Music

Let’s Talk About The Understated Genius Of The ‘It’ Soundtrack

Finally, an '80s soundtrack that doesn't overdo it.

One of the biggest differences between Stephen King’s novel It and the 2017 film adaptation is the setting.

King’s book takes place in the 1950s, while the film is set in the 1980s. Many have cited the update as a way to exploit the current pop culture obsession with ’80s nostalgia. The influence of Stranger Things has been pointed out, but that misses the fact that the Netflix series borrowed heavily from King first.

The choice of time period is one of convenience — the monster in It feeds on children every 27 years, so setting the movie in the ’80s allows the forthcoming sequel, where an adult Losers’ Club face Pennywise again, to take place in the modern day.

It shows restraint with its nostalgia. Everything in Derry is idyllic. Director Andy Muschietti shows the town as serene on the surface, with kids riding their bikes down sun kissed streets in what feels like an endless summer, oblivious to the darkness hiding in the sewers. But it’s never wistful for the ’80s and the soundtrack exemplifies that.

Films and television set in the ’80s has an annoying habit of announcing the decade with music that puts everything in call caps: WELCOME TO THE ’80S.

When choosing a time setting for a story the question needs to be: does the period compliment the story being told, or does it define it? It’s a balancing act to pick music that helps to establish a period piece without smothering it.

Take the The Wedding Singer, a fun film in love with memories of the ’80s, but packaged entirely to suit a saccharine aesthetic — right down to its greatest hits soundtrack, complete with The Police, David Bowie, Billy Idol (who also cameos), Hall and Oats, and Bruce Springsteen. It is the opposite of this type of execution.

The Music Of ‘It’

One of the first songs we hear in It is from The New Kids on the Block, and it’s not a big musical cue.

Beverly discovers it’s what Ben is listening to on his Walkman when they meet and we hear a tinny version of ‘You’ve Got It (The Right Stuff)’ through Ben’s headphones. The New Kids on the Block get another play when Beverly discovers a poster of the boy band behind Ben’s bedroom door, but all we get is a hit of the chorus of ‘Hangin’ Tough’, edited perfectly to fit Beverly and Ben’s reaction.

Music begins filtering through, but the songs support the story. ‘Rush’, ‘The Cult’, ‘Anvil’ and ‘Young MC’ make up the soundtrack in bits and pieces. The ’80s was a time where music wasn’t digitally omnipresent, so the placement of music in It functions in the same way you’d hear snippets of a song on the radio, in a store or blasting out of a sibling’s bedroom. It feels true to the decade.

During the scene where the losers unite against the school bullies in an epic rock fight, the guitar solo from Anthrax’s ‘Antisocial’ plays. Again, we’re getting a slice of the sounds of the ’80s but it’s paired expertly with each scene to add to the emotional intensity when one of the Losers screams “blow your dad, you mullet wearing asshole!”

And the restraint allows the two big songs used in the film to have a greater impact. The Cure’s ‘Six Different Ways’ plays when the Losers clean up Beverly’s blood-soaked bathroom, a sight only the group can see thanks to Pennywise. The bond between the Losers forms as they scrub retro-tiled floors and agree that Pennywise is the real deal. And nothing binds outcasts like The Cure:

XTC’s ‘Dear God’ is the second song to play at length in a scene shortly after the Losers are torn apart following a terrifying encounter with Pennywise.

The opening verse is sung by an eight-year-old girl pleading with God to make her life better before lead singer/songwriter, Andy Partidge, takes over the vocals. The song is about how religion is used to exploit children — it nearly didn’t make the cut of XTC’s album Skylarking because the record company feared the lyrics would offend American audiences.

One of the biggest themes in It is how the adults of Derry are failing innocent kids pretty fucking badly by ignoring the child-eating clown in the town, a point ‘Dear God’ amplifies.

The soundtrack for It is light on hits but it runs deep with the story. Each song carries weight with each scene. The film is not throwing out chart toppers in hopes of hitting all the right nostalgia buttons. The music highlights the control the film has over the ’80s: It never lets the setting define the film, which stops it from getting tangled in sentimentality. And therein lies its understated genius.

Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne who occasionally blabs about movies on ABC radio. He has a slight Twitter addiction: @MrCamW.