A Knight’s Tale and Marie Antoinette weren’t the first period films to use modern music as a part of their soundtrack, but they are unique in that their settings (the 14th and 18th century) are both the furthest removed from the music that is playing. Also, their characters occasionally appear to as though they’re actually hearing or broadcasting the same music that we are. As both Brian Helgeland’s Tale and Sofia Coppola’s Antoinette are coming up on anniversaries (A Knight’s Tale was released into theaters 15 years ago on May 11, 2001 and Antoinette made its debut at Cannes on May 24th, 10 years ago) we decided to go back and re-watch the films and see which used this modern music in pre-Revolution Europe and see who did it better. To assist, I enlisted Complex’s Kristen Yoonsoo Kim and our conversation is below.
Before we dive into armor and cake, I would like to mention the context of re-watching the films back to back in 2016. In completely different ways, both films attack social status in a way that reverberates to our current political climate—regardless of your aisle allegiance.
Marie Antoinette ignores the masses and focuses on the ridiculous and detached excess of France’s rulers. Even when the revolution happens, Coppola enhances their otherness by not showing the people storming the gates, but instead shows their ruler’s abandonment of their pretty things. On the flip side, A Knight’s Tale attacks nobility from the bottom, as a band of servants assume the identity of a dead nobleman so that they can enter the lancing tournaments they are not allowed access to (because knighthood was only reserved via noble bloodlines). They’re both private clubs. Both films are about the exclusion of people from the ruling class. And both films use pop music to include the audience.
There are a few more similarities between the two that neither Kristen nor I were aware of when we embarked on this journey. Join us! And let us know your favorite musical moments from each in the comments below.
BRIAN FORMO: Because I think it’s a misunderstood masterpiece and one of the best films of the last decade, I’ve seen Marie Antoinette about six times since it’s 2006 release, but only seen A Knight’s Tale the once, in theaters in 2001. Needless to say there was plenty that I’d forgotten from Heath Ledger’s Tale (musically, I only recalled the synchronized dance to David Bowie‘s “Golden Years”). But in watching both of these films back to back, I was struck with how similarly they ebb and flow with the musical choices.
Outside of the obvious modern ball dance sequence—and the shoe icons, as Laura Fraser’s blacksmith engraves the Nike swoosh onto Ledger’s armor, and a pair of Converse shoes is background visible on the floor of Versailles, discarded amongst more time-appropriate attire—there’s a similarity in how music is used to set the character’s confident tone. Each film is top heavy with soundtrack cues throughout the first half—Antoinette favors minimalist guitar strums over swirling electronica, while A Knight’s Tale is busy trying to become your dad’s classic rock CD staple that never leaves his truck), I suppose to get you used to hearing electric guitars and synths in their respective 14th and 18th century settings. But then neither film revisits the trope until much later into the film when all–of-the-sudden there’s a barrage of tracks. Also in each film, the barrage comes when both Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) and William Thatcher (Heath Ledger) essentially say, “screw it” about their love lives. When Antoinette is no longer trying to consummate her marriage with Louis XIV (Jason Schwartzman) and instead regales in all that Versailles has to offer—candy! shoes! masks! roulette! champagne towers! hot young men!—she becomes more comfortable in lounging in her own excess and thus the pop music flows. Converse-ly, when Knight’s William’s lady-in-waiting (Shannyn Sossamon) decides to make him wait and declares that she’ll only love him if he can prove that he can lose, he lays down on his horse and the (lance + classic rock) hits keep coming.
When the music montage is ramped up Marie Antoinette is gaining confidence in her status, despite the whispers of her unsexed situation, and William Thatcher has enough confidence to throw a match—and still win enough to enter a championship tournament—so that he can be properly sexed. I guess music really is all about sex. Having it and not having it. Even in the 14th and 18th centuries.
KRISTEN YOONSOO KIM: Those two ballroom dance scenes with “Golden Years” (A Knight’s Tale) and “Hong Kong Garden” (Marie Antoinette) are great. The use of modern music in period pieces isn’t unique to just those two films, but it’s essential to note that both of the ballroom songs are played within the movie, not played over it. “Hong Kong Garden” starts as an orchestral rendition and then, however illogically, plays on what sounds like loudspeakers in the dance hall. In A Knight’s Tale, the medieval dance is basically choreographed to “Golden Years” and you catch a glimpse of Heath Ledger mouthing “angel” when Bowie sings, “Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere, angel.” Both scenes illustrate Coppola and Helgeland’s interest in the cinematic over historical accuracy. It works beautifully in both cases, and both keep to the cheeky modern imagery throughout (i.e. the shoes and logos, as you’ve mentioned).
I think the sudden barrage is more evident in Marie Antoinette. The first half of that film is backed by instrumental sections of Radio Dept. and Windsor for the Derby songs before full-blown decadence, matched by appropriately decadent ’80s tracks (Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy”!) and even more modern ones, i.e. The Strokes.
FORMO: Yes, the fact that “Hong Kong Garden” had the tinny sound like it was actually bouncing off the walls of Versailles was a great touch by Coppola (plus it’s such a great song and the peek-a-boo decadence fits Dunst’s and Coppola’s interpretation of Antoinette more than Bowie fits Knight’s William Thatcher who’s kinda just a classical bro; he can’t stomach a kiss on the lips from Alan Tudyk’s man servant, so definitely not Bowie-esque.). That real life loudspeaker sound is something that could’ve benefited A Knight’s Tale, to be honest. Yes, the crowd does stomp, clap and sing along to Queen‘s “We Will Rock You”) when they’re awaiting the knights to ride up to their match. And it does open the discussion of how the bloodlust of sports has always been barbaric—even when it’s not set inside the stadiums of Ancient Rome or the modern football palaces in Seattle and Dallas, but equally present in minimalist dirt fields with few spectators.
In that regard, 15 years later it’s particularly unnerving to watch William suffer major blows to the head and lose consciousness under his helmet a la modern football and the science of the long term effects of concussions on memory loss and dementia. William’s tactic of not lowering his head to receive those blows is mentioned as a mark of bravery by other knights—similar to how some football tacklers are given praise for sacrificing their body for a harder hit. But Helgeland doesn’t go far enough for me. They just sing and clap along to our stadium tunes at the start of the film. Was that the only village that knew this tribal hymn? Shouldn’t another match or two have similar audience participation? Granted The White Stripes‘ “Seven Nation Army” didn’t exist in 2001 (which would’ve been perfect for this world), but Gary Glitter‘s “Rock and Roll, Parts One and Two” wouldn’t have been too hard to reproduce in a tournament setting. Once that door was opened in the opening credits it’s kinda too bad that it was swiftly closed.
I want to put another feather in Sofia’s cap, however, in the use of Siouxsie and the Banshee‘s “Garden” opus. We witnessed a choreographed dance earlier in Marie Antoinette, at Marie and Louie’s wedding. It is set to classical music. “Garden” is the only other dance sequence that we have in the film and it’s set to this post-punk anthem. It’s a more whimsical song than say, Gang of Four‘s punk track that opens the film (aside: the credits use a similar wheat paste look that the Sex Pistols used to plead, “God Save the Queen” on some of their most famous artwork), and that whimsy (plus the masks) allow for Marie and her horde to drop the royal movements in the ballroom. Groping, drunken falls, and the revolutionary idea of a woman of power taking a side lover ensue (not unlike Rip Torn‘s King who kept his favorite mistress, Asia Argento, in his living quarters).
Which brings me a segue question, since we’re both big fans of post punk, how do you see the punk amongst the Marie Antoinette pinks? And does the classic rock soundtrack to A Knight’s Tale add anything extra than familiarity? It’s worth mentioning at this moment that Coppola used no original score in Antoinette but Helgeland did use a score from Carter Burwell, but it isn’t all strings, as Burwell even orchestrated an electric guitar track or two in betwixt the splintered lances and WAR tracks.
KIM: You understand from the get-go—with that Gang of Four intro—that Marie Antoinette is no ordinary biopic. Sure, Coppola doesn’t use an original score like Helgeland did with Burwell but she does rely pretty heavily on classical music to illustrate some of the earlier scenes, something that’s important in contrasting with her later ones. I think Coppola’s intent was to depict the young queen of France as just a teenage girl with teen girl sensibilities. Classical music is stuffy! Her husband is weird and loves making keys in his free time! But she breaks free of that stuffiness, and that’s when the barrage of post-punk comes in. That’s why that Bow Wow Wow “I Love Candy” montage with the cakes and the Converse sneaker is such cathartic eye (and ear) candy. What kind of lifestyle would a teenage girl prefer?
Coppola uses upbeat post-punk and indie rock to paint a picture of a girl who was asked to be a queen before she even had a chance to grow up. I totally get what she was going for here, and why I think it’s a deeply underrated/misunderstood Coppola film. It helps that the soundtrack mirrors my own taste in music. I think Coppola does a better job marrying music with her film—in fact that’s one of the things she does best. In A Knight’s Tale, the music feels more like a modern interpretation of the spectacle (like hearing “We Will Rock You” at a game). It elevates human excitement around sporting events (or dancing), and modern music only emphasizes that that kind of excitement is timeless. I think the use of music here is a little bit more obvious.
FORMO: Yes, A Knight’s Tale is very on the nose. The selections were written directly into the script as a way to get that simple goose pimple feeling. For instance when they return to London, cue Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.” A number of the songs that are in Marie Antoinette were chosen while editing, but a few, were played as pick-me up songs on set by Coppola to get the crew ready to go again after spending all that time in make-up (like Adam and the Ants‘ “The Wild Frontier” and “Hong Kong Garden”) which is such an appropriate response for a character who’s shown partying until the sun comes up—because she can and she has the personal freedom to do so.
Non-musical aside before we get into our favorites, neither of us remembered that Tom Hardy made an appearance in Antoinette. Of course, he wasn’t TOM HARDY in 2006. But he is thanked for bringing oysters to a party and his appearance in the film, re-watching it now (and in the context of rock music) kinda feels like discovering (years after the fact) that maybe Lou Barlow was the most talented Dinosaur, Jr. member after releasing albums on his own as Sebadoh. i.e. Dunst’s Antoinette lusts after Jamie Dornan’s soldier-with-a-blank-face, but she’s got TOM HARDY bringing her oysters! Hindsight is 20/20 on who she should be having the affair with.
On a similar note, re-watching A Knight’s Tale, is still notable for more than reminding us how charismatic Heath Ledger was (R.I.P.), but also how natural Paul Bettany is in his butt-naked scenes. There are hints of Vision there in his no-big-deal stride.
KIM: Oyster Tom Hardy! Now I’ll never forget. So we can both agree Coppola used modern music better, yes?
FORMO: 100x. We had a bias coming in and it was proved true. But there were more parallels in the films than I thought would’ve been. Heck, even in rebelling against arranged marriages in both! Both women were kinda punk swaddled in decadence! Sossamon’s modern sheer plunging necklines were even more in your face than Antoinette’s pair of Converses. Antoinette is a much better film, but A Knight’s Tale does have some winning swagger, despite the rather basic music choices.
Okay, let’s get to favorite musical moments from each. Ladies, first.
KIM: In A Knight’s Tale, no scene—musical or otherwise—comes close to “Golden Years.”
KIM: As for Antoinette, certainly some scenes are more memorable than others in Antoinette. I’ve talked about “I Want Candy” and “Hong Kong Garden” but Marie Antoinette’s birthday party set to “Ceremony” by New Order has got to be my favorite. It’s so joyous but that song always makes me cry (with feels). What a scene: Rose Byrne does coke and then cackles. Jason Schwartzman doesn’t want to stay up to watch the sunrise. Kirsten Dunst is unadulterated joy.
FORMO: I actually think that the Bow Wow Wow “Candy” montage in Antoinette is the only misstep in the film. More so for placement, not the actual montage itself. But it abruptly follows a dramatic scene where Antoinette runs away from the whispers in the halls about why she’s to blame for to having giving birth to an heir yet. She crumbles in a heap against the wall and slides to the floor in tears. The cut to the first legit pop music afterward and a montage of eating cakes is a little too jarring. It skips a beat. Everyone knows when you’re making a mix you gotta have tracks that build into the next. That’s the only quibble I have with the whole film.
My favorite, then, from Antoinette is a different running scene that’s perfectly matched by The Strokes’ “What Ever Happened”. She’s just received a love letter and is running (as fast as she can in the restrictive, elaborate dress) to jump into her bed in bliss (and to vogue). Touching on the teen excitement mentioned earlier, this song, image and performance are timeless perfection. Then the camera pulls out to show Versailles and its monstrous size.
From, A Knight’s Tale, though I’d admonished it for being on-the-nose earlier, I’m going with Thin Lizzy’s “Boys Are Back in Town” because of how it does play into the status of the time, as Ledger looks for a version of his younger self—a poor kid wanting to be a knight, despite that that could only occur through proving noble blood lineage—as he arrives back into the town he grew up in.