I was on a trip with my amazingly beautiful and alluring Sweet Baby recently when a Howard Jones song came up on the radio. I believe it was “No One Is To Blame” but hell, I don’t know if that’s the proper title or not. Ol’ Howard is one of those guys that you sort of forget about or end up confusing with Bruce Hornsby or Simply Red, so I’m sort of out of my element. I do, however, remember looking him up on the interwebs and having a Eureka! moment when I realized that this was the genius behind one of my all-time favorite movie montages. And that got me thinking (a rarity, I’ll admit) and I waxed nostalgic with the old lady about the wonderful bounty of montages in 80’s cinema. Sure, the montage is still used today. Tony Stark assembling his first suit in Iron Man is a great example. But that particular bit of fast-forwad exposition (which is really all a montage scene is) lacks something special: the montage song! THAT is what makes the 80’s scenes so great (or not-so-great, as we’ll discover below)…it’s (almost always) all about the SONG!!
The problem for me, the blogger, is that many of these songs are under strictly-guarded copyrights, and thus many of the YouTube videos end up being bad bootlegs. But for the sake of evidence, we’ll do the best we can, eh? My first example is a great example of how a weak song can render the montage unremarkable. This clip (taped via camcorder, apparently) is from one of my all-time favorite movies, Real Genius. The setup: Chris Knight and company have finals looming and a laser power-source problem to fix and something about a crooked professor and his toadie, and well, here we go…
That song is horrible. You can tell it wants to be Howard Jones…but it ISN’T. No, that’s Chaz Jenkel, which sounds like a villain that Peter Parker might square off against in Chaz’s secret identity as The Magnicutioner or somesuch. Chaz is all actuality a guy who used to play with Ian Drury. “Who?” Exactly. An otherwise decent storytelling device ruined by THE MAGNICUTIONER!!
Now THIS is how it’s done. Again, apologies for the weird sound of a guy hammering tent stakes (or something) in the background. Ladies and gentlemen, another of my favorite flicks, the classic Better Off Dead. Cusack’s Lane Meyer gets help from the foreign-exchange hottie (who was one of Bill & Ted’s princesses, no less!) and ends up with some self-esteem and a case of the IN-LOVES!!!
That song? Howard Jones. Not one of his “hits” on radio, mind you, but that’s not the point. It fit. Lyrically tied to the events on-screen, a tempo that suggested a sense of urgency…it fits. It works. That’s why this scene is near the top of any 80’s montage list (and there must be DOZENS of such lists! Right? Hello?) But it ain’t the tops. Nor is this one from Over The Top.
Okay, now we have the opposite problem. The Real Genius clip had a mediocre song that kept it out of contention. This clip, however, features the stirring “Winner Takes it All” by the Red Rocker, Sammy Hagar. Good stuff. However, the scenes depicted during the montage? Fucking stupid. There’s no variety. The lighting is all rather dark. I can’t tell who’s who. There’s WAAAYYYY too much lens flare for a movie about arm wrestling. Sure, I get that the bad guy is big and wears a red sleeveless t-shirt, but the other–WHY IS THAT KID DRIVING A TRUCK ON THE FREEWAY?!? The prosecution rests.
Now, this next scene is the runner-up in my book. A lot of folks have it at Number One, but I’ll explain my logic after you watch this bit of genius from Rocky IV.
See, this one has EVERYTHING! A great juxtaposition of the hero getting gritty whilst the enemy relies on fancy gizmos and steroid-filled needles. And it culminates in Rocky LITERALLY climbing a peak! THAT’S INSPIRATIONAL, MOTHERFUCKER!! And the song “Hearts on Fire” by none other than John Cafferty (of the Beaver Brown Band!) is decent, hopeful, and compelling. The problem? Take a gander at the length of this clip. It’s almost seven minutes long. SEVEN MINUTES!! It’s roughly one-seventeenth of the whole movie!! Hell, Cafferty doesn’t even start singing until three-plus minutes in! Stallone movies often have a decent montage or two, so maybe he just wanted this to be his magnum opus. And it’s close: pare this baby down to a good four-minute cutscene and you’ve got the best montage in movie history. But that title, my friends, belongs to Daniel-san.
This montage is brilliant in that simply by watching it, you want to go back and sit through The Karate Kid it its entirety. It’s really a mini-movie in and of itself. So wonderfully directed and acted. The reactions of the players involved, including the sometimes TERRIFIED look that Ralph Macchio wears through most of the scene. Pat Morita’s quiet disapproval. The shock on the faces of the Cobra Kai as they are eliminated. And that’s another nice touch: you really get to see the entire tournament play out, and it would be easy to depict the Cobra Kai as a totally unstoppable crew of bad-asses that Daniel must hack his way through on the way to an epic boss battle. The filmakers wisely take a more realistic approach, and we see several of the bad kids fall in the preliminary rounds. That makes it seem so much more real (real enough to feature a sort-of-fat Cobra Kai get trounced) and as we all know, the more realistic the scene, the more real and tangible the danger. It’s brilliant. It’s perfect enough that the Cartoon Network’s delightful Regular Show used the same song by THE Joe Esposito (?) for their own training montage to hilarious effect.
So, kids…what did I miss? Leave a comment and point out any other brilliance I may have overlooked!