A good song choice in a movie or TV show can create atmosphere and elevate a scene. But when a movie becomes too reliant on needle drops, the constant use of songs grows old fast.
Such is the case of Cruella, an otherwise enjoyable origin story burdened by a music licensing budget too big for its own good.
Let me start by saying that Cruella‘s soundtrack isn’t bad by any means. In fact, it’s chock-full of amazing songs, especially from British artists of the ’60s and ’70s. Songs by Queen, David Bowie, The Clash, and many others do great work in establishing the movie’s era, setting, and tone.
But there are just far, far too many of them. To put it in perspective, there are well over 30 non-original songs throughout the movie, which is 134 minutes long (including credits). That means there’s a new needle drop roughly every four to five minutes.
The result is that Cruella‘s behemoth of a soundtrack often pulls focus from a scene instead of complementing it, with song choices ranging from unnecessary to comically obvious.
Take, for example, the movie’s final needle drop, which comes as Cruella de Vil (Emma Stone) takes over Hellman Hall. The song that plays is the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” which is ridiculously on the nose for a movie with a protagonist named de Vil. Instead of ending the film on a triumphant note, the song choice feels like a bad punchline for a two-hour long setup.
Cruella‘s behemoth of a soundtrack often pulls focus from a scene instead of complementing it, with song choices ranging from unnecessary to comically obvious.
What’s even more egregious about the use of “Sympathy for the Devil” is that it comes right after a mere snippet of Black Sabbath’s “The Wizard.” It’s two needle drops one right after another, and it makes you wonder, “did we really need both of these songs?” No, one would have been enough.
This whole sequence also reminds me of the time “Sympathy for the Devil” was used in the first five minutes of Suicide Squad, a movie with a very similar soundtrack problem. If the last scene of your movie has me thinking about the beginning of Suicide Squad, then something has gone very wrong.
“Sympathy for the Devil” is not the first song in Cruella to remind me of other movies’ soundtracks. For example, “One Way or Another” by Blondie plays during the montage of Cruella upstaging the Baroness (Emma Thompson) — the same song has appeared in many other movies, including during a similar montage in Mean Girls, when Cady, Janis, and Damian try to get revenge on Regina George. Then there’s Judy Garland’s version of “Smile” from Modern Times, played when the Baroness leaves Cruella to burn alive. Jimmy Durante’s version of the same song is used in Joker, which does not help stop the comparisons between these two films.
Here’s the thing: Movies are more than welcome to reference other movies, including through their soundtracks. However, many of the songs in Cruella, like “Sympathy for the Devil,” have been used so often in other movies and TV shows that by the time you hear them in Cruella, you’ve grown tired of them.
To Cruella‘s credit, there are moments when the soundtrack really lands. Using brief bursts of Joe Tex’s “I GOTCHA” during cutaway gags is an inspired comedic choice that never overstays its welcome, and “Time of the Season” by The Zombies perfectly accompanies our first introduction to the glamor of the Liberty store (and the drudgery of Estella’s job there).
Still, in a soundtrack this full of solid tunes, it’s clear that not all of them will be given prime placement. Much of the rest of Cruella‘s soundtrack falls into the category of “great songs that don’t have too much of an impact.” That’s a huge problem. All of the songs on this soundtrack are too good to be wasted. If they’re not doing anything for the movie, they should be removed.
Which brings us to the easiest way to fix the Cruella soundtrack: Simply cut back on the needle drops, especially the ones that aren’t extremely effective. Removing 10 tracks — or even halving the number of songs entirely — would allow the remaining songs to be more powerful when they appear.
Cutting songs from the soundtrack would also give Nicholas Britell’s score more time to shine. Britell is the composer behind Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Succession, among many others. His work on Cruella is dark and playful, like the title character herself, with a rock influence that complements the movie’s references to the 1970s London punk rock scene. It’s highly effective, when it isn’t being overshadowed by an overloaded soundtrack.
Cruella may delight in its protagonist being bad, but its soundtrack is proof that too much of a good thing can bog down a movie. Here’s hoping that the sequel tones down its song choices — and stays far, far away from using “Sympathy for the Devil” again.