Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Music of ‘Mindhunter’: A case study

(Mindhunter/ Facebook)

What are the first words that come to mind when you think of the new hit television show “Mindhunter? Serial killer? Disturbing? Intriguing? How about ‘soundtrack’? Arguably just as important as complex characters or thrilling action sequences, the soundtrack of a television show (or film) sets the historical atmosphere as well as reinforces the thematic elements of the dialogue. Of all the shows that have hit the screen recently, David Fincher’s “Mindhunter” is a prime example of having a sound that compliments the image.

Set in the 1970s, “Mindhunter” tells the story of two FBI agents, Holden Ford and Bill Tench, as they investigate the behaviors of various serial killers—a phenomenon that, at the time, was just beginning to be studied by law enforcement. With his signature use of camera movements and attention to detail, Fincher is able to complement these with a carefully curated selection of music. He has the usual suspects—Peter Frampton, Toto and Steve Miller Band—as well as some more obscure names like Atlanta Rhythm Section or The Boomtown Rats that may not be as recognizable to younger audiences.

Although he personally directed only the first and last two episodes of the series, his method of ending episodes with deliberate song choices echo the episode’s meaning. For example, at the end of the second episode, Ford and Tench are given an office in the basement from which to base their operation, thus legitimizing what was previously seen by their superiors as a waste of time and resources.

As they stand in the elevator, the iconic bassline of the Talking Head’s “Psycho Killer” begins. Although the song’s lyrics don’t deal in the ‘blood and guts’ that real killers do, they still mirror the idea that, because this was a relatively new field at the time, Tench and Ford are alone in uncharted territory; they must now grapple with the question David Byrne asks in French, “Psycho Killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?” (What is it?)

Another example is found at the end of the ninth episode. After one of their interviews leads to a complaint registered against them by one of the killers, Tench and Ford, along with their supervisor and two assistant researchers, agree to destroy one of the tape recordings that would prove Ford lied to FBI internal investigators about not doctoring the transcript. However, one of the assistants could not handle the pressure of lying and decides to send the tape to the investigators.

As we, the viewers, watch the assistant put the tape in the envelope, we hear Lenny Zakatek of The Alan Parsons Project sing “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You.” Quite aware that the titles directly relate to the thematic content of the show, Fincher evokes a deeper reaction from his audience because he is able to naturally shift the focus from the story’s plot to the specific ‘mise-en-scene’ of the final images of the episode.

The best moment in the show musically is also the final sequence in the season. Having been caught in his lie with the investigators, Ford leaves Quantico to travel to Oregon where one of the first serial killers he interviewed, Ed Kemper, is in the hospital after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. After a confrontation between Ford and Tench, Led Zeppelin’s “In The Light” begins to play. Opening with an ominous cello-like backdrop and synthesizer solo, the audience already begins to feel on edge.

The song fades out as Ford meets with Kemper. After an intense conversation, Ford leaves the hospital as “In The Light” roars back to its crescendo. All the tension from the opening is relieved, albeit in a way that the reader questions whether Ford is truly better off. Fincher brings the symphonic roller coaster to a close, leaving the viewer to ponder the future within the show.

This is not the first time Fincher has dealt with serial killers in the 1970s. His 2007 film “Zodiac” dealt with the San Francisco-based mass murderer and the various officials and journalists who attempted to unmask him. Fincher uses the same genre of music to create an authentic feel for the 1970s Bay Area—he even reuses the song “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty in “Mindhunter.” Although “Zodiac” is set earlier in the decade than “Mindhunter,” Fincher still creates that subliminal awareness that we are in the past, placing him in good company with other musically-minded directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.


Edward Clifford can be reached at [email protected].

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