SoundTreks | Zoolander

It’s been 15 years since Ben Stiller wrote and directed his comedy Zoolander, a perfectly amusing and fitfully hysterical film about a vacuous male model, and his involvement in an international assassination plot. In 2001, Zoolander opened to critical indifference and only mild audience enthusiasm, but it quickly developed a passionate and loving cult following in the proceeding years. In 2016 the film accumulated enough lingering good will to warrant a sequel, which has now opened to critical indifference and only mild audience enthusiasm. So in the wake of its sequel, and to celebrate its 15th anniversary, SoundTreks will merrily hook into the zeitgeist and review the original Zoolander‘s soundtrack record.

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Zoolander‘s soundtrack record is a mixed bag of familiar old pop tunes, and a few perfectly dated early 2000s “hits.” The early 2000s, I should perhaps remind you, were a fallow time for mainstream music. Hard rock had mutated in the embarrassing subgenres of thrash, rap metal, and (shudder) nu metal. The mainstream pop sound was largely constructed of either zippy teen pop like Britney Spears early output, or really obnoxious house and techno. One had to go alternative (The White Stripes, The Vines, etc.) to find anything of quality. 

The Zoolander soundtrack is marked by this shabby fulcrum of musical history, but is bulked up with numerous updated covers of possibly-familiar old-school rock. Let us delve. 


Track 1. “Start the Commotion” – Wiseguys

Zoolander was actually the second major feature film to exhibit Wiseguys’ “Start the Commotion.” It had previously appeared in the forgotten and actually-pretty-miserable Liam Neeson assassin comedy Gun Shy, and went on to be featured in (shudder) 2003’s Kangaroo Jack. Looking at its cinematic associations, one may equate it to Smash Mouth’s “All Star” or anything by Baha Men. “Start the Commotion” is, however, a fun, catchy, well-mixed dance groove that stands alone just fine as an energetic driving anthem. That it works so well in movie trailers and TV commercials isn’t the song’s fault. 


Track 2. “Relax” – Frankie Goes to Hollywood

“Relax” is one of the better-known New Wave Brit hits from the early 1980s, and it’s still played, without any hint of irony, at ’80s clubs to this very day. It’s a pretty awesome song that can be enjoyed without nostalgia or irony. In 2001, however, when the Zoolander filmmakers elected to make “Relax” their main character’s personal anthem, it’s entirely likely that they intended it to be ironic. “Relax,” after all, was originally released in 1983, putting it right in the “just past its prime” window in 2001. I think the filmmakers like the song but they wanted its use to be comic. In the context of the movie, it does work both ways. It’s both silly and ironic and dated, but the song is strong enough to survive the irony. The same can be said of, say, anything by Depeche Mode, or “What You Need” by INXS.


Track 3. “Call Me” – Nikka Costa

“Call Me,” is, of course, a 1980 mega-hit by Blondie, originally written for the 1980 film American Gigolo. The song is better remembered than the film. Nikka Costa, daughter of mega-producer Matt Costa, has been working in music since she was a child, and began her adult career in the early 2000s with some really amazing records like “Everybody Got Their Something,” and “cantneverdidnothin.” Nikka Costa is funky, talented, unique, fun, and full of a very particular brand of pop soul. It’s a wonder she’s not more famous. Her cover of “Call Me” is harder and more electronic-ish than most of her solo work, so it’s not a very good representative of her sound. Look into Nikka. She plays in Los Angeles a lot at the Largo theater. 


Track 4. “Love to Love You Baby” – No Doubt

“Love to Love You Baby” was originally performed by Donna Summer in 1975. No Doubt originally started as a heavily ska-influenced band, but branched out into a more unique sound as the years passed. They are a good match to funk, and I would perhaps argue that their version is, in its early-2000s way, as strong as the original. Its mellow background electro-groove paired with its breathy sex vocals does date the song, but it’s funky enough to work, and punctuates a film like Zoolander well. 


Track 5. “I Started a Joke” – The Wallflowers

“I Started a Joke,” one of the wussiest rack songs of all time – maybe even wussier than “Angel of the Morning,” which I wrote about last week – was originally performed by The Bee Gees in 1968. Using “I Started a Joke” in any film, TV show, or commercial is a move of the utmost irony; I can’t think of anyone actually listening to the original and being earnestly moved by it any longer. The only way to bring back any of its power – if it had any to begin with – is to do a cover. The Wallflowers don’t quite break through the irony, however. But this makes it tonally ideal for a 2001 comedy film, and its place on this record is kind of perfect. 


Track 6. “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” – Rufus Wainwright

See above. This is another earnest ballad suffused with irony, resurrected and “saved” by a skilled cover, that was then used in a film to capitalize on both concepts. I like the Wainwright version way better than the famed 1970 Neil Diamond version. The song was originally performed by The Hollies in 1968. Both the original and this version appear in the film. In a comedy film, there is no earnestness, and they are both used to highlight the goofiness of mourning.


Track 7. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” – Wham!

This delightfully catchy and wholly obnoxious pop hit – which everyone seems to love, including me – was used in Zoolander during a fateful gasoline fight that went south. This is the second week in a row that SoundTreks has featured a song from Wham’s “Make It Big.” I promise this was not a calculation on my part. 


Track 8. “Rockit” – Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” is a significant pop hit from 1983 whose actual musical impact is better detailed by rock historians with far more know-how than I. It’s a synth instrumental whose musical power outstrips whatever film it’s in, as most audiences know it. The video below, by the way, is unbearably creepy and undeniably awesome. You know “Rockit.” I need say no more. 


Track 9. “Beat It (Moby Remix)” – Michael Jackson

Like “Rockit,” Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” is far too popular a song – and too pervasive a cultural presence – to accept as a mere track on a soundtrack record. Using “Beat It” in a film is using the film to comment on the song and not the other way ’round. As such, to feature “Beat It” in Zoolander, the music supervisors wisely elected to include an extended and juiced-up remix by Moby. The result, sadly, is exactly the type of obnoxious early 2000s techno that I referred to in the introduction. Moby has done a lot of good work. This isn’t some of his more exemplary remixing. 


Track 10. “Madskills.Mic-Chekka” – BT

This is, oddly enough, the first track on the record that’s not a cover or an oldie. Techno artists BT previously scored indie films like Go before contributing songs to a string of awful action films like Stealth and the remake of Gone in 60 Seconds. It’s not publicized, but BT actually produced the score to Zoolander as well, and had his named removed from the project. This means that the filmmakers were careful to construct a film with a solid tone and sound before they started to make things goofy. This is the best way to make a slapstick farce like Zoolander. Make it a real movie with real characters and a real tone, even if the characters are cartoons. “Madskills.Mic-Cekka” is, to my ear, nondescript background techno and not very good. But I appreciate the significance of this sound in 2001. 


Track 11. “Faces” – Orgy

And this was metal in 2001. I have nothing nice to say about Orgy, so I’m not going to say anything.


Track 12. “Ruffneck” – Freestylers

House and techno were, as I have said, the dominant sounds of the early 2000s, and those with a low tolerance for repetitive beats and droning drum machines were not happy with the trends. I hated it at the time, so I admit to a lingering dislike of a lot of DJ freestyling. Listening to it with fresh ears 15 years later, I find myself unexpectedly enjoying “Ruffneck” enthused rapping and aural variety. This track, and the next, are the strongest original tracks on the record. 


Track 13. “Now is the Time” – The Crystal Method

As I said, my discomfort with techno is mellowed when I encounter certain tracks, so I won’t talk about how much I used to hate The Crystal Method. The sound is now a nostalgic sound. I don’t necessarily need over 5 minutes of this stuff, but I can now absorb it with no problems. 


Track 14. “Relax” – Powerman 5000

Powerman 5000, led by Rob Zombie’s brother, is, like Zombie’s work, a mixture of electronica and metal. Zombie handles the balance better because he has a vision. These guys are frattier and nu metal-ier, so they’re less of a pleasure. Indeed, their cover of “Relax” kind of makes me want to bang my head against a wall. And with that, we lay nu metal to rest forever. Well, after nearly a decade of it. 


Which is Better: The Soundtrack or the Movie?

Paramount

Paramount

The film is better. It’s a vehicle for the music. Zoolander is still, to this day, a totally enjoyable, goofy, and unique slapstick comedy, and still has its passionate cult following. It’s a product of its time, but it doesn’t feel dated. The soundtrack record, conversely, feels very, very dated, banking on the musical trends of the time, and ironically commenting on the previous generation’s wussier music. It’s a mixed-bag time capsule at best, and can strike as annoying at its lower points. The soundtrack to Zoolander is the kind of CD that you would buy, and consistently skip around on during long drives. You’d get to know four or five songs well, but leave the rest alone. 

Eventually, it would end up in the dollar bin at The Wherehouse, largely forgotten. The songs are not what brings people back to Zoolander. The film is still funny. The soundtrack only exists as a footnote. 

Top Image: Paramount

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.

 

Previously on SoundTreks: