Montages have a bad name. We know this because Trey Parker and Matt Stone have spoofed them both on South Park and in the movie Team America: World Police. (With the same song!) But occasionally, they’re so beautifully constructed that they’re unforgettable. Think the Up married life montage, which got much of the audience to tear up in under four minutes, or, on the complete opposite end of the emotional spectrum, the final five moments of last night’s Sons of Anarchy season 4 premiere. It was a brutal ballet of violence set to a cover of “What a Wonderful World” that the Kills’ Alison Mosshart recorded specifically for the show, and it was so well done, we asked creator Kurt Sutter and exec producer Paris Barclay to dissect it for us.
But we also asked them to talk about the art of the montage in general. Sutter is the first to admit he uses them a lot. “When I only have 42 minutes and change to tell my stories, they really end up being, especially opening and closing montages, their own little act, where I’m able to build an entire story arc within the framework of a song and tell a much bigger story — whether that’s narrative story or emotional story — than I would if I had to have all those scenes play out as they would in a natural act where we have to have beginnings, middles, and ends,” he says. “It’s a device that ultimately lets me tell 15 or 20 minutes of story in the period of three-and-a-half to four minutes.”
Barclay, who directed the season 4 premiere, is a montage fan for three reasons. “It’s fun,” he says. “It reminds me of being a music video director. And you can always think of some way to tie scenes together that hasn’t been done before. Like when Kurt gave me the montage at the end of [the season 2 episode] ‘Balm,’ which is around the time that Gemma’s actually telling the club for the first time that she was raped, I had this idea that the camera just keeps falling and used that to tie it together so it doesn’t feel like it’s a lot of arbitrary scenes that we patched on, like the show isn’t ending yet and now we need another ending scene and another ending scene. That’s the same thing I was doing with the [season 4 premiere] with the turning. We turn around Jax at the very beginning [of the opening montage], and with the dancing we spin at the end [of the closing montage], just to give it a feeling like these things belong together, there’s a reason we put them in this order. It’s not just that the show’s almost over and we have a lot to say, so we’re gonna say it really fast.”
That is what it comes to, isn’t it? In order for viewers to not feel cheated by a montage, they have to see actual action taking place and know that a considerable amount of thought went into it. “I think in general, sometimes on network TV, they’ll buy some expensive song and it’s just somebody walking in the rain for three minutes,” Sutter says. “I think that’s why they kinda have a bad rap, because ultimately they just feel manipulative. I don’t do that. I look forward to be able to use them because it really enables me to continue to tell the story.” In my mind, the difference is as profound as that between a sitcom that does a musical episode as a gimmick, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “Once More, With Feeling,” which built to the heartbreaking reveal that Buffy (SPOILER ALERT CIRCA 2001!) had been in heaven when her friends resurrected her back to hell on earth.
Speaking of music, the Sons of Anarchy opening montage was set to Joshua James’ “Coal War.” Sutter likes his music — James did season 3’s “No Milk Today” cover — and was listening to the song when he was reminded of the opening lyric about cutting hair. SOA star Charlie Hunnam did just that between seasons for a film, and Sutter reasoned that Jax would’ve cut his iconic long hair in jail so there was less to hang on to in a fight. So yes, in addition to it being a complex, orchestral piece of music with a lot of bridges that allowed them to alter the track so the band kicked in as the club walked out of jailReservoir Dogs-style, “I do like the fact that I’m able to acknowledge the hair cutting just through a random lyric at the beginning of the season,” Sutter says.
So let’s turn it over to you. Which TV shows and movies do montages right, and which ones do them wrong? What does it take for you to feel cheated? Just out of curiosity, would it be more annoying for True Blood to use a pointless five-minute montage to fill an hour than it is for an episode to end noticeably early?