Like most art, Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1997 film Men in Black is a reflection of its time: Its imagery and ideas are decidedly of the 1990s, but what most stands out is its music. Danny Elfman’s masterful orchestration combined the sounds of ‘50s and ‘60s sci-fi and spy movies with contemporary police procedurals and courtroom dramas for a score that perfectly complements the script and performances. While not as iconic as his scores for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, it in some ways echoed his work with Tim Burton on Beetlejuice and the Batman films. Meanwhile, star Will Smith delivered the lead single for his first solo studio album, Big Willie Style, as the movie’s credits track, with corny lyrics and a silly video that only works because of the Fresh Prince’s incredible charisma. It’s the tale of two music and film icons approaching the heights of their powers—Elfman and Smith would return for two sequels, but neither would reach the heights of the original Men in Black.
Men in Black adapts a short Aircel Comics series (credited to Marvel because they bought Malibu, which bought Aircel) focused on a secret global extra-governmental agency that polices extraterrestrial activity on earth. It’s 97 well-paced minutes of sci-fi action-comedy that deserves better sequels than it got, or, optimally, no sequels at all (though the WB Kids cartoon was admittedly solid). It’s a film with a credited “bug wrangler” (Mark Jackson) because the main antagonist (Vincent D’Onofrio) is a giant alien cockroach who keeps scores of the earthling version of the insect literally up his sleeves. But what stuck with me most from the film as a child, before I’d ever heard the Patrice Rushen song “Forget Me Nots” that it heavily samples, was Will Smith’s “Men in Black.”
“Men in Black” peaked at number one for Billboard’s U.S. Radio Songs and number two for Mainstream Top 40. In fact, it was a global success that peaked in the top two across Europe. It also has a sweet music video (with CGI that’s aged considerably worse than that in the actual film):
How many people could confidently and successfully rap lyrics like “From the deepest of the darkest of night/On the horizon bright light enters sight, tight/Cameras zoom on the impendin’ doom/But then like “boom” black suits fill the room up/With the quickness talk with the witnesses?”
Is that hot fire? Are those capital-B Bars? I wouldn’t claim so. I would even argue that it needs at least one more pass with a pen—this part of the second verse especially—but it was certified Platinum in five countries (double Platinum in a sixth) and Gold in three more (triple Gold in a fourth). Smith won the 1998 Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance over “Hypnotize” by The Notorious B.I.G.
Allow me to repeat myself: Will Smith’s unoriginal ode to the alien border patrol won Best Rap Solo Performance over one of Biggie’s most popular songs the year Biggie died. “Men in Black” also came with an accompanying dance. Did anyone do the dance? I was two-and-a-half and living in California, so I don’t know if the clubs in Australia and Germany were filled with people “making their neck work,” but at the very least, an effort was made.
Aside from Smith’s lyrics, “Men in Black” is mostly its sample, “Forget Me Nots” (something I might not have realized until I was in double digits, but was probably apparent to lots of people that weren’t two-and-half when the movie came out). It’s a superior song that’s melody and chorus were copied, its lyrics reworked to address the premise of the film and sung by the Grammy-nominated Coko, formerly of Sisters With Voices. Because we don’t live in a just world, “Forget Me Nots” didn’t chart quite as highly, but I can’t stress how close a copy “Men in Black” is. It feels closer to the relationship between Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby” and Queen’s “Under Pressure” than the difference between Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” and Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love.” But more important than the song that plays in the end credits is the score that plays throughout.
For Men in Black, 2022 Coachella champion Danny Elfman composed and orchestrated pieces that aren’t his most remarked-upon but remain interesting and intuitive. The Men in Black score invites mystery and anticipation. From its first moments it sounds and feels spooky, evoking James Bond and ‘60s television like The Twilight Zone and Get Smart.
Smith’s character is introduced while chasing an alien in disguise, the stop-and-start of a drumbeat builds tension between an escalating bassline, long-exhaling horns and running string patterns that remind just a little bit of the Batman theme. As he’s chasing a suspect through an office building, the music winds as if he’s going through a maze, the horns hiccupping and cutting off at their confrontation. Once he meets Kay (Tommy Lee Jones), the sci-fi detective music from the introduction returns. When D’Onofrio’s Edgar the Bug first shows up, dense thrumming strings add to his menace, punctuating his violent surprise of an exterminator. When Kay gives Jay the low-down on the Men in Black agency, there are a mix of soft and heavy strings, sharp violins and piano, intermittently plucking after the conversation to give the sensation of an idea picking at the character, immersing the audience in his mind; a clock ticking. Bass comes back in to show the passing of time as Jay watches the sunset and combines with horns as he looks at the Hudson Bay, giving the feeling of a police procedural like NYPD Blue or Law & Order. The strings rise before the crash of a bass drum to punctuate the transition to a new day.
When Jay returns to the agency, “Headquarters” communicates his entrance into a new world. While a snare drum and trumpet sound almost patriotic, inviting a call to duty, the strings emphasize the operation’s otherworldliness by providing a space-age sound—they combine the heroic and the unknown. The drums and strings of “The Suit” reminds you of the Superman theme, presaging Captain America, the wind and brass still meshing the patriotic pomp with that of outer space. When Jay unwittingly assists in the delivery of an alien baby, angelic strings lead into thumpier ones, imbuing the sense of wonder at a new birth with the very different sense of wonder from interacting with extraterrestrials.
The score’s total playtime is only 42 minutes against a film runtime just short of 98 minutes, which means there is space within the film without the score to give its dialogue and movement breathing room, as well as re-interpolations of the main theme and D’Onofrio’s alien introduction (“Edgar’s Truck/A New Man”) to reiterate familiar feelings of excitement and dread. But still, there were specific touches. “Petit Mort” is so-named because it narrates the death of a miniature alien, underscoring the tragedy with alternating light and heavy strings. The longest track on the score is the emphatic and intense “Take Off/Crash,” where Edgar nearly causes humanity’s extinction as he attempts to escape with the MacGuffin (a galaxy hidden in a marble carried around a cat’s neck that the alien roaches will use to power some sort of weapon), before being brought crashing down by Kay and Jay’s plasma-fireball rifles. The piece begins at MiB headquarters, pausing for Kay to play Elvis (the only diegetic music in the film) while driving upside-down on the ceiling of the tunnel, before returning as we see the villainous Edgar climbing up to the ship with coroner Dr. Laurel Weaver (Linda Fiorentino). The seven-minute piece continues as Jay and Kay fight Edgar—with Kay being swallowed whole before shooting his way out and Jay having to fight him with a 2×4 and goad him by crushing roaches—concluding as they sit, covered in slime, before Weaver saves them with one of their own weapons, the song calming into wind, soft strings and a couple of chimes. Whether intended literally or metaphorically, the visual language is reaffirmed by the musical cues that remind the audience, as they have throughout the film, that there’s more to the world around them than they might think.
Two years after this massive success, Will Smith would collaborate with Sonnenfeld again, for the critical and commercial failure Wild Wild West, best remembered as the film he starred in instead of taking the role of Neo in The Matrix. The widely-panned steampunk Western was accompanied by Elmer Bernstein’s good score, and its soundtrack shared a lead single with Will Smith’s second solo album Willennium. “Wild Wild West” featured Dru Hil and Kool Moe Dee (heavily sampling Stevie Wonder’s 1976 song “I Wish” and Kool Moe Dee’s 1988 song “Wild Wild West”). The music video, which played after the credits on the VHS, featured both sampled artists as well as Fresh Prince of Bel-Air co-star Alfonso Ribeiro.
Danny Elfman and Will Smith weren’t exactly musical peas in a pod. The composer and rock musician’s thematic references to past musical works were more stylistically resonant with the film’s genres and less dependent on wholesale sampling. But Smith’s dancey pop-rap stylings worked as punctuation for Elfman’s score. Elfman’s composition created the film’s tone, Smith’s record channeled its personality. In 1997, their disparate musical styles came together for a one-of-a-kind film that’s success has never been replicated.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.