Like all the other post-Emo kids who follow everything My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way has done since his band broke up (and reunited — briefly, anyway, before COVID), I spent the last week binging The Umbrella Academy season 2. It’s not a perfect show; it won’t be heralded as part of the golden age of post-millennium TV. But I’m a sucker for soundtrack dissonance, and every single episode delivers — so much so that Vulture declared the show as the killer of the “sardonic needle drop.”
In that way, whenever The Umbrella Academy does in fact use music that fits a scene perfectly, it stands out. That’s the case with Boney M.’s “Sunny,” used in the S2E3 opener that recaps what Klaus — aka Seance in the comics — has been doing while seeing ghosts and leveraging his dead brother’s invisible presence in 1960s America. The song is peppy and builds up with key changes and orchestration enhancements so well that now when I hear it (which I have numerous times since watching that episode), I can imagine exactly where in Klaus’ journey we are.
Tonight I watched a documentary on Disney Plus called Howard. It looks at the life of Howard Ashman, who wrote Little Shop of Horrors and penned the lyrics to The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. I was enamored by his adamance that every song needs to have a reason to be in a movie or show. “Part of Your World” is the “I Want” song that introduces you to exactly what Ariel desires — to become human. The song’s lyrics are part of the storytelling device, and they’re blatantly placed in front of you as something the character is saying.
Now look at shows like The Umbrella Academy, where the characters sometimes dance, sometimes fight to songs that already exist and come with their own history, both to the world and to us in our own heads.
“Sunny” has a perfect place in The Umbrella Academy because it’s deliciously anachronistic. The album it was on came out in 1976, while the scene it accompanies runs from 1961 to 1963: But that would just be like our hippy dippy protagonist Klaus, who’s riding high on attention and the start of the free love movement and not thinking “Gee, did Boney M. even exist yet?” The anachronisms of all the song choices this season make sense, as those song choices match the fact the Hargreeves family has traveled back in time from 2019 and could easily be hearing these songs in the memories while the world of 1963 twists and shouts around them.
So how’s this all “Writespiration?” In only one project so far I have mentioned what my characters are listening to: whether it’s the engineer blasting A Tribe Called Quest inside his soundproof lab; a federal agent turning her car on to Elton John blasting out of the Bose speakers; or Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) singing “Wild World” at the denouement. After seeing how The Umbrella Academy uses music to push the story forward in a way very different than how Howard Ashman did, I’m interested in adopting more of that into my writing. When I was singing along to “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” at the bowling alley when I was 9, I didn’t expect to see it played behind a bloodbath between two civil rights activists and two Swedish time traveling assassins, but here we are — how many other ways can songs we have personal history with be used to characterize a scene?