmen:
Is Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ a bit on-the-nose when you’re adapting a comic book centered around characters who fear that they live in a world where they’ve become obsolete? Sure. But also the line drawn between Dylan, music, and a world in flux is echoed throughout the film itself, as the protagonists approach their final confrontation set to Jimi Hendrix’s iconic cover of Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, or as the end credits roll to My Chemical Romance’s cover of Desolation Row plays. It’s a really clever use of pop music in film, and really drives the theme home. The world is moving on, with or without you, whether you like it or not.
Music can do so much for a film. It can drive home a theme, play on a film’s visual style, or just let the audiences know what sort of movie they’re in for. Suicide Squad doesn’t use The House of the Rising Sun, a cautionary folk ballad about excess and sin, to clue us in to the film’s greater themes or establish its tone or anything. It uses it to tell us it takes place in Louisiana.
“I kind of look at it like it’s your favorite directors making a mixtape just for you,” said Adam Scott as Ben Wyatt in an episode of Parks and Recreation, explaining his collection of movie soundtracks. It’s a dorky thing to say, but it rings true to an extent. The best soundtracks are ones that feel personally curated and meant to evoke some holistic idea or emotion. Anyone who’s ever put together a playlist or a mix for someone else knows that it’s part art, part science, and part magic. Questlove thinks so too, which is why the Suicide Squad soundtrack is so baffling. Twenty-one pieces of licensed music are featured in the movie’s theatrical cut, and I’m hard pressed to draw any real through line between it all. The older picks are painfully obvious and the newer picks feel like they were drawn from a hat of artists who sold a lot of albums in the past year. If soundtracks are mixtapes, then Suicide Squad’s is curated with absolutely no one in mind.
But even disregarding the music of the film, Suicide Squad won’t take a second to just be quiet. When we aren’t forced to sit through barrage after barrage of limp, bloodless gunfire and digital muzzle flares, every scene has to be punctuated with some quip to show how quirky and deranged our heroes are (and by extension, to tell us how much fun we’re supposed to be having). It’s almost all levity and no weight. “We’re bad guys, it’s what we do,” Harley Quinn reminds us for the umpteenth time after randomly smashing a shop window to steal a purse.
It’s can be a real virtue to be silent in cinema. In his video essay Martin Scorsese – The Art of Silence, editor Tony Zhou analyzes the various ways Scorsese employs silence:
“Even though Scorsese is famous for his use of music, one of his best traits is his powerful and deliberate use of silence,” says Zhou. Zhou runs down a list of the various ways Scorsese’s used silence to “heighten the subjectivity of a moment, to make a creepy scene even creepier, to show us love at first sight, and to bring our happiness to a screeching halt.” In other words, making the audience feel like these moments matter, and what the characters are doing is important and consequential.
Zhou even takes Snyder’s Man of Steel, the first film in DC’s cinematic universe, to task on its use of sound. An audience subjected to wall-to-wall sound for extended periods of time ceases to care or even acknowledge the significance of loudness.
Suicide Squad isn’t Scorsese, nor does it want to be, but that’s really missing the point. The dynamics of sound in film are important and powerful. It can pull introspective moments deeper, make funny moments even funnier, and heighten the emotion present in a scene.
The sound design of Suicide Squad operates on the idea that, if you want your movie to be over-the-top and bombastic, it should also be relentlessly noisy. But audiences, people, don’t work that way. You can’t constantly bombard people with witty repartee, gunfire, and your dad’s vinyl collection and expect them to buy into Deadshot’s sappy relationship with his daughter in the end. It’s disingenuous.
George Miller understood this when he made Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that features a blind mutant playing a flaming bass guitar while strapped to massive speakers stacked 20 feet high. Watch that movie again (if you haven’t in the first place, you really should), and note how many quiet, almost silent, moments there are.
I don’t hate Suicide Squad. I really don’t. I think it’s a bad movie, sure, but walking out of the theater, I felt mostly apathetic and frustrated, not angry. Frustrated that such a tent pole summer blockbuster felt so amateurish in execution. Frustrated that genuinely talented actors like Viola Davis and Margot Robbie were given so little to work with. Frustrated, mostly, that I might never be able to listen to The House of the Rising Sun the same way again.
I still think Kanye was right.