Exploring the Music of Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy

Music is a vital part of Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World's End. We take a look in more detail right here...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This feature contains major spoilers for Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End.

Edgar Wright’s films are often likened to musicals, with his precise use of editing and shot choices giving us some of the most stylish comedy films of the century. His latest, Baby Driver, isn’t a comedy per se, but “a musical with car chases”, or “An American In Paris on wheels and crack smoke”, as an elated Guillermo del Toro described it on Twitter.

Centring around Ansel Elgort’s Baby, a getaway driver who does his best work while listening to a personal soundtrack, it seems like the film Wright was born to make. He had the idea for the film after making his first feature, the lesser known western spoof A Fistful Of Fingers, and explored it further in his music video for Mint Royale’s Blue Song in 2002.

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In the intervening period, Wright has made four features, three of which are bundled by style and the talents involved into the ‘Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy’ and the soundtracks have been an important part of the character of all of his films. Influenced by the way in which filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and John Landis sourced music in their films, Wright is known for choosing his tracks as meticulously as Baby does.

Here, we’ll be looking at the songs and music of his thematic trilogy: Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. More than just fence jumping jokes or the Wall’s ice cream treat for which they’re collectively named, these films have their use of music to build characters and story in common.

It’s on random- Shaun Of The Dead (2004)

“Tonight, I’m gonna have myself a real good time…”

In Shaun Of The Dead, a well trained geek ear will pick up various stock explanations for the zombie apocalypse that has broken out in Britain, mostly through radio broadcasts. Wright himself makes a vocal cameo near the end to dismiss a theory that infected monkeys were the cause. As in George A. Romero’s genre-defining Dead movies, the cause is unimportant to the plot.

Here, the end of the world is soundtracked to the Winchester’s jukebox, which sporadically plays the least appropriate tunes. “It’s on random,” a newly single Shaun sobs as it gives him Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now. Of course, in a film with a keen sense of irony, depicting Londoners as unthinking drones wandering about their daily lives even before they get a touch of a zombie virus (the film opens with Ghost Town by The Specials and The Blue Wrath by I Monster in pretty quick succession), the comedy comes out of how random it isn’t.

Shaun and Ed err more towards hip hop in their tastes, stumbling home singing White Lines and then cranking up Man Parrish on vinyl when they get home. The next morning, they’re making some choice sacrifices from Shaun’s vinyl collection to fight off the zombies in their garden, saving Prince’s Purple Rain and Sign O’ The Times but flinging his Batman soundtrack. Without the budget to clear the album covers, a lot of them are mentioned, but not seen or heard.

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The discrepancy between the characters’ tastes and the ironic randomness of other sources continues throughout the film. Ed’s personal tape has Ash and Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster, but the car radio gives us a snatch of Morrissey warbling “Panic on the streets of London” in between news reports. Fittingly for a zombie film, the soundtrack contrasts characters’ personal tastes with the standards we hear elsewhere.

It comes to a head in the Don’t Stop Me Now scene, in which Shaun, Ed, and Liz all batter John the zombie landlord in time with the music. The Queen track gives the film its funniest physical comedy setpiece, from the synchronized beating, to the short cutaway to Diane and Shaun’s mum subconsciously bopping along in the corner while watching the fight unfold.

Earlier this year, Wright told Edith Bowman on her excellent Soundtracking podcast that Boney M’s Rasputin was plan B for the fight scene, if Queen denied them permission to use the song, but it’s hard to imagine any other song being as perfect for that scene. Queen’s You’re My Best Friend also plays out the film as Shaun returns to his new equilibrium, one in which he keeps zombie Ed in the shed for PlayStation tournaments.

In addition to the sourced music, composers Daniel Mudford and Pete Woodhead, whose band The Sons Of Silence worked with Wright on Channel 4’s Spaced, provide a Romero-inflected score that lends to the horror-comedy balance by taking it seriously. There are also a few choice cuts from the De Wolfe Music Library score of Dawn Of The Dead too, including Herbert Chappell’s endlessly hummable The Gonk over the end credits.

But just as a shopping mall was a refuge from zombies for Americans in Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead, Shaun’s logic of circling back to the Winchester, just like he would any other day of the week, sets up the pub as the British equivalent. The jukebox soundtrack goes right along with the irrelevance of why the outbreak has occurred – it’s just on random.

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Bring the noise – Hot Fuzz (2007)

“We are the Village Green Preservation Society…”

Super-cop Nicholas Angel is named after Nick Angel, the music supervisor on all three Cornetto films, which should tell you the importance that Wright places on music in his movies. In Hot Fuzz, the use of sourced music extended to score as well as songs, and of the three soundtracks, this might be the most likely to be found in your driving playlists.

Wright and Pegg have always insisted that their films aren’t spoofs, as they aspire and look up to the genres in which they’re operating rather than mocking them. Just as Shaun paid homage with clips from Romero movies’ scores, samples from Point Break, Bad Boys II, and Lethal Weapon 3 are among the sourced music in this very British buddy action movie.

The original score plays a part in Americanizing the setting too, with the great David Arnold providing some bombastic motifs to beef up the sleepy, all-too-idyllic Somerset village a bit. There are also cracking original contributions from director Robert Rodriguez, who provided Avenging Angel for the scenes in which Angel tools up for a final reckoning with the villagers, and Jon Spencer & The Elegant Too, who gives the film its original theme song, Here Come The Fuzz.

By contrast, the songs used are far more distinctively British, from Adam And The Ants’ Goody Two Shoes over the opening montage of Angel’s accomplishments, to Caught By The Fuzz by Supergrass, which plays out the film. There’s a heavy glam rock presence, but two songs from The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society are featured as themes for Sandford itself, fixating on nostalgia for an English idyll that provides such hilarious contrast to the action movie tropes.

The soundtrack gains a new context when you consider that Sandford is played in the movie by Wells, Wright’s own home town. The entire film can be viewed through the prism of his own fantasy of an action movie on his doorstep. Who hasn’t pretended they’re doing something cool or epic while listening to music out and about?

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The funnier cuts of Shaun loom large in Hot Fuzz too, when a dreadful performance of Romeo & Juliet closes with a hysterical a capella rendition of Lovefool by The Cardigans, originally from Baz Luhrmann’s film. Later, Romeo & Juliet by Dire Straits and Fire by The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown accompany magnificent bastard Simon Skinner as he drives by major incidents. If anything nasty ever happens to me, I don’t think I would even mind if Timothy Dalton came along with a shit-eating grin and the perfect song for my misfortune.

But for the most part, this is Wright living out a lifelong dream, fulfilling the promise of Dead Right (his original “Lethal Weapon in Somerset” short film which can be found in the DVD special features) by bringing the noise of a Michael Bay film to a setting more suited to Midsomer Murders, with English rock music blaring all the way.

I put this on a tape for you – The World’s End (2013)

“Just what is it that you want to do?”

Primal Scream’s Loaded opens with this sample of dialogue from the 1966 Roger Corman movie The Wild Angels, and so does The World’s End, the third and most underappreciated entry in the trilogy. Thus, Peter Fonda’s defiant response becomes a third-hand mantra for alcoholic Gary King, and the theme of indiscriminate nostalgia is set up.

In selecting a soundtrack for a pub crawl to oblivion, Wright and Pegg made a longlist of around 300 indie and dance tracks from the early 1990s, around the time their protagonists would have been drinking in pubs for the first time, fully recognizing that in the cold light of 2013, they were the new ‘oldies’. If Shaun Of The Dead is a movie about the world ending when you’re in your 20s, The World’s End is a movie about your 40s that’s still about wanting to get back to that.

The film sets this up early on when Gary’s mates Andy, Peter, Oliver and Steven are stunned to learn that he’s still driving around in the Ford Granada he calls ‘The Beast’, Trigger’s broomed beyond reasonable limits, and playing the same tape of I’m Free by The Soup Dragons.

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The nostalgic hits keep on coming, from Teenage Fanclub, The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, Suede, Saint Etienne, and more, as the five of them blaze a drunken trail through twelve pubs in their home town of Newton Haven, gradually realizing that it’s been taken over by alien robots that they call blanks, as part of their grand “Starbucking” of the galaxy.

If you’re looking for the film’s Don’t Stop Me Now moment, there are arguably two. The most obvious one is a standout trawl through pub #5, The Good Companions, set to Alabama Song (Whisky Bar) by The Doors. As with the synchronized fight scene in Shaun, the song was played over the characters walking down the high street in formation, in time with the music.

But in terms of theme, a more notable moment comes in pub #8, The Mermaid, where they’re roped into a school disco themed night, complete with girls in school uniform. By this point, the blanks have clocked their behavior and easily tempt them in with a juvenile fantasy of the Marmalade Sandwich (two blondes and a redhead) while Kylie Minogue’s Step Back In Time blares over the speakers.

Quite apart from the on-the-nose lyrics, the Stock, Aitken & Waterman song doesn’t fit in with the Madchester style of anything else on the soundtrack, but eight pints in, Gary, Andy, and Peter are dancing and taken in anyway. Likewise, the still teenage girls are clearly replicas to anyone who’s not sozzled. The choices in this scene immediately serve to highlight the skeeviness of 40 year old men going to ‘school disco’ nights, but still drops in another cracking song while doing it.

And so, the soundtrack is more important to the personality of this particular film than the other two. Steven Price’s creepy sci-fi score bringing out the John Wyndham of the self-destructive pub crawl, but it’s all about those half-remembered hits of the early 1990s. For instance, Wright has said that he focused on “bringing back” forgotten tracks, like Silver Bullet’s 20 Seconds To Comply, which is on theme with its sampling of the ED-209 from Robocop.

The World’s End isn’t the funniest of the three films, but it’s the most personal, exploring the pitfalls of beer-goggled nostalgia in typically genre-tastic fashion. The soundtrack is in character for a film about someone wallowing in the past, because their future (and the world’s as it turns out) is non-existent.

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Skip to the end?

In all three Cornetto movies, the use of music counterpoints individual tastes (or ice cream flavors, if you like) against some form of conformity. Shaun Of The Dead plays hip hop and hard rock in the face of a random universe. Hot Fuzz is the loudest film ever to take place in a quiet little village. The World’s End reaches for care-free familiarity when moving forward has become impossible.

Spaced and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World each have their own interesting soundtracks, and we’d be here all day talking about Scott Pilgrim‘s various musical influences alone, but it’s these three films in which Edgar Wright sets out his particular style of sourcing music. Baby Driver essentially has its lead character soundtracking his own movie, which suggests something of a step forward from this, but the music of the Cornetto trilogy remains one of the most rewarding layers in a series of complex and exceedingly English genre tributes.