Sunday, February 27, 2022

Random Rants: HBO's "Peacemaker" and glam metal

When director James Gunn took on the relatively obscure Guardians of the Galaxy for Marvel, he brought a chart-topping soundtrack of 1970s music that connected with audiences and became an integral part of the film’s success.

Now, Gunn has taken on an even more obscure property from DC in the HBO Max series Peacemaker, and he’s done something similar for a surprising genre. In this raunchy romp about a ridiculously goofy and often clueless anti-hero, James Gunn has injected a much-needed dose of humor and silliness into the previously mostly grim DC Comics Universe, and in the process, he’s also injected life back into the glam-metal sounds of the 1980s.

For a child of the ‘80s, the soundtrack for Peacemaker hits hard. But much of the real fun in it is that a great many of the featured bands and songs are not from that era of the glam scene, but from the more recent past. Look no further than the goofy yet endearing opening sequence which has turned Wig Wam’s 2010 track “Do Ya Wanna Taste It” into a bit of a sensation.

Sure, big bands of the 1980s, like Cinderella and Poison, get face time in the show (though neither has actual music featured), but most of the songs and artists – like the main character – are much more obscure. A few exceptions obviously exist, like the Motley Crue megahit “Home Sweet Home,” which is featured twice, once in its full glory and once as a solo piano performance by show star John Cena. But even when we visit the 1980s heyday of the music, we’re usually hearing second- and third-layer acts like Faster Pussycat, Kix, Enuff Z’nuff, Hanoi Rocks, Y&T, Vain and the Quireboys.

But that’s actually one of the things that makes the musical selections so cool. In many cases, the show shines a spotlight on deserving bands that were either overshadowed by their contemporaries, or came along after much of the glitter and sparkle had worn off the glam scene.

There’s a nice mix to how Gunn uses the music, too. Some artists get the extended-play treatment. In the first episode, for example, the Quireboys’ “I Don’t Love You Anymore” gets pretty much its full run-time as Cena dances around in tighty whities singing along with an improvised microphone that, well … it’s probably just best if you watch the show for any more detail than that.

Another example is quite possibly the most memorable sequence in the first season of the series, when aliens led by Annie Chang’s detective take over a local police station to the tune of Reckless Love’s 2016 song “Monster.” It’s a case of “perfect song / perfect scene,” as I can’t think of anything that would have choreographed better with what we’re seeing on the screen.

In other places, we may only get a brief snippet of a song. Sister Sin, for example, barely manages to get out the first line of “Fight Song” before the stereo is turned off by Jennifer Holland‘s Agent Harcourt. It’s a good enough riff and line, though, that I guarantee it sent plenty of people who weren’t familiar with the band to Google to try to find it.

Gunn also doesn’t stick strictly to the glam-metal program, taking a few minor detours on to other branches of the rock and metal tree (probably only recognized as such by metal snobs like me). Power metallers Dynazty (featuring vocalist Nils Molin of Amaranthe) close one episode with “The Human Paradox,” and long-running redneck rockers Nashville Pussy get a prime play early in the season with a driving scene set to “Come On Come On.”

One of the best songs featured in the show is a cover of Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” by composer John Murphy and vocalist Ralph Saenz (aka Steel Panther singer Michael Starr). It turns the understated indie bopper into a full-on hair metal party, albeit with a very dark lyrical twist.

With about 45 or so songs featured in the first season, naturally not all are winners. A few of the tunes chosen are kind of generic examples of the genre, and I would have chosen different tracks for a few of the bands represented. Despite the love that I have for Ralph Saenz / Michael Starr on the cover of “Pumped Up Kicks,” I can pretty much always live without Steel Panther. I guess “If You Really Really Love Me” fits, given the raunchy nature of the show, but I just find the band very frustrating as they’re a talented group of guys, but the over-the-top “comedic” sex schtick ruins what they do for me.

There’s really no point in lingering on the minor nitpicks, however, when you can just hit skip on the playlist when those crop up and probably land on a much more entertaining tune that gets the Aqua Net flowing again.

I do have one complaint about an overlooked song that really belongs on this soundtrack. There’s not a more tailor-made song in my opinion for Peacemaker than the 1984 track “Rock You” from the Canadian band Helix. The whole attitude and feel of the song is exactly the vibe of the show and its music. How about we make that happen in Season 2?

As a child of the 1980s, I have to admit that I love to bang my head and play air guitar when Lita Ford’s “Kiss Me Deadly” pops up in the show, or sing along in a horrible falsetto to Kix’s dark ballad “Don’t Close Your Eyes.” But I’m equally pleased to see recognition coming to bands from those stacks of small-label sleeved promos that I have piled up from the last 20 years or so.

Of course, modern glam rockers like Sister Sin, Santa Cruz, Kissin’ Dynamite and Hardcore Superstar do have their followings. But perhaps Peacemaker can bring them to others who didn’t keep up with the genre past the early ‘90s, and who have been longing for that sound again. I know the show has introduced me to a few new bands (even some older ones like Tigertailz, which I managed to miss the first time around in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s) and re-introduced me to a few bands that I may have reviewed an album or two from years ago and forgotten about.

While Peacemaker probably would have been fun without the interesting musical choices, its glam-metal soundtrack makes the series so much better. Like a fine wine with a good steak (or, in the case of Peacemaker, maybe a decent domestic beer with a tasty burger), it’s a perfect pairing. The fun and energy of the music matches the action and silliness of the show, and there’s also the occasional ability to find more depth in both aspects when it’s needed for the story.

I’m looking forward to seeing what musical journeys James Gunn takes us on in Season 2.

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