MINI-ESSAY: Hey, Rewind That! The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

People who know me know that I will take any opportunity to discuss my favorite movie of 2015, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Whether it’s Armie Hammer’s warbling Russian accent, Henry Cavill in a three-piece suit, delicious polyamorous shipping fodder, “It. Doesn’t. Have. To Match.,” or the scene where Cavill and Alicia Vikander zipline over the Berlin Wall, there’s nothing I don’t love about this slick, fashionable, trope-tastic miracle of a movie.

But for “Hey Rewind That,” I specifically want to talk about the music. Or, rather one tiny musical moment that’s so brief that you might have missed it the first time you saw it in theaters. (I’m assuming that everyone went to see it two days in a row, like I did. Right?) Daniel Pemberton’s original score for The Man from U.N.C.L.E has set the mood well for the jaunty, blasé spy craft our protagonists get up to (he discusses his process on some of the tracks here. Woven into his shimmy-worthy score are a collection of classic period-ish songs, from Roberta Flack’s “Compared to What” adding a wry touch in the opening credits, to a pretty successful attempt to beat the use of Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me” from Dirty Dancing. (The soundtrack is worth a listen just by itself.)

At about halfway through the movie, Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya (Armie Hammer) rush back to their Rome hotel after a night of spying gone awry, hoping that they haven’t blown their cover with the villainous Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki). As they zoom back to the city on a moped, Victoria rushes over to the hotel accompanied by sinister henchmen; the action is scored with the percussive jam “Jimmy, Renda-se,” a 1970 track by the Brazilian Tom Zé and Valdez. We cut back and forth between the hapless spies making a run for it and the ice-cold femme fatale knowing she’s won, and yet we’re never particularly frightened that catastrophe is awaiting the protagonists just out of reach because the whole affair is treated with a light touch.

Victoria shows up at Solo’s hotel room, hoping to catch him sneaking back and thus confirm her suspicions that he is, in fact, spying on her. As she unlocks his door, she lifts her finger to silence her henchmen waiting around the corner—and silences Tom Zé and Valdez mid-word, adding to the suspense when she opens the door, planning on beating Solo to the punch. The music has, for an instant, swapped from non-diegetic background accompaniment to diegetic sound, demonstrating Victoria’s confidence, and her belief that she has total control over the situation.
Musical transitions from diegetic to non-diegetic happen much more commonly in films I’ve seen, where a song playing on a radio gradually becomes a part of the background to the action itself; indeed, musical cues follow this same pattern twice in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. alone. But reversing it—taking an element of film post-production, a flourish that’s usually added in the editing room, and using it as an identifying flash of characterization for a dangerous villainess—it’s only a step or two below being able to break the fourth wall in terms of character agency, and adds a definite sense of style and verve to what might have been an ordinary, rote chase scene. That’s the secret of how you can revamp an established intellectual property, or breathe life into a pretty-much played-out genre: you pay attention to the little things.