Sound to Screen is a recurring feature at Consequence of Sound where our staff talks crucial and iconic uses of music in movies. Previously, Blake Goble discussed Quentin Tarantino’s unrivaled ability to piece together a mixtape soundtrack. This time, Dominick Mayer explores how Trey Parker and Matt Stone captured the chaos of Post-9/11 America … with songs and puppets.
The general American understanding of what constitutes “edgy” in pop culture has changed a lot in the last 10 years. Or at least it feels like it. Maybe we’ve collectively become jaded in the era of the Internet, which, given the existence of cultural artifacts like the BME Pain Olympics or Mr. Hands, could well be the case. (Don’t look those up if you were never a dumb teenage boy circa 2005. Spare yourself the horror.) Having grown up during the rise of the Internet and the general groundswell of cultural change around the turn of the millennium, it’s easy for me to remember the honest-to-God fear that South Park or WWE’s Attitude Era were going to tear apart the very fabric of society and turn children into foul-mouthed miscreants. It’s hard to say whether it’s for better or worse, but we don’t freak out about things that way anymore.
At the vanguard of those panics were Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park’s masterminds and present-day Tony Award winners. They lit a powder keg in the late ‘90s when social mores were becoming less conservative by the day, and it culminated in their masterful 1999 film South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. A lot about that movie is pretty remarkable, but perhaps the most unusual thing about it was how great of a musical it was. The early seasons of South Park had their share of musical dalliances, but the movie was the first time that Parker and Stone wore their apparent love for Broadway on their sleeves. It was outlandish, brilliant, and eventually Oscar-nominated.
It’s appropriate, then, that their next film took the musical conceit and added a semi-obscure British marionette TV series from the 1960s and a staggering amount of Bush-era social commentary to the mix. Appropriate, and deeply strange. But such was the genius of Team America: World Police, a furiously angry, often hysterical attempt on Parker and Stone’s part to make sense of a world cast into fear, paranoia, and violence. With puppets.
The heart of Team America is its show-stopping tunes every bit as much as its rallying cries against patriotic ignorance and celebrity activism. Parker and Stone not only nail the tone of the Jerry Bruckheimer action tentpoles that were only just starting to fall out of cultural favor at the time, but do it in the service of songs that are actually catchy. And so very vulgar. After all, though America might’ve become a little more desensitized by the time the film was released 10 years ago last week, this is a film that takes very little time to assault the senses with a song that loudly declares, “America!/ Fuck yeah!/ So lick my butt and suck on my balls.” Parker and Stone may understand the finer nuances of pop culture, but they’re hardly a subtle tandem.
While Team America does have faults, they’re related mostly to the film’s inability to rein in its many disparate, frothingly angry ideas and opinions about the state of the world into a whole. The film’s greatest attribute is its brilliantly observed satire of jingoistic American action movies, set to songs that honor the soaring nonsense of ballads like “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” even as they’re deconstructed and lovingly harassed. From “America, Fuck Yeah!”, which is just a few less four-letter words away from fitting right in on a Toby Keith album, to the Rent knockoff “Everyone Has AIDS”, Team America shows that it understands how power ballads and show tunes can reach people on a deeper level and then tears into them with glee.
Perhaps the film’s highlight, “The End of an Act” goes after Michael Bay’s woeful Pearl Harbor at the tail end of the joke’s relevance, but with such force that the lack of topicality hardly matters. It’s not just the simple Bay-bashing mentality that a great many film geeks share at work here, though that’s certainly involved; it’s as much an astute sendup of the onerous action movie spectacle and its clichés as anything else. Gary, the film’s wooden (heh) protagonist/hero, is cast off the team, and as he sings to his lost lover about how “I need you like Ben Affleck needs acting school/ He was terrible in that film,” he pensively drives his motorcycle through the desert and stares at landmarks while Contemplating His Next Move. Add three feet and you’re most of the way to every Bruckheimer production’s second act-concluding conflict.
The other standout is “Montage”, which is an even less timely joke spoofing the training montages fashionable in ‘80s Sylvester Stallone vehicles. But as observations on the structural mechanics of the xenophobic actioner go, it’s spot-on. That’s probably the best way to illustrate Team America: it’s extremely of its time, and it’s likely that in a quarter-century the comic setpiece of Hans Blix being fed to sharks will land with a resounding thud. But it also understands the stories Hollywood tells and who those stories are for and pointedly not for, and it’s in this keen observation that a movie made from the rib of post-9/11 nationalism emerges as something unexpectedly timeless. In its childishness and its zeal for shocking a nation that didn’t think it could be shocked any further, Team America captures the chaos of the time as astutely as any other film. Not a bad legacy for a movie that contains a puppet rimming another puppet.