How Atomic Blonde’s soundtrack fails

Soundtracks exist to strengthen and enhance the world a film creates. Atomic Blonde’s does the opposite.

August 11, 2017

Atomic Blonde is a sleek, stylish spy thriller that boasts a soundtrack filled with much-loved new wave hits from the 80s. The song choices, which include tracks from Depeche Mode, New Order, and David Bowie, should be an ideal accompaniment to the exploits of Charlize Theron’s lethally competent protagonist, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton. For most of the film, Theron rampages her way across both East and West Berlin in the dying days of the Cold War, hurling heavily-armed assailants down staircases and stabbing Soviet agents in the throat with the heel of her stilettos.

And yet…

As solid as the songs are on their own, Atomic Blonde’s soundtrack fails. It’s a distraction, yanking viewers out of the story and killing momentum by calling attention to itself. The film uses music in a painfully literal manner: ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” plays during a sequence in which two characters whisper to each other to avoid listening devices; A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran (So Far Away)” blasts during a chase scene; and The Clash’s “London Calling” strikes up the instant the action switches to England. Matching song lyrics to the onscreen action, apart from being overly simplistic, diverts focus to the song and away from the story. Watching Atomic Blonde is like watching a middle-of-the-road music video in which stylish yet forgettable images flicker across the screen before vanishing into the ether.

Watching Atomic Blonde is like watching a middle-of-the-road music video in which stylish yet forgettable images flicker across the screen before vanishing into the ether.

Atomic Blonde is set, very specifically, during the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, yet the soundtrack skews toward the early eighties. Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom,” Nena’s “99 Luftballons,” and Re-Flex’s “The Politics of Dancing” were all released in 1983. “I Ran (So Far Away)” came out in 1982, as did both After the Fire’s “Der Kommissar” and David Bowie’s “Cat People.” “Under Pressure,” a collaboration between Bowie and Queen, was released in 1981. “Voices Carry”? That came out in 1985. “London Calling”? All the way back in 1979. Depeche Mode’s “Behind the Wheel”? Getting closer; that’s from 1987.

In fact, the only song on the soundtrack that could still be receiving regular radio play during the events shown in the film is Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” released in the summer of 1989. On the one hand, it’s tough to fault the film for this; adding a dash of Bowie is never a bad idea, regardless of whether it makes era-appropriate sense. But if one of the purposes of a soundtrack is to help anchor a period-specific film in a certain moment in time, Atomic Blonde misses the mark. Thanks to its soundtrack, it feels like it’s taking place in, say, 1983. For a film set during key historic events at the close of the decade, that’s a problem.

Within the film, most songs start off as diegetic sound, as in they originate from a source seen onscreen: Someone turns on a radio, or pushes a button on a cassette player, and the song begins. As these scenes progress, the sound becomes non-diegetic: The volume spikes dramatically, and viewers are no longer expected to believe the sound is still coming from the original source. This is a common film technique, and one that, when deployed strategically, can heighten tension in a scene. In the case of Atomic Blonde, though, the sound careens back and forth between diegetic and non-diegetic too many times, derailing the action.

Here’s an example: During a climactic sequence, Theron’s Agent Broughton drives a stolen police car with gunmen in hot pursuit while “I Ran (So Far Away)” plays softly on the car stereo. At the instant the gunmen shoot out her rear window, the sound stops, as though Broughton has gone momentarily deaf from the gunfire. The gunmen shoot out a second window, and the music blasts, becoming non-diegetic. When the pursuing vehicle crashes, “I Ran (So Far Away)” turns diegetic once again upon impact: It grows quieter and distorted, like a tape playing on a failing cassette deck.

The abrupt aural transitions are whiplash-inducing jolts, knocking viewers out of the scene with every spike and ebb of the volume. If the film had pulled this trick once for dramatic effect, fine, but “Major Tom” is used earlier in this same way—diegetic to non-diegetic and back to diegetic—during a scuffle in a speeding Porsche. It’s Atomic Blonde’s signature trick, and it grows old very fast.

A soundtrack exists to strengthen and enhance the world a film creates. Atomic Blonde’s soundtrack ignores this, choosing instead to draw attention to the artifice of the medium. What’s shown on the screen is an illusion, it reminds us, and a flimsy one at that.

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