Sounding Off: The (Sometimes) Misleading Nature of Music in Film Trailers

Allison Loring

by: Allison Loring
August 2nd, 2011

Trailers are a fantastic way to get an audience excited or intrigued about an upcoming film release. I used to love watching trailers and would frequently go online to view them in handfuls at the beginning of each month. This led me to some movies that I ended up enjoying as much as I thought I would, but it also tricked me into seeing some movies that I did not end up liking at all.

Obviously the goal of a trailer is to paint the film in the best light possible – whether that means pulling together only the funniest clips, most heartfelt speeches and charming moments, or picking a certain song that will grab people’s attention upon hearing it alone. This latter move is what irks me the most about film trailers and its manipulative use of music. Time and time again a song that people fall in love with as it relates to the film’s trailer does not end up in the film (see: Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” from the WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE trailer or Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” from the WINNIE THE POOH trailer). In instances such as the Keane song, its use gives a very distinct impression of the tone of the film and had audiences going to see WINNIE with tissues boxes clutched firmly in hand only to find that it was simply a joyful trip to the Hundred Acre Wood.

Having had the opportunity to attend a few film festivals this year, I was able to watch a good number of films that are now getting wide release. However, having already seen many of these films and now watching their trailers, it is becoming increasingly clear how misleading trailers can be and how much music can play a part in that. Case in point, the trailer for THE ART OF GETTING BY (formerly HOMEWORK) makes the film seem like a quirky little indie coming of age story, and the use of the song “Second Chance” by Peter Bjorn and John is what really drives this impression home. I saw this movie, I did not enjoy this movie, and yet, this trailer almost makes me forget all that. At the same time, the trailer for another Sundance film, LIKE CRAZY, uses Ingrid Michaelson’s version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” that nearly drowns out the mumbly dialogue and practically made me lose interest in the film. One that I have seen, and enjoyed!

Obviously, a film’s trailer is a huge part of its marketing and regardless of what impression it gives, the goal is to get people into the theater to see the film. It becomes frustrating not only when you know a trailer is misleading, but as an audience member who pays to see a film that turns out to not exactly be what they were expecting. When THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE was released on the big screen, I was excited as I had enjoyed the book and was relieved when the trailer (featuring Lifehouse’s “Broken”) seemed to hit the emotional marks the book had. But then I saw the film, and it did not move me the way I had anticipated it would. I kept waiting for that emotional climax the trailer had given me, but (as is often the case) did not hear that song again until the film's credits.

We all know how important and how much of an impact music can play within a film, but that effect is almost more powerful in a film’s trailer as it is condensed and a single song can almost become a character in itself. But what happens when that song makes for a great trailer, but does not necessarily paint an accurate picture of the film? As an audience, we use trailers to help us decide what films we would be interested in seeing and as filmmakers, want the trailer to give a good impression of the creative vision of your work. Yes – someone watching television will probably look up when they hear Florence and the Machine over a WATER FOR ELEPHANTS spot more than if the spot used a track from the film’s composer (James Newton Howard), but it seems slightly disingenuous to use a current artist to promote a period piece.

Of course, film and music are all subjective mediums and a song that may catch one person’s attention would not work for someone else, but I begin to worry when it seems trailers are working to simply grab attention and not accurately promote what a film is truly about. Music can be the final magic touch to a film and it is disheartening when it is used to trick rather than entice.

Does the use of certain songs in a trailer affect your view of a film? Are you disappointed when a song used in a trailer does not end up in the actual film?

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  • Laya Maheshwari

    Call me crazy, but I think the entire practice of complaining about a movie just because some assumptions YOU made from viewing its marketing material didn’t turn out to be totally true, is wonky.

    • KateErbland

      In this case, Allison is actually complaining about the marketing being misleading in ways that are pretty concrete (she is not complaining about films BECAUSE she didn’t like them BECAUSE she was misled by trailers – I saw THE ART OF GETTING BY with her, we would have hated it trailer or no, and we saw it before there was any marketing released). The examples she gives for the Sundance films are solid – those trailers are not good representations of finished product that she has already seen. The WINNIE THE POOH example is also a good one – that Keane song sets a sad tone, something that most people who posted the trailer commented on. No one at Disney tried to sway that. The film is NOT sad, it’s just not.

      I don’t think it’s “wonky” for Allison to use her column that is about music in movies to address and expand on a topic that many people seem interested in – she was inspired to do yesterday after the LIKE CRAZY trailer came out and many, many people who had seen the film also agreed that the musical choice for the film was poor and misleading.

      I think it’s a very valid discussion topic and am very glad she wrote this with a number of examples to prompt further discussion.

    • allisonloring

      As Kate said, my point was not to complain about films I have seen because I enjoyed the trailer and then did not end up liking the film – that is bound to happen as it is difficult to sum up a two hour film in the span of two minutes. The issue I wanted to bring to light, and begin discussions about, is when a trailer misuses music to convey a tone does not align with end product they are selling. Is this acceptable? Is this simply part of the world of film marketing?

      WINNIE THE POOH was not a sad film, but anyone who saw that trailer was led to believe it may be. With the release of the two trailers for the Sundance films I mentioned (THE ART OF GETTING BY and LIKE CRAZY) I felt this was another instance where the trailers were not accurate portrayals of the actual films. I watched the trailer for THE ART OF GETTING BY in a theater with a friend and she immediately turned to me and said she couldn’t wait to see it, and after seeing that trailer, I understood why. But it was frustrating for me (having seen the film) that the trailer was misleading and if she did end up seeing it, she would probably be disappointed.

      Like I said, it is all subjective, but there does seem to be a tendency to beef up a trailer even if it means almost betraying the true nature of the film. It may get people into seats, but is it worth it if they are disappointed once they are there? 

  • Robbie Ryan

    Very true, and it should be said that filmscores are a different animal indeed from film trailers. There have been many films for which I have watched the trailer over and over again for its editing and great use of popular music, and then been disappointed with the film, but I hold no blame to the trailer. Since the trailer is trying to get you excited about a film when you’re doing something else, ie: watching tv, waiting for a film to start, or working, it has to serve a different purpose. Trailers should be regarded as short films.

    • allisonloring

      I do agree, my issue is when the music selected conveys a tone that is not true to the film. Like I said, I still love trailers and have also watched certain ones over and over again too, but I am seeing more and more that trailers are becoming less true to the film and are more to just grab people’s attention.

      A popular song in a trailer is fine, just so long as that song is working to convey the same tone as the film. I loved the trailer for WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and the Arcade Fire song used in it, but I felt that joyful, childlike feel of the trailer was not very true to the final film. 

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