The Sound of Vengeance: The Music of 'The Crow'

By: Tristan Collett

From the tribal, middle eastern-inspired opening bars of Graeme Revell’s score, hovering over a tapestry of burning buildings, it is clear that the soundscape of The Crow is as integral to the character of the film as its visuals. However, along with this orchestration, the nocturnal urban setting is perfectly complimented by a carefully chosen rock soundtrack.

When I went to see the film adaptation of James O’Barr’s graphic novel in 1994, it felt like the first time alternative rock culture was represented on a decent-budget movie. To blend with the comic book dark fantasy, The Crow took cues from the 80s goth music scene, reviving its influence. It may even be to blame for late 90s metal going on to embrace such a morbid, theatrical visual style. The dark rock soundtrack was, of course, fitting, seeing as the source material’s character was influenced by cultural icons such as Iggy Pop and Bauhaus lead singer Peter Murphy.

Music is everywhere throughout this movie, whether incidental in the background (such as ‘Big Empty’ by Stone Temple Pilots and ‘Snakedriver’ by The Jesus and Mary Chain); more deliberately present to set the mood for the scene (in the menacing ‘Golgotha Tenement Blues’ by Machines of Loving Grace, for example); or even actually helping drive the narrative. The soundtrack feels almost like another character in the movie.

The Crow provides a great example of how well music can be used in a film. Certain moments feel like set pieces designed around the music and are all the more impressive for it, gelling image and soundtrack perfectly. When the recently resurrected Eric Draven remembers his lost lifetime, he channels his rage, transforming into the avenger. ‘Burn’ by The Cure, an original song written for the film, gives songwriter Robert Smith licence to his interpretation of our protagonist. Everything about this tune is hauntingly beautiful, depicting Eric’s character transition perfectly - consumed by grief, lost love and anger: “Every night I burn, Scream the animal scream, Every night I burn, Dream the crow black dream”.

As he realises his mission, Eric chases the crow across the rooftops to his first revenge kill. For this sequence, the truly inspired choice of Nine Inch Nails’ cover of original goth-rockers Joy Division’s ‘Dead Souls’ is used. This choice is validated by O’Barr having credited Joy Division as having particular influence on him throughout his writing the book. A song this slow shouldn’t work, but the relentless trudge of the rhythm section mixed with the drive of the faster power guitars allow Eric to keep pace. The lyrical mantra “they keep calling me” replaces the need for an expository monologue. Director Alex Proyas knows when to let the film breathe with the music.

The introduction to the main antagonist’s club hangout is accompanied by the raw energy of a live performance. As T-Bird and Skank walk into The Pit, shoegaze band Medicine are playing ‘Time Baby III’. The fact that you can feel it has been recorded live gives a gritty realism to the world, subconsciously pulling the viewer even deeper into the story.

As the film reaches its final act, ‘After The Flesh’ by My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult brings us back into the villain Top Dollar’s lair, building the tension for the imminent conflict. A frenetic live performance from the band on the lower floor level stage is intercut with preparation for the violence of the Devil’s Night arson attacks. This board meeting is interrupted by the titular supernatural crow and indestructible Eric, erupting into a systematic slaughter of the mob in order to reach the next target, Skank. The techno-infused rock accentuates the chaos, heightening its impact. As one of the henchmen is catapulted down into the club level, crashing into the stage, the music stops and the tone changes. Purposefully, this emphasises that this is no time for a rock video to glamorize the violent, vengeful proceedings.

For the closing credits, ‘It Can’t Rain All The Time’ provides a softer bookend to the story, borrowing from one of Draven’s fictional songs within the film itself. Although more commercial-sounding than any of the other music in the film, the bittersweet lyrics sung by Jane Siberry and the acoustic instrumentation give the much-needed break the audience needs from the melancholia of the previous 90 minutes.

The soundtrack to The Crow worked against the odds. Although prolific use of alternative rock in a movie’s soundtrack is commonplace nowadays, back in 1994 it was a risk. The song choices did not come from as much of a commercial standpoint as most examples of its day, free reign seemingly having been given to Alex Proyas when directing. When watching the film, it feels that Proyas successfully created a mutual trust between himself and the intended counter-culture audience, which remains over 20 years on.

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