If you turned on AMC at any point in the last two months, my guess is that you saw a commercial for the premier of Halt and Catch fire. And if so, you are now like me and have AMC PTSD (trademark pending) whenever your playlist at work turns to the Eurythmics classic “Sweet Dreams” (I actually had to leave the room when this happened today). From the weeks upon weeks of hearing the same song in Halt and Catch Fire promos, I was certain, and nervous, that the soundtrack of the show would be in a similar vein. That is, the shlock-laden Top 40 hits of the 80’s that every person between the ages of 16 and 70 has heard hundreds of times at school dances and theme parties. Based on the last few shows AMC has rolled out in the wake of Breaking Bad and Mad Men my expectations were not high, and the direction they seemed to be going with the soundtrack did not help.
Fortunately, both the composer and music director behind the show decided they would go in a completely different and well executed direction, which serves the show well in both entertainment and storytelling quality. Instead of steering into the 80’s skid of chart-toppers, they went the way of The Americans and dug into the deep cuts of the decade in order to properly build a world in which these characters would have actually lived and worked. Unlike the classic rock of The Americans however, Halt is focused more on the music that a bunch of computer geniuses and would-be business moguls would actually have playing in the background as they attempted to reverse engineer a computer. From the minute the modern-yet-appropriate theme song begins (“Still on Fire” by Danish electronic composer Trentemoller), they adhere to this tone completely.
The excellently chosen music speaks to how focused this particular show is when it comes to being character focused as opposed to all story all the time. In no way am I comparing this show to Mad Men (yet…) but it is so enjoyable to see a show AMC touts as the next big character drama actually be a good character drama and support the story with it’s music/actors rather than the other way around. This isn’t an entirely effortless endeavor, of course, because nothing PR-related AMC does is allowed to look like they did it by accident anymore. Not only did they release the pilot online in advance of the premiere, but they are also forcing “character inspired playlists” down everyone’s throats on a weekly basis. The first, a Spotified representation of Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan, was released before the premiere but there is no clear through line in that list that gives any further insight in to who the character is or his motivations. Rather, it is simply a list of good 80’s music he might have playing in his Ferrari. I will give the marketing department credit for being clever on this one, but the landing is botched.
I guess we’re lucky the marketing department is only behind promotional music and not that of the actual show, as it is lucky to have the talents of composer Paul Haslinger and music supervisor Thomas Golubic behind the scenes. A very good interview between Haslinger and Paste Magazine gives some insight as to where his inspiration came from for his work here, and his comment about identifying most closely with the Scoot McNairy’s Gordon Clark makes a lot of sense as he has the most important and dynamic plot here and presumably will for at least the first chunk of this inaugural season. Although there’s no way to tell for sure, Golubic seems to feel the same way. I was particularly impressed with the use of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lodi” during the first scene with McNairy and Kerry Bishe, who plays his wife Donna (coincidentally, these two actors are reprising their roles as a husband and wife pairing after their performances in Argo). Almost any CCR song would have been suitable for this simple kitchen conversation, but the care it took to pick out “Lodi” as the one most appropriate for this particular interaction is noticeable and appreciated.
Overall, the music may be what keeps me around for longer than a few episodes. Lee Pace and his perfect eyebrows will surely help, but they can only do so much with so many other shows to keep up with on television right now. Other songs you may have picked up on in this episode were “Complicated” by XTC (my second favorite music cue after “Lodi”), “Wanna Be Manor” by The Vandals, and “The Magnificent Seven” by The Clash. (Side note: If anyone could make out what song was playing during the bar scene between Joe and Cameron fill me in.) All great choices, hopefully the soundtracks for future episodes maintain this level of commitment and time period perfection. We shall see.