Exploring Soundtracks: Zodiac

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Once again, we’re back with another movie soundtrack to dive into. For the past few weeks, we’ve been combing our way through the filmography of David Fincher. We looked at the work of Howard Shore in three of Fincher’s psychological thrillers, “Seven”, “The Game”, and “Panic Room”. We also saw Fincher branching out by hiring the Dust Brothers to score the soundtrack for “Fight Club”.

After he finished “Panic Room” in 2002, Fincher took a five year hiatus before returning with another psychological thriller. This time, Fincher took inspiration from a serial killer in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1960s and ’70s. The screenplay for “Zodiac” was written by James Vanderbilt, based on the 1986 nonfiction book of the same name.

Instead of enlisting his old collaborator Howard Shore, Fincher wanted to do something different for “Zodiac”. Rather than a score, he bought the rights to various songs in order to capture the music of the era.

Synopsis

“Zodiac” tells the story of a manhunt for the Zodiac Killer, a serial killer who dubbed himself “Zodiac” and taunted police and newspapers with cryptic letters and various clues. Investigators (Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards) and reporters (Robert Downey Jr., Jack Gyllenhaal) become obsessed with learning the killer’s identity and bringing him to justice. While they do, Zodiac continues to claim victims, send in ciphers, and make threatening phone calls to anyone who gets too close to the case.

Zodiac

In the opening scene of “Zodiac “, we get our first clue that we’re about to watch a movie different from anything else Fincher has been a part of before. The camera pans over San Francisco with “Easy to Be Hard” by Three Dog Night playing in the background. We watch an introductory scene play out with two teenagers on a date in a secluded part of town, who are subsequently murdered to the tune of “The Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan.

Our real introduction of out main character (Gyllenhaal) comes just after, along with Santana’s funky, upbeat “Soul Sacrifice”. We follow him as he sees his son off to school and then goes to his job at a big newspaper.

In these first two scenes, Fincher’s use of classic songs from the era help to ground the story in the time period. He does this over and over again throughout the film, often while characters are driving to give the illusion that the song is playing on the radio. You can see this pattern used before every murder by the Zodiac killer. An overhead shot of a car on a highway, followed by a close up of the future victim listening to music.

There are moments when you can hear some orchestral filler to set the mood. These are mostly used to punctuate transitions between scenes, heightening the mystery and suspense surrounding the police investigation, as well as Graysmith’s growing obsession.

Other than that, there are large swaths of “Zodiac” that don’t have any music behind them whatsoever. This is mostly due to the frequent use of dialogue in the film between journalists, investigators, and suspects. Although there is a nice, plucking of strings that sets the tone for Robert Graysmith’s investigation montage.

Final Thoughts

In his previous films, Fincher has used the score to help viewers get closer emotionally to the main characters. In “Zodiac”, however, the music is used to illustrate the era that the story is set in. It’s a tactic many directors have used in period pieces, and is nothing short of effective.

Well, that about wraps up our discussion of David Fincher’s “Zodiac”. Next time, we’ll check out his next project, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”.

Track List

Disc 1:

1. Three Dog Night – Easy to Be Hard
2. Eric Burdon and the Animals – Sky Pilot
3. Santana – Soul Sacrifice
4. Four Tops – Bernadette
5. Lynn Anderson – (I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden
6. Sly and the Family Stone – I Want to Take You Higher

Disc 2:

1. Isaac Hayes – Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic
2. Marvin Gaye – Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)
3. Stories – Brother Louie
4. Donovan – The Hurdy Gurdy Man
5. Johnny Mathis – It’s Not for Me to Say
6. John Coltrane – Mary’s Blues
7. Miles Davis – Solar
8. The Johnny Mann Singers – The Sound of the City

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