clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How to Choose the Right Cover Song for a Movie Trailer

Look what ‘The Social Network’ hath wrought

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Allow me take you back to a more innocent time: July 15, 2010, a day with historical significance that we’re only just beginning to comprehend. It was a day in which same sex marriage was legalized in Argentina, Goldman Sachs settled a fraud case for half a billion dollars, energy drinks were en vogue, people were allegedly excited for The Green Lantern, and someone bought Roy Rogers’s horse, Trigger, for $266,500. But most importantly, it was the last day before somber covers in movie trailers invaded in our lives, for on July 16, this was released:

As Drake says, nothing was the same. In the seven years since the first trailer for The Social Network, "edgy" sad covers of popular, often not-sad songs have been a mainstay in the film-promotion industry, from a wailing take on "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door" by Antony and the Johnsons to a creepy cover of "I’ve Got No Strings" from Pinocchio to the reboot of the Eurythmics’ "Sweet Dreams" for the A Wrinkle in Time trailer that was released just last weekend. Thirty-four trailers have featured cover songs in the past three years alone.

A big movie trailer featuring a cover isn’t the only thing that’s inevitable at this point. The kind of cover these promos resort to are just as predictable. By dissecting the songs that have been used since 2014 — the genres and eras of the original songs, the styles of the actual covers — we can see clear tendencies.

Almost half the time, the covers are of a rock song from the ’60s or ’70s. (If someone really wants to be an innovator in the "trailer cover song" space, they should drop a cover of song that’s been out for less than seven years — it’s truly never been done. Just a tip, second trailer for Murder on the Orient Express: Go really next-level and use a cover of Imagine Dragons’ "Believer.") But a true assurance in terms of these covers is their tone — they’re almost all extremely dour. Rating the songs on a scale of 1–5, 1 being "most somber" and 5 being "sincerely upbeat," a stark amount — 28 out of 34 covers — end up on the low end of the scale.

With these clear trends in mind, it shouldn’t be too hard to predict the next onslaught of trailer cover songs. Enjoy the following original tracks as much as you can, because soon, a stripped-down version of them may end up juxtaposed with a CGI image of a purple villain named Thanos.

"Joy to the World" — Three Dog Night

Cover by: Sia
In the Trailer for: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Probability: The Highest

A fun fact: The word world is used in the title of eight of these 34 covers. That’s because one thing these trailers like to do is use a song that is hopeful about the world for scenes that depict the exact opposite. An apocalyptic cover of Louie Armstrong’s "What a Wonderful World" plays as Shailene Woodley leaps over the ash of a ruined city in the Insurgent trailer; a cover of Cat Stevens’s "Wild World" scores the utter chaos of a trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s almost shocking that no one has subverted the jubilant chorus of Three Dog Night’s "Joy to the World" yet, but it’s going to happen. Sia will breathily and slooowly sing "Joy to the world / All the boys and girls," as children scatter in fear from a Tyrannosaurus rex.

"Dream On" — Aerosmith

Cover by: An all-boys choir
In the Second Trailer for: Ready Player One
Probability: Very High

[Fade in to a boy climbing among a city of rubble]

Voice-over: "They called our generation the missing millions …"

[Music swells, an all-boys choir chants: "Sing with me / Sing for the years."]

Voice-over: "… Missing, not because we went anywhere …"

[The choir’s chants become louder: "Sing for the laughter / Sing for the tears."]

Voice-over: "There’s nowhere left to go."

[And even louder: "Sing with me / Just for today / Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away."]

Voice-over: "Nowhere, except the OASIS."

[Smash-cut to a montage of totally sick action scenes.]

[The choir chants "dream on" repeatedly, steadily increasing in octave until it’s just a shrill noise.]

[Cut to black.]

Watch out for this trailer, coming within the next month or so.

"(Don’t Fear) The Reaper" — Blue Oyster Cult

Cover by: Imagine Dragons (and miscellaneous orchestra)
In the Trailer for: Robin Hood: Origins
Probability: High

Some trailers go the extra mile in wave-riding, not only using a cover song, but also making that cover song sound like a Hans Zimmer score (see: Transformers: The Last Knight, Dracula Untold). I can’t see Robin Hood: Origins, a "gritty take on the classic story," going any other route but this. And "(Don’t Fear) The Reaper," a ’70s rock song with a universally known melody and lyrics, plus canned eeriness, feels like a song that is just dying to be Zimmer-fied — with distorted vocals from the lead singer of Imagine Dragons, a premier movie trailer band. Can’t you just imagine a crunchy-sounding guitar playing that riff while Taron Egerton–as–Robin Hood cuts down a lord in slow motion?

"White Room" — Cream

Cover by: Coldplay
In the Trailer for: Avengers: Infinity War
Probability: Medium-High

Believe it or not, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s trailers have almost entirely avoided this trend. The only offender was Avengers: Age of Ultron, which used that cover of "I’ve Got No Strings." For the first trailer of Infinity War, though, I’ll bet they go back to the well and tap Chris Martin and Co. to make a mournful cover of "White Room," a song with an epic intro that is practically baiting trailer producers. A single, old-sounding violin will play the first notes of the song, while drummer Will Champion bangs on a few spare bass drums (like in the "Viva La Vida" video!), all before Martin slowly and forlornly sing-talks the lyrics.

"Man in Black" — Johnny Cash

Cover by: An old-timey piano
In the Second Trailer for: Season 2 of Westworld
Probability: Medium-High

Between his own covers and covers of his songs, Johnny Cash has shown up in multiple trailers in the past three years. And boy, do I have a plum of a pairing for his next appearance. Sampling Radiohead and "Black Hole Sun" and more on its robotic piano in Season 1, Westworld established song covers as a running theme, and set itself up for using the trope in trailers for the coming season. Lo and behold, the first trailer for Season 2 that was released during Comic-Con opened with that piano playing Sammy Davis Jr.’s "I’ve Gotta Be Me." A good song with appropriate lyrics ("I want to live, not merely survive / And I won’t give up this dream") but here’s an even more fitting song, because, well, Westworld has a character who is LITERALLY named the Man in Black.


Load up the old-timey piano with Johnny Cash’s sheet music, run it over a trailer consisting solely of new footage of Ed Harris, and call it a day. As the past few years have proved, it’s really that easy.