If you seek evidence that Baby Boomers continue to influence the soundtrack of popular culture, look no further than the trailers for two upcoming blockbuster movies, The Matrix Resurrections and Venom: Let There Be Carnage. Both are set to songs written and popularized between the years 1966 and 1968, “White Rabbit,” by the Jefferson Airplane, and Harry Nilsson’s “One.”
Not being in the habit of watching movie previews online, I’ve seen both trailers multiple times in a genuine big screen cinema, before feature films including Dune, The Misfits, and The Eternals.
Of course, Keanu Reeves’ brooding mug ponders the red or blue pill to advance the long-dormant Matrix franchise re-boot, Resurrections. The clips and dialogue are quickly cut to a huge, powerful, dramatic orchestral music mix featuring the Airplane’s rock classic at its center. “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small,” wails singer Grace Slick, who wrote the song smack dab in the middle of the 1960s, as one character ominously pushes across the table a vintage copy of Lewis Carroll’s celebrated tome about young Alice.
The lyric, “and the Red Queen’s ‘off with her head!’” is accompanied onscreen by – you guessed it – a woman’s tormented scream. And there’s even a character with a rabbit tattoo, in case you miss all the other references.
The Airplane’s “White Rabbit” is an iconic song of the Sixties, a sonic bridge leading from storybook innocence to the revelations and perils of LSD and other psychedelics. It’s been covered by artists ranging from Pink to Blue Man Group, used in countless video game soundtracks (many associated with the Vietnam War era), and of course, other films, notably Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), which finds our tripping anti-hero, Hunter Thompson’s Raoul Duke character, listening to “White Rabbit” in the bathtub. Later, a grapefruit is involved.
Similarly orchestrated in a big, big way is Nilsson’s composition, “One,” which serves as the score for the Venom: Carnage trailer. The movie looks both CG-horrific – flesh-ripping, mucous-dripping monsters bounding about – and hilarious, as the main character (sorry, not familiar with the names) appears to “bond” with his monster super-mean alter-ego, which other people also seem to know about and accept as part of his character. Which all seems weird to me, but you know, different strokes for different folks. Maybe I will give it a go when it comes out, though it’s not really my cuppa. The plush seats and kickin’ sound system at my cinema are first-rate, however.
As for “One,” I first heard Nilsson’s song on the eponymous debut album by Three Dog Night, an amazing rock band that also introduced me to songwriters including Laura Nyro and Randy Newman. They had good taste in songs to cover, and their own tunes weren’t bad, either. You probably know them, unfortunately, for their pop hit, “Joy To The World,” written by Hoyt Axton. (Let me help you remember: “Jeremiah was a bullfrog!”)
In Rock Trivia School we learn that Axton came by his songwriting talents naturally. After all, his mother, Mae Boren Axton, penned “Heartbreak Hotel,” a major hit for Elvis Presley.
Mae Boren. That surname sounds familiar . . . where have I heard it before?
Anyway, Nilsson’s version appears on his third studio album, Aerial Ballet, which is much better known for the legendary Midnight Cowboy theme song, Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.” And the music and life and times of Harry Nilsson is definitely worth anyone’s time. Beautifully sad.
There are no big observations here. Relying on time-tested Sixties rock hits to underscore a point or theme in a movie – or TV show or video game or graphic novel or whatever – is not a crime. Not even a misdemeanor. But if I was a popular artist making music today, say on the level of Dua Lipa, Ed Sheeran, and Coldplay, I’d be on the phone to my agent asking some serious questions about why their songs are not being used to sell movies. Those songs are 50+ years old!