This post features SPOILERS for both Season 1 of The Umbrella Academy and the DCEU film SHAZAM!.
I’ve started noticing that Western visual media really likes using Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” for high-energy sequences. It’s popped up in no less than two TV commercials that I’ve seen since the release of Bohemian Rhapsody last November. One commercial featured the people in the ad singing it while walking, running, or doing other high-energy things, while the other one used the original recording with Freddie Mercury’s vocals. It’s also apparently showed up in works like Shaun of the Dead for action scenes. My new favorite Netflix obsession, The Umbrella Academy, uses it for an action scene in this way, while the new DCEU film SHAZAM! uses “Don’t Stop Me Now” for a comical superhero training montage. I bring this up because I think one of these two uses of the song works better than the other, and I want to talk about why that is.
First of all, which characters do these scenes involve, and what are they doing?
In The Umbrella Academy, long-lost-until-recently Hargreeves sibling Five is trying to steal to his mannequin girlfriend from the apocalypse, Dolores, from a department store when he’s ambushed by two assassins, Hazel and Cha-Cha, who work for Five’s former employer. As they start shooting at Five and Dolores with machine guns, “Don’t Stop Me Now” starts playing and continues to play as Five teleports around the store to dodge the bullets. Oh, and Five is a 58-year-old assassin whose stuck in the body of his 13-year-old self.
In SHAZAM!, Billy Batson and his disabled foster brother, Freddy Freeman, skip school to go try out his new superpowers in abandoned industrial areas in inner-city Philadelphia. “Don’t Stop Me Now” plays as they record videos of the various tests they perform on Billy, who is a 14-year-old boy in the body of a thirtysomething man at this point. They also upload the videos to YouTube during this montage, and said videos rack up thousands of views.
So which work used this particular song in a way fits with the scene that it’s pair with?
I’d argue that SHAZAM! used it in a more appropriate way than The Umbrella Academy did.
You see, when I saw the shootout scene in The Umbrella Academy, the appearance of “Don’t Stop Me Now” felt hollow. I love the song to pieces, but something about the use of it there didn’t feel quite right, and I generally love that show’s song selections and musical choices. After watching SHAZAM!, I finally understand what rang false about the use of that song in The Umbrella Academy.
In TUA, “Don’t Stop Me Now” is used over a shootout where two assassins attack a man stuck in a child’s body. The song’s upbeat tempo and lyrics are probably supposed to be an example of Soundtrack Dissonance, which is when a song selection is the opposite tone of the scene being presented. I generally like that trope, and that series does it well in a few other scenes, but it didn’t work for me here, partly because I think this song was supposed to show how badass this scene is, but that’s the problem–this scene isn’t badass. It’s depressing and terrifying. Five fights back a little bit, but he’s mostly trying to get away from Hazel and Cha-Cha with Dolores in tow. By the end of the scene, he’s hiding behind the counter with Dolores.
SHAZAM!, on the other hand, uses this song during a montage where two teenage boys are reveling in testing a new set of superpowers. This is a perfect fit for “Don’t Stop Me Now” because it’s a song about hedonism and enjoying/indulging in life’s pleasures. Freddie Mercury wrote it for Queen’s 1978 album Jazz, and it was the biggest hit on that album. It was written at a time when Freddie Mercury was really throwing himself into partying and all the craziness that is implied in the phrase “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.” “Don’t Stop Me Now” is a celebration of excess, which is why it’s one of the ultimate pump-up songs, and SHAZAM! embraces the joyous irreverence that permeates the song. The two boys are embracing and enjoying Shazam’s superpowers the way that rock stars enjoy their wealth and fame, especially when it’s new. That’s why the song is such a perfect choice that montage.
In The Umbrella Academy, however, no one in the shootout scene expresses any sort of emotions that either connect with or oppose the general tone and sentiments of the song. It’s just a constant spray of bullets with occasional teleportation punctuated by the presence of a bald mannequin. There’s nothing emotionally or thematically connected to the song, so it’s just laid on top of some senseless violence. There’s no meaning in the use of “Don’t Stop Me Now” in that scene. It’s just there without a real reason to justify its presence.
SHAZAM!, on the other hand, layers in a level of foreshadowing in the way it uses “Don’t Stop Me Now.”
MAJOR CLIMACTIC SPOILERS FOR SHAZAM! BELOW. ABANDON ALL SURPRISE, YE WHO ENTER HERE!!!!!
In that power-testing montage where the song plays, Billy is hanging out with Freddy, as Freddie Mercury’s voice sings over these adventures. The magic that Billy has when he’s Shazam grants him the Wisdom of Solomon, the Strength of Hercules, the Stamina of Atlas, the Power of Zeus, the Courage of Achilles, and the Speed of Mercury. At the climax of the film, Billy decides to share the magic of Shazam with his foster siblings, including Freddy, so he gains the Speed of Mercury along with the other powers. Additionally, the song contains the lyrics, “I’m a shooting star leaping through the sky/ like a tiger, defying the laws of gravity,” which can be read as allusions to Freddy’s desire for flight and Billy’s fondness for plush tiger toys. Then there’s the line “I wanna make a supersonic man out of you” (later “supersonic woman” in the second verse), which is another piece of foreshadowing for how Billy will share the powers of Shazam with his foster siblings, making them supersonic men and women who have abilities like super-strength, flight, super-speed, and lightning/electricity manipulation.
Boom. Foreshadowing via classic rock. (Read more about that stuff here.)
And that, my friends, is how you successfully use a song in a piece of visual media (particularly visual fiction): connect it (or directly oppose it) to the emotion and/or themes in the scene, and connect it to the themes, characters, and/or events in the overall story.
…Thank you for coming to my Queen-themed TED Talk.
*As always, I don’t own that piece of fanart on the right, but there are no searchable images of the powered-up Shazam siblings at the time of this writing.