This article contains Bumblebee spoilers.
It’s been a week since I saw Bumblebee, and frankly I’m still a bit in shock. Whereas the previous entries in the Transformers franchise have felt overblown, if not just aggressively stupid, director Travis Knight’s prequel does some much-needed course correcting by delivering instantly likable characters and a story that has some genuinely touching moments.
With the film wisely being set in the 1980s — the decade in which the robots in disguise first came to prominence — the movie is peppered with familiar songs for anyone who came of age in the era.
But let’s get one thing perfectly clear, despite the radio/Spotify friendly tracks that dominate the film’s official soundtrack (including star Hailee Steinfeld’s own “Back to Life”), Bumblebee‘s best-utilized songs are those that the music department plucked from the Reagan era. Obviously tracks like Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and A-ha’s “Take On Me” establish time and place, helping audiences ease into the film’s world.
But nostalgia isn’t the driving force here. Since Bumblebee himself is unable to speak, he uses songs as his way to communicate. This fact paired with how the movie has pop songs mirror the characters emotions weirdly makes Bumblebee feel more like a Wes Anderson film than a holiday blockbuster at times.
This film is more clever than it has any legal right to be, and the songs featured within are a huge reason why. Still not sold? Then let’s take a look at the five most important music cues in Bumblebee, and how they enhance the film’s charm.
The Smiths, “Bigmouth Strikes Again”
When we first meet Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) she is stuck in a go-nowhere job at the local Hot Dog on a Stick, and saddled with a bratty younger brother and a mother whom she feels got into a relationship too quickly following her father’s death. Like most rebellious teens, she turns to music to escape.
And if you felt like an outsider in the 1980s (or anytime really), the music of The Smiths spoke to you. An early cue in the film features Charlie getting ready while her Walkman blasts “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” from the group’s seminal The Queen Is Dead album. Through this song and Charlie’s reaction to it, the movie wastes no time in establishing the fact that Charlie feels isolated and alone — a skillful use of storytelling shorthand.
Steve Winwood, “Higher Love”
The rock music montage was certainly perfected in the 1980s, with the genre’s high-point arguably coming in the form of the “You’re the Best Around” sequence from The Karate Kid. Bumblebee is certainly not above featuring its own tongue-in-cheek montage, one that shows Charlie feverishly working on the Volkswagen Beetle that she sees as a ticket out of her stale existence. And you know what? She’s absolutely right about the car changing her life, just not in the way she originally envisioned. As she shows off her mechanical ingenuity, Steve Winwood’s cheesy-yet-kinda-amazing 1986 single “Higher Love” accompanies rapid shots of the car being brought back into running condition.
For those of you who doubt that a Smiths fan would also endure this yacht rock cast-off, I can tell you from personal experience that I have grooved to both. Charlie possesses multitudes after all. (As for a Smiths fan also regularly wearing a Motorhead shirt, well that is a bit more questionable).
Interestingly enough, “Higher Love” is one of those late-1980s pop-soul hybrids like Rick Astley’s infamous “Never Gonna Give You Up” (which itself is given a tip of the hat in Bumblebee) that everyone seems to know yet no one admits liking. With the movie now being in theaters I’m hoping that an entire generation will shed their shame and admit that this tune is indeed the higher love they’ve been thinking of.
Sammy Hagar, “I Can’t Drive 55”
Not since Back to the Future: Part II has musician/tequila enthusiast Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55” been utilized in a film so well. (Speaking of that sequel, the tunnel Bumblebee rides through during this sequence is almost certainly the same one featured in the flick’s hoverboard recovery sequence). Sometimes on-the-nose musical choices are the best decisions to make, and the scene where Bumblebee, Charlie and Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) outrun the cops incorporates this movie in such an adrenaline pumping way that it would even make the most reserved Mumford & Sons fan want to throw back shots of Cabo Wabo.
Great song choice aside, this Smokey and the Bandit-influenced moment also charts the course for Charlie and Memo’s slow-burn relationship, an example of the less-is-more approach taken by screenwriter Christina Hodson that makes Bumblebee feel like something of a revolutionary would-be blockbuster.
The Smiths, “Girlfriend in a Coma”
Admittedly, I’m a bit biased here as Strangeways, Here We Come, from which “Girlfriend in a Coma” is taken, is my favorite album ever. That said, I appreciate that not only does Charlie address that this comes from The Smiths’ new album — something that is factually correct given the time that Bumblebee is set in — but also how the song is used in two very different ways.
At first, Charlie tries to get Bumblebee to get into the dark lyrics and peppy melodies of the Mancunian outfit. The Bee isn’t having it however, and he spits the tape out of his stereo, spawning one of the film’s weirdest and most pleasing jokes in the movie along the way.
Later, after realizing how much Charlie means to him, Bumblebee plays the line “I would hate anything to happen to her” to his young friend. It is an incredibly touching moment that has added value to anyone who idled away their teenage years dancing in their bedroom to the sounds of Morrissey and Marr.
In other words, it made me feel seen. Can you say that about Transformers: The Last Knight?
Related: Can we just take a moment and discuss how this has been a good year for Morrissey on genre soundtracks? Between Bumblebee and Ant-Man and the Wasp, young audiences are discovering his classic music. Unfortunately, present day Moz continues his sad slide into self-parody, but through the magic of the movies his star has never dimmed.
Sam Cooke, “Unchained Melody”
Due to the emotional baggage that the song “Unchained Melody” has in relation to The Righteous Brothers’ version being an essential part of Ghost, using the standard in Bumblebee was a dicey proposition at best. Boy howdy did it work though. Here we are almost 20 years on from Jar Jar Binks and CGI characters are delivering truly human performances, with Bumblebee being the most soulful in recent memory.
The movie has Charlie haunted by the untimely death of her supportive father, a personal tragedy that causes her to disconnect from the world and attempt to just power her way through each day with the dim and fading hope that somehow things will get better. Meeting Bumblebee reignites within her, to borrow the title of an Iggy Pop title that the character doubtlessly loves, a lust for life. In return, she opens up to him while Sam Cooke’s “Unchained Melody” plays about how haunted she is by her dad’s fatal heart attack and how she never had the opportunity to say goodbye.
The cynic in me wants to dismiss this as typical Hero’s Journey pap, but as someone who almost lost his own father this year, damn if this scene didn’t choke me up. The craftsmanship on display here as Charlie emotionally reveals herself to her otherworldly friend is reminiscent of similar scenes in Starman, with the focus here being on a friendship rather than the romance that defined that John Carpenter effort. Through it all, Bumblebee’s expressive (and, let’s face it, non-existent) face listens, reacts, and comforts Charlie as Sam Cooke wails away the sounds of long ago. It’s a genuinely powerful moment, a combination of music, acting and computer magic. I’m not too proud to reveal that this goofy robot film elicited a cathartic experience within me, something that has to be a first from a toy-line based flick.
I can’t emphasize enough how unlike any other Transformers film is, and believe me, this is a great thing. 2018 is a hellscape, but it’s wrapping up with the best and most human take on this franchise yet. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for it.