If it’s worth remembering, it’s worth remembering on Nostalgia Piano.
At least, that’s what Hollywood’s current glut of trailers for reboots, sequels, and franchises are telling us.
Trailer music goes through fads and styles. It’s rare to find a truly original trailer—within Hollywood, at least, probably the last was David Fincher’s completely uncompromising The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo. Recently, however, we’ve had an array of films—and their accompanying trailers—that use nostalgia up front and centre as their selling point. I wrote here, for example, about how The Force Awakens used its imagery to subtly tap into the audience’s yearning for the older Star Wars films.
But beyond that, the easiest trick in the book at the moment for trailer producers is to use what I’m going to call Nostalgia Piano. This is the tinkling, so-soft-it-is-thunderously-unsubtle piano, drenched in reverb, that picks out the memorable main theme of a franchise in so many recent trailers.
Certainly the most obvious recent example is the Ghostbusters reboot, which spends so long fiddling around with the main theme—which, if ever a theme didn’t need a Nostalgia Piano version it’s Ray Parker Jr.’s joyous 1984 synth pop hit—that it loses momentum before it has begun.
Ghostbusters wasn’t the first, and seems unlikely to be the last. Jurassic World used the Nostalgia Piano to great effect—played in between earth-shaking thuds—in its teaser in late 2014.
Even The Force Awakens got in the action, too. The full trailer begins with a hint of nostalgia piano—not picking out a familiar melody, but playing the harmonic progression to ‘Han Solo and the Princess’, the only major Original Trilogy theme not reused in the Prequels.
Or, take a listen to how, at 1:01 of the Spectre teaser, the 007 franchise puts a disconcerting spin on the familiar effect by having the Bond theme performed on a glockenspiel.
Today’s era of filmmaking is completely dominated by the franchise. Take a look at the top fifteen grossing films of last year—only one of them, Inside Out, isn’t part of a franchise or based on something else. But it’s a little like an arms rush: because there are only so many successful franchises, and starting a new one can be risky, there’s a real need to hone in on the biggest ones and keep them occupied. And in an era when most filmgoers (or at least the ones that will actually buy tickets) are now old enough to remember the major franchises of the past few decades fondly, it makes sense to target those memories as a selling point. Regardless of the quality of today’s films, you can still sell tickets based on how people remember the movies of yesterday.
And so following in the footsteps of the Hans Zimmer-esque Inception-bwarrm sound, we now have trailers so bent on selling themselves on nostalgia that it’s become a cliché. Going to the movies these days is like being forced to see a cover band performing Hollywood’s 100% Greatest Hits of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and today, all on a syrupy piano recorded on the worlds biggest reverb stage.
All that said, while we’ve had franchises as the dominant model for Hollywood since at least the 1980s, it’s only recently that nostalgia has become the overt sales technique. Take a look at the Bond franchise, for example, which is always a terrific barometer of film history. While today’s 007 films might flirt with nostalgia, this is a franchise that has for 50 years been forced to constantly reboot itself according to the logic of the era. Go watch the Goldeneye teaser from 1995—there’s no hint of nostalgia there, only a kind of dorky 1990s rawk, ‘he’s back, and better than ever’ mindset. Keep in mind that this was after the longest break between Bond movies in history, so if ever the producers could’ve appealed to a ‘remember how big a part of your life Bond has been’ nostalgia, it was then.
And that’s the important point: today’s movies don’t just sell themselves based on past success—with the Nostalgia Piano, they’re asking us to remember how important each of these franchises have been to us as individuals. Ghostbusters doesn’t want us to remember how great the original films were so much as it wants us to remember who we were when we saw them. Jurassic World doesn’t really need to show you Chris Pratt fending off velociraptors to sell the film so much as it just needs to make us remember how magical the first film feels in our minds today.
That’s why the Nostalgia Piano works. It doesn’t just replay the melodies that we’re familiar with. It instead spells it out slowly, almost coyly, allowing us to have a moment to dwell on it, to wonder whether we are in fact hearing the melody that we think we recognise. It gives us a moment to sit back and fill each reverb-filled second between the notes with our own memories, to imbue the trailer with emotion from our own lives.
It works, which is why it’s quickly becoming a cliché. So to help it on its way, here’s some suggestions and some Nostalgia Piano that we’ve created for them.
The Bond franchise has definitely used a kind of Nostalgia Piano for Spectre, but when Craig leaves the franchise, we’ll need to go full-blown to remind everyone of how great Bond has been, and how great it’s going to be now that there’s a new guy in the role. Picture atmospheric shots of an exotic city, a new silhouetted Bond walks into frame, and…
Or, for the next trailer for Fantastic Beasts, the new Harry Potter universe film, we’re going to need to remind everyone of how big a part of their childhoods Potter has been. I’m imagining some slow titles: “Before Harry Potter / Before Voldemort…” accompanied by…
Why leave Nostalgia Piano to just a chord progression for The Force Awakens? Now that we’ve got a new series, we’ll need to shove that main theme in there to end the first teaser trailer for Episode 8, after we see an all-too-brief action shot of Luke Skywalker.
The Silmarillion is coming. You know it. One day the folks at New Line are going to need to refill the coffers. And when it does, it could be accompanied by this:
LucasFilm just announced a brand new Indiana Jones movie — boy do we have the Nostalgia Piano ready for them, possibly to be played over someone silently putting a fedora on in silhouette:
Finally, the logical end to all this rebooting of beloved 1980s franchises has got to be the kind of time travel implied in the idea of a multi-decade franchise. We go back to the 1980s all the time, so why not bring its most famous time travel movie with us? As sacrilegious as it might be, you just know that after all the hype around Back to the Future day last year, there’s someone, somewhere, working on a pitch to reboot the franchise. Well, we’re ready when they are.