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Airwaves: The Top 40 Beauty of the Air Soundtrack

In the opening moments of Ben Affleck’s terrific sports-world drama “Air” we hear the words, “I want my MTV.” It’s Sting’s spoken-word intro to Dire Straits’ biggest hit, “Money for Nothing.” Then, we hear that signature electric-fuzz guitar riff and what follows is a brilliantly edited montage of images from 1984. They include everything from Ridley Scott’s dystopian Super Bowl Apple commercial to Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley in “Beverly Hills Cop.” In Affleck’s “Argo,” we were shown an info-dump opening montage that acted as both mood-setter and a primer on Middle East politics. But the “Air” montage is different. It evokes a Proustian wave of memories that are both nostalgic and anxiety-inducing. More importantly, it transports us to a pivotal moment in recent history—a moment when mass marketing was becoming mainstream and we were simultaneously embracing and deconstructing what was being sold. In 1984, we started to become our own avatars. (In essence, isn’t that what George Orwell’s 1984 was predicting?) Tying all this together is Mark Knopfler’s snotty, greed-is-good refrain, “Money for nothing and your chicks for free.” 

“Air” takes the form of an underdog sports movie and combines it with a muckraking thriller. It’s “Hoosiers” meets “All the President’s Men.” Instead of the basketball court, the movie takes place within the Nike headquarters—which was ranked in third place among the major athletic shoe companies at the time. Enter Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a basketball guru that Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) has recruited to head their newly launched NBA endorsement line to face their competitors. Like "Mad Men"'s Don Draper, Sonny understands that a great marketing idea is nothing unless there’s a dream behind it. Sonny, a gambler, is willing to bet his career and the marketing department’s entire budget ($250,000) on one player: a 21-year-old, No. 3 draft pick named Michael Jordan. Everyone agrees Jordan will be a star, but Sonny sees something else. He’s the future.

Two elements propel the ticking-clock suspense nature of the story. One, of course, is Jordan—who is never shown except through highlight clips and clever blocking in key sequences. The movie knows that the audience knows that Jordan would go on to become the GOAT. To pretend otherwise would be a form of false advertising. 

The other unifying element in the movie is its soundtrack. Like Martin Scorsese or Jonathan Demme, Affleck (working with music supervisor Andrea von Foerster) uses music as mood enhancers or signals for dramatic transitions. And unlike someone like Quentin Tarantino, Affleck doesn’t use music as an ironic counterpoint to violence. His sense of irony is more playful and humorous. For example, a montage of Sonny blowing off some steam in Vegas is set to the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.” The jaunty, buskin rhythms remind us that this was the moment when “alternative” music was becoming mainstream. 

Affleck doesn’t ladle the oldies over the images as emotional shorthand. Instead, his song selections are designed to get an immediate emotional response from the viewer. When Sonny decides to break protocol and impulsively goes to Wilmington, N.C., to cold call on the Jordans, we see him speeding down a highway in his rental car. The moment is scored to the joyous “In a Big Country.” The song’s chorus of “In a big country, dreams stay with you” endorses Sonny’s rule-breaking gesture. Similarly, when Sonny makes an impromptu trip to Los Angeles, the moment is given dramatic force when we hear the revved-up guitar riff of ZZ Top’s salacious “Legs.” Affleck, who has lived most of his professional life in L.A., understands that sleaze and glamour are a continuous mix. (In “Argo,” a transition to Hollywood is shown by a close-up of the Hollywood sign accompanied by the opening guitar riff to The Rolling Stones’ raunch classic “Little T&A.”) 

The “Air” soundtrack is smart about fulfilling audiences’ expectations. So, when a movie is set in 1984 about creating a new kind of athletic shoe, we expect to hear Run-DMC’s anthemic “My Adidas.” Cut to a strategy meeting of Adidas marketers scored to “My Adidas.” (The Converse strategy meeting is scored to the muscular ska groove of The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah.”) Even the instrumental queues are smart and hip as the movie uses multiple tracks from cutting-edge electronic outfit Tangerine Dream. (In the ‘80s, there were many schoolyard debates on which was better: Tangerine Dream or Vangelis.) Affleck isn’t even afraid to make a joke at his own character’s expense. Knight, a devout Buddhist and capitalist, is skeptical about signing off on the Jordan presentation. We see him go for a head-clearing jog in his neighborhood. The moment is scored to REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling”—the ultimate Corporate Rock anthem for the world’s biggest corporation.

Songs like Squeeze’s “Tempted,” Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” have stood the test of time to become genuine classics. We are startled by the Pavlovian response when snippets of Harold Faltermeyer’s synth-pop instrumental “Axel F” is heard throughout the movie. (The many shout-outs to “Beverly Hills Cop” are Affleck’s sly tribute to “Gigli” director Martin Brest.) These songs have become part of our ever-growing American Pop songbook. But Affleck knows if you listen closely, you will hear more to these songs than their pop surfaces suggest. There’s an undercurrent of political awareness running through most of these songs. Yes, they were escapist pop, but what were they offering an escape from? It turns out the 1980s continue to cast a large shadow over today’s current events. It was a surrealist mix that included Reagan, the introduction of Trump, “Top Gun,” and racial and economic disparity. The pop music of the day offered relief from that reality while holding out the prospect of a better tomorrow.

The movie’s final song selection illustrates this. Most of the songs are woven into the movie’s narrative. No single song is made to stick out more than the others. The exception is the use of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” which plays during a closing montage that shows the fates of the movie’s principal players. Earlier, the song is mentioned when marketing exec Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) says he listens to the song every morning as he drives to work as a way to get energized for the day. We’ve already seen that Strasser is a fast-talking numbers-cruncher who peppers his speech with pop culture references and slogans as shorthand. (In a brainstorming meeting, he name-checks both Orwell’s 1984 and “Rocky III.”) He tells Sonny that this one morning, he started to pay attention to the lyrics and realized the song wasn’t about what he thought. It’s about a returning Vietnam vet who can’t get a job and ends up homeless while proclaiming he was born in the U.S.A. The song is deceptive yet honest about what it’s saying. Throughout the movie, we are told that a shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it. What the “Air” soundtrack understands is intrinsic to the enduring power of Top 40 beauty: a song is just a song until the listener hears it. 

"Air" is now playing in theaters.

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