Centring on a secret organisation monitoring extraterrestrials on Earth, Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black (1997) may have spawned three wildly inferior sequels, but the original endures as a sci-fi comedy triumph, thanks to storytelling and production methods largely absent from the blockbuster landscape that followed.
While there was a considerable marketing blitz (see Will Smith’s inescapable tie-in single), the fact that Men in Black became summer 1997’s biggest hit domestically (and close worldwide) is surprising in many ways. Even in comparison with the same era’s TV mega-hit The X-Files, it boasts a very cynical worldview. Most alien invasion narratives incorporate some kind of sense of wonder (see Smith’s hit of the previous year, Independence Day), where a close encounter of the third kind is treated as the biggest thing to happen to our species. With Men in Black, it’s the opposite.
Smith’s rookie agent aside, everyone in the organisation maintains the perspective that everything happening on Earth is ultimately irrelevant. Tommy Lee Jones’ agent K delivers one particularly fun line about our place in the universe’s pecking order: “Human thought is so primitive, it’s looked upon as an infectious disease in some of the better galaxies. That kind of makes you proud, doesn’t it?” Positing that mankind doesn’t really matter – and is a minuscule part of a much grander story of the universe – is still a pretty unique driving concept for a movie aimed at getting millions of bums on seats. Yet somehow it worked…
Full feature for the BFI
In a Spin magazine interview marking the 20th anniversary of his band’s 1995 album Clouds Taste Metallic, The Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne was asked about their involvement with the soundtrack for Batman Forever, an album described by interviewer Dan Weiss as, “Even by ‘90s standards… one of the weirdest batches of artists.” Coyne – reportedly not a fan of the finished film itself, though he enjoyed his group’s aural appearance – had this to say:
“I think it set up a blueprint that you could really have an interesting soundtrack that really doesn’t have that much to do with the movie and people would accept it. It was just a record that had another branding that went with it. I thought that was really a cool move, that it didn’t always just have to be a group of popular artists doing something to promote the movie. It really was a weird mixtape collection that had a movie with it too.”
Wayne Coyne, The Flaming Lips
A packed film soundtrack of popular music wasn’t a concept born in the 1990s, nor is it something that’s completely died out since, but various factors have led to that decade being the peak ‘music from the motion picture’ era, and how Coyne describes the Batman Forever soundtrack is reflective of why. And in the year 2020, Batman Forever’s album stands out as one of its decade’s most emblematic musical artefacts for how it both followed trends and also bucked the system in a way that arguably influenced the construction of soundtracks going forward; Entertainment Weekly ran a non-review article the summer of release on the extent to which the soundtrack was an outlier among its field…
Full article for The Companion