“Full Metal Jacket:” A soundtrack of unassuming power
The movie “Full Metal Jacket” by famed film director Stanley Kubrick offers just a glimpse into how artistic direction can romanticize and transform war into something breathtakingly beautiful, despite its equally grotesque depiction of death, violence, language and more. The film is a full cinematic blowout capturing a poignant class of pubescent-like marine trainees as they grapple the obstacles of boot camp under the bull-whip tongue of their hilariously harsh drill instructor, into the great challenges they face as they land themselves in the dead-center of the Vietnam war. We follow our main character J.T. “Joker” Davis, played by Matthew Modine, as he is assigned the intriguing position of military journalist and ends up facing the exact trials he is there to record.
Peeling away all the backing with our finger off the trigger as we let the cast step aside and the setting, dialogue, and camera release itself into a form of static darkness, we are left with one simple thing—the soundtrack.
It is unassuming yet gorgeous. Even the album’s cover design is poignant. In an instant, we recognize its irony — BORN TO KILL… born for peace? — and its archaic simplicity reminds us of something immortalizing and sinister, an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the barbaric material it portrays. At the very bottom is Abigail Mead… We see it as such, and – like the rest of the cover – is somewhat disturbing in its simplicity. Who is Abigail Mead?
Abigail Mead isn’t Abigail Mead at all — her real name is Vivian Kubrick. She is Stanley Kubrick’s daughter. The pseudonym comes from Abbott’s Mead, the mansion where her family lived between 1965 and 1979, according to discogs.com. While Vivian has helped to arrange the score of other smaller-scale films, the “Full Metal Jacket ” soundtrack is one of her greatest accomplishments, considering this was the only movie she composed completely — and the most famous. The score within is an experimentation with sound rather than music and its effect on a setting, an emotion, and a psyche. This is not her only project with her father — Vivian had the chance to experiment with her composing, cinematography, and acting skills with some of his other films, including “The Shining” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (IMDB.com).
Included within the score is a robust soundtrack incorporating classic hits such as “Chapel of Love” by the Dixie Cups, “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen, and “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” by Nancy Sinatra. This seems the perfect tipoff to the film’s target era, but connotes a fun, leisurely and jubilant mood, a mere knife of juxtaposition through the core of its storyline. One moment, it’s all transistor radios and crude jokes over cigarettes—the next, it’s snipers, burning buildings, and bodies covered in lime.
The most peculiar—and perhaps the most popular—part of the soundtrack is Vivian Kubrick’s and Nigel Goulding’s “Full Metal Jacket (I Want To Be Your Drill Instructor)” which, though placed at the very beginning of the track list, is nowhere to be found within movie. What we are hearing is an 80’s-hip-hop remix of different training march songs throughout the beginning of the movie— “1, 2, 3, 4, I love the marine corps”; “I don’t want no teenage queen, I just want my M-14” —and the only song to follow this style. The voice you are hearing belongs to the drill instructor, played by R. Lee Hermey, who in fact served as a real drill instructor in the army before this breakout role which catapulted him into the acting realm. The barking you hear was once heard by real marines—was it ever heard against the backdrop of a dissonant computer-generated drum beat and a strange guitar riff? If only…at any rate, this collage-style mashup of barbaric absurdity and unusual hilarity sets the soundtrack rolling.
The score itself, composed of ambient chords and stretches of eerie, breathy quiet, is something born out of a horrific transcendental disturbia. Despite some of the material and dialogue within the movie being considerably comedic or ironic, the bulk of this score seems to suggest differently.
A cavalry drum like a heartbeat with a dissonant bugle horn comprised into the familiar tune of “Full Metal Jacket (I Want to Be Your Drill Instructor)”, which all comes together as an off-kilter rhythm, makes up the tune of “Parris Island.” This track is the 10th on the list and counts as one of the first in the instrumental score. Its absurdity trumps the rest of the ambiance that follows, as it seems a “jollier” tune that brings to mind cavalry marches, boy scouts, and “Moonrise Kingdom ”. Parris Island is the marine corps depot from the first half of the movie, located in South Carolina, and is still an active military training camp to this day. The pattering of the cavalry drum seems only necessary for this setting.
Some more disturbing tracks include “Time Suspended”, “Attack”, “Sniper” and “Leonard”. The first, “Time Suspended”, is the most suspenseful of the four, as the name suggests. Running just over a minute long, this track begins as a cacophony of industrial whir, laid over the dissonant drumming of a heartbeat. There is something quite disturbing about the semblances of reality within its unintelligible rapture—like the feeling of panic as your heartbeat bursts out of your eardrums. “Attack” is another good example of how drums can serve as a suspense mechanism—like the gradual wading of an army through a battlefront, the cascading patter of dissonant drums repeats in succession, growing louder and faster and stopping almost abruptly. The latter two, “Sniper” and “Leonard”, are both nearly one and the same as stretches of low, ghoulish ambiance accompanied by angelic keyboard harmonics and a strange echoey drop noise, like water. The tracks unfold as layers of sound are added and taken away—they stay simple enough to constitute a subconscious background score for whatever disturbing scene they choose to lay underneath.
One of the eeriest tracks on the whole score goes by the name of “Ruins” and is comprised of a cacophony of indistinguishable noise harmonizing as one disturbing loop. Each specific sound holds a familiar connotation—a noise like creaking, scraping, dragging metal; another like the buzzing of insects. The bulk of the song plays a continuous 5-chord loop like an old rickety gate opening part way, and as it drags on over the jumble of underscore, we are driven to the brink of insanity. In all its glory, we can plant ourselves in this setting—one of war-torn Vietnam, steaming putrid smoke as fires rage on, swarming with bugs from the decrepit decay that lays all around what was once an industrialized urban mecca. We can nearly picture the soldiers stepping over the rubble, their combat boots hitting broken concrete and glass under their feet like a slow hallucination, M-15 rifles clung tightly and low to the ground.
The ending of the film suggests a turning of Joker’s faith after his final act, where he turns his body to cover his peace pin. As the ending scene rolls on, it leaves the audience unsure, perhaps confused, as though something is not fully resolved. There is no complete closure—it is still the Vietnam War. Even more, we watch as the soldiers trudge on against a sprawling backdrop of fire and ruin, singing a disturbingly childish song about Mickey Mouse. Even this choice was very intentional—it is an unusual irony that reminds the audience just how juvenile and human these men are against the harsh realities they face. It is a turning of innocence, and the song seems to lose its meaning entirely.
The strategic sound design that Vivian Kubrick constructs is one that is hard to beat. An ability to match emotion with a sound is both brilliant and indispensable when comprising a film score, and one that “Full Metal Jacket” would be sorry to do without. This album is a prime example of how a soundtrack can be more than just a score—it can help to shape the relative emotion and tone of a film. How can the mind decipher what the Vietnam war must have felt like as a soldier—and how does that feeling translate into sound?
To listen yourself: https://open.spotify.com/album/3tpJtzZm4Urb0n2ITN5mwF?si=RznBsFJKQy2AttMIsGLhHw