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Soundtracking: "I, Tonya"

Chris's weekly look at movie music takes on Tonya Harding's arena rock...

I, Tonya has proven to be one of Oscar season’s most love it or hate it films - and naturally for yours truly, defending the film is a lot like defending its somewhat maligned soundtrack. And I fall on the slightly positive side for both. Like many of the film’s other broad strokes, it doesn’t nearly all work and some play for a quick grab at audience allegiance. Yet by my ear, its greatest musical sin is underserving Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s A Winner” (but we can leave that to Greta and Noah).

While the film becomes too contradictory to support its acceptance of the slippery boundaries of fact, personal truth, and conflicting perspectives, the way it uses music to examine this relationship is a bit more elegant...

The primary complaint is the endless barrage of rock anthems cranked to eleven, and indeed this is one musically LOUD movie. However for those of us who grew up in the kind of white trash surroundings like the dingy Portland depicted in the film, that sound cuts almost too close to life. Its music is one of the most authentic aspects of a film that otherwise purposefully plays as only fleetingly authentic. If some of the tracks are a part of the movie’s cheap drag, particularly with tacked-on moments like Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger”, in their explicitness they play to the other side of the film’s divide between fact and delusion.

It’s not just the verbal barbs and glasses shattering against a wall, the film brings to life a world that sounds like Bad Company and Dire Straits. Even if the needle drops draw attention to themselves unnecessarily, their brashness does plunge us into its profane and toxic world. One where the pull of a cheesy love song helps you relent to the false love story you’ve been promised or a power ballad can pump up the sense of self-worth relentlessly torn down by your surroundings. It’s the sound of lower class dreams built by nuclear unit promises and deferred by harsher realities.

The quick dismissal of I, Tonya’s song choices also reflect the same complaints lodged against the athlete herself, which is exaggerated for the film. Tonya’s use of heavy metal is a point of contention for both her biased judges and her dotingly measured coach, but moreso a tool to present Tonya as a rulebreaker to an audience who may not fully appreciate her story or the internal cultural nuance of the sport. In the rushing (and crunchily digitally modified) camerawork and thumping beat of ZZ Top’s “Sleeping Bag”, Margot Robbie’s Tonya becomes an expressive hero on screen. The Tonya presented isn’t merely an enfante terrible, she’s a provocative, unique artist in her element.

Though no, Tonya Harding did not skate to ZZ Top for the particular competition the film depicts, though she did on other skates. But here the film continues to musically embody the film’s swaying distinction between fact and truth - it boldly projects how Harding rejected the image expected of her and presents the badass superhero vision of herself that existed in her head.

But to also give us a different sense of the high-stakes arena Tonya existed in, both on the ice and off, perhaps some rock and roll is exactly what was needed. The thunderous tracks reveal the size of her inflated sense of humanity, and yes, her messy humanity.

And this is all tonally opposite from what Sufjan Stevens had created for Harding, but I’ll save talk of that artist for next week’s look at Call Me By Your Name.

The Best Musical Moments of 2017

All Soundtracking installments can be found here!

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Reader Comments (17)

I still haven't seen this, but I'm worried about the soundtrack — it looks like they borrow a lot of famous needle drops from other movies ("Goodbye Stranger" belongs to Magnolia; "Every 1's A Winner" was memorably used in Frances Ha). I had the same problem with Atomic Blonde, which ripped its use of "Cat People" (tone, colors, everything) straight from Inglourious Basterds and then had that lazy, stupid, cheeky line in the movie about whether sampling is art or plagiarism. Such unearned self-satisfaction.

January 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTim

It's only on this site where it's controversial (as it should be). The worst part of it that I haven't seen mentioned anywhere (not even here) is how domestic abuse is used for comedic effects.

January 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

The film's handling of abuse and its failure to balance its stabs at humor with its depictions of abuse has been discussed in reviews and think pieces. The film has its champions as well as detractors, which seems to be the story this year with a few movies.

January 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

Can I say that this film's soundtrack it's about the best thing by far on it??

And I love the use it's not epochal. There's sooo my great 70s songs in there.

To all having doubts, her. BUY the damm soundtrack!!

And that's all that there is to say. Oh, en the editing is quirky good tbh. It must be, since there is nothing ob substance to say. It's this year's American Hustle; just based on a true story.

January 10, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterchofer

The violence in the movie was jarringly brutal. Nothing about the domestic squishes made me laugh nor felt humorous for someone with taste. My heart broke at the unrelenting harshness of her life. And the final sequence in the boxing ring was so distasteful and disgusting.

January 10, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Me34: Check out Manohla Dargis's review (note: I haven't seen the film yet, either). She also took the Globes to task on twitter for classifying the film as a comedy, because of the domestic violence angle.

January 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I loved this film and never once felt the violence was used for "comic" effect.

January 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

I thought the soundtrack was a weak point, for sure. It uses some very lazy choices, and leans a lot on the 70s for some reason when the movie takes place in the late 80s/90s. I know those songs didn't vanish after their original release, but to me it felt like a disingenuous association with the blue collar setting - like they relied on audiences' prior assumptions about what music represents this, rather than creating something new using the actual era.

January 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

I love this movie and it has a killer soundtrack.

January 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Sorry but this is a black comedy through and through .... I laughed throughout! I can’t remember laughing at Get Out once

January 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

/3rtful -- both times I saw this people were laughing heartily.

Suzanne -- i love Dargis in general but it's the craziest thingto deny that a film is a comedy when it's consciously constantly telling jokes and doing that "cut to" counterpoint interview reaction punchline so familiar from endless mockumentaries and The Office and whatnot. I've never seen dramas use that structure, for example. And in funny wigs and with birds on shoulders for extra giggles! Whether or not it's a successful comedy is up for debate but it is 100% a comedy. I wish more critics would start defending the word "comedy" since there is nothing inherently "lesser than" about comedy (and no topic that can't be addressed thoughtfully by a comedy) but the way people are constantly claiming "this is not a comedy!" about any film they love suggests that people have been brainwashed into thinking that only serious dramas are worthy of acclaim.

January 10, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

The movie's big problem is that it slavishly follows a lot of recent prestige trends. It's a shameless ripoff of David O. Russell's last couple of movies, especially American Hustle (with a dash of Big Short) and the big giveaway is its use of a 70s soundtrack despite being set in the 90s. They aren't even creative choices, two of the songs here were prominently used in Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

January 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMJS

David- You must have slept through GET OUT because Lil Rey Howery was comedic gold.

January 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoel

I love this film. Now this is a great biopic, funny and tragic and weirdly heartfelt. I think the domestic abuse is never played for comic effects too. My heart broke for her at those times.

January 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

Just sidestepping all the love it/hate it/abuse was a joke talk and concentrating on the film soundtrack - I think this film like Boogie Nights & American Hustle want to pattern itself over the excellent film soundtrack standard set by Goodfellas. This seemed to hit it's mark when they rolled out Fleetwood Mac's The Chain right when everyone's story started to unravel. (This being the Derek & The Dominos 'Layla' moment.) On the plus side - I loved hearing ZZTop's Sleeping Bag when the 1st triple axel attempt was executed. Hearing hard rock songs (Feels Like the First Time/Goodbye Stranger) made it clear that this skater was no Ice Princess. 25 or 6 to 4/Chicago reaaly made the trailer impressive. Siousxie and the Banshees aren't used a lot, so I was surprised when The Passenger came on. It made me sit through the credits wanting to see the song title listed.
On the down side - enough of Spirit in the Sky - it's in every movie. Some songs were used that already put their stamp on individual films and should not be reused (Goodbye Stranger/Magnolia - Barracuda/Heart will always mean Charlie's Angels to me.) I completely groaned when the 'bad guys' were listening to Laura Branigan's Gloria on the way to kneecap Nancy. This song was used in Flashdance when an ice skater failed her routine and crashed on the ice.) But overall, it's good that there's constant music. At times, the drama was sagging (mostly when 'the hit' was occuring and it's aftermath), but the music kept me up.

January 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTOM

I can't decide which film's soundtrack annoyed me more in 2017 - BABY DRIVER, ATOMIC BLONDE or I, TONYA. They all have sins to be atoned for, I say.

January 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I liked ATOMIC BLONDE's soundtrack simply because it was full of songs that were actually popular in that era (I came up in the '80s, so I know that for certain) even though most of the ones I heard in the film (which I liked,since Charlize Theron was a complete and total bad-a** in it, and it was a good period spy thriller on top of that) came out before '8- (the year in which the film is set.) So that was one decent soundtrack that was at least true to the time and era it was was set in.

February 6, 2018 | Unregistered Commentersqueesh

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