Army Of Thieves knows the power of a good song

Jamie Tram on musical escapism

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I’m Joseph Lew, editor of Netflix Pause. If I showed you my Spotify account, you’d probably be confused. When I say I listen to everything, I mean EVERYTHING. Each year, my most-played songs are a mishmash of alt-rock and ‘70s bops, lofi-beats and cinematic scores.

I’m a sucker for a good soundtrack. I’ll throw on the Call Me By Your Name theme in the shower, or The Farewell one when I’m feeling melancholy. There’s nothing that sets the mood better than a good song, and Army of Thieves’ resident safecracker Sebastian knows this. In one scene in the film, we watch as he prepares to break into one of four legendary safes by playing some iconic operatic tunes.

I couldn’t think of a better fit for this week’s Scene & Heard than Jamie Tram. He’s a skilled musician and action-movie obsessive, making him the perfect person to tackle Army of Thieves in all it’s adrenaline-fuelled melodic marvel. Drawing upon his own experience with the medium, Jamie unpacks the magic of music, explaining how there’s nothing quite as powerful as an epic soundtrack.

JL: Jamie, as a die-hard action fanatic, I knew Army of Thieves would be right up your alley. It’s pure unadulterated mayhem — zombie featurettes, prophetic visions, fourth-wall breaking dialogue, and a team that would give the Money Heist gang a run for their money. But the scene you’ve chosen might just be the most chaotic of all, when safecracker Sebastian hypes himself up to break into the Valkyrie by blasting a little opera...

JT: As you’ve pointed out, this is a movie which thinks big. Most heist movies are usually content with one major score, but Army of Thieves has a total of three safes to crack. As Sebastian explains in the beginning of the film, these are the masterpieces built by legendary fictitious locksmith Hans Wagner. Inspired by the Ring Cycle operas from real-life German composer Richard Wagner, Hans took inspiration from the tragedy, romance, and technical brilliance embedded within them.

A gargantuan vault is already one of the most exciting things on earth, but when it requires a degree in music history to unlock? That truly cranks the volume up to 11 – though I’d expect nothing less from a film produced by Zack Snyder. For someone who grew up immersed in ancient art and myths, I find that the best kind of action film is one that embraces geeky lore like Snyder’s Army of the Dead, which told its heist story through ancient Greek allegory. 

Army of Thieves on the other hand draws more upon Norse mythology; in this scene, Sebastian is working on the second safe, The Valkyrie, based on the Ring Cycle opera of the same name. Before he gets cracking, he whips out the most famous tune from the entire work – The Ride of the Valkyries. It’s an iconic barnstormer which captures the mythical might of Wagner’s opera, and provides the clues for Sebastian to decode the safe.

As someone with no classical musical knowledge whatsoever, I was shook when I realised that the Wagner’s Ring Cycle opera was in fact a real thing. Consider my excitement when I heard Ride of the Valkyries playing too — I feel like it's one of those tunes that everyone is innately familiar with, but just can’t place where from.

The Ring Cycle is indeed real, and I can confirm it’s one of the most bonkers works of music ever committed to manuscript. Completed in 1874, it’s a 15-hour long epic, weaving an elaborate tale of Gods and mortals from both German and Scandinavian folklore. Some have even suggested it inspired The Lord of the Rings! The sheer length and bravado of the opera totally align with Snyder’s sensibility and, as it turns out, this isn’t even the first time The Ride of the Valkyries has featured in his filmography – in Watchmen, this piece accompanied Doctor Manhattan’s Vietnam onslaught, a call-back to its iconic deployment in Apocalypse Now

It’s no coincidence that Snyder is perhaps the only filmmaker who’s successfully translated Wagner’s virtuosic intensity into action cinema. Beyond their shared obsession with Norse mythology, there’s a maximalist streak to their style and drama, which I’m obsessed with. Performing Wagner’s music is one of the most demanding experiences I’ve had as a violinist because it requires you to physically meet him on his level, delivering the intensity of his drama through each stroke of the bow. It can be emotionally engrossing, too; through all the high stakes, both artists tell richly human stories filled with tragedy and pathos, whether it’s a Valkyrie being stripped of her immortality or a man locking his grief away in a quartet of safes. 

I think you’ve described Wagner’s work perfectly – “emotionally engrossing”. There’s something to be said about the power of music more generally too; nothing will ever make me feel as alive as when I’m blasting Lorde's Pure Heroine, or as hyped as when I’m pregaming to some psytrance.

I totally agree. At various points in my life, music has been an all-consuming passion, an inspiration, and a profession. I began learning instruments as a child because they provided a new form of expression, especially as someone who struggled with speech. Watching films like Raiders of the Lost Ark would enrich my understanding of music, as they taught me that a melody could represent characters and themes – a technique pioneered by Wagner himself, coincidentally. Performing Star Wars and Studio Ghibli music on stage as a teenager was such a transformative experience because it would transport me to the very first times I watched those films. Suddenly, I’d be revisiting images seared into my brain, from intergalactic skirmishes to Chihiro’s parents turning into pigs. Those concerts crystalised the idea that all musicians are, essentially, storytellers. It’s enthralling to be an active participant in building those worlds, where you’re interpreting written manuscript through your own artistic voice. 

Not to harp on about the same point, but is it weird that my experience of listening to music so often makes me feel like I’m in a movie? Maybe my brain’s been permanently frazzled from cinema overload, but I feel like I live my life out in a series of montages set to Hall and Oates; there’s nothing like being able to twist and shout your way out of life, baby! It’s funny that you mention Lorde – to me, Solar Power feels perfectly designed for the liberation of emerging from lockdown. 

Okay no, not weird at all! You’ve got to romanticise the shit outta your own life — if you don’t see yourself as Paris Hilton when you’re shopping at Woolies or as Anna Kendrick when you’re singing in the shower, WHAT ARE YOU EVEN DOING?!?! I’m telling you, Sebastian knows what’s up.

I can’t say I’ve ever cracked a high-tech safe before, but I have tried to figure out why my laptop won’t turn on while listening to intense orchestral music (Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Mahler are my go-tos), which basically feels like the same thing. The fact that Sebastian needs music to properly get in the mood is one of the reasons why his character is so incredibly relatable. Most heist movies feature protagonists who are either smooth-talking masterminds (Michael Caine in The Italian Job), stoic professionals (Robert De Niro in Ronin), or dummy thicc dreamboats (Oscar Isaac, Triple Frontier). Sebastian fits none of those archetypes; he’s just a regular, easily flustered guy who’s been dropped into a heist movie, and that’s what I love about him. 

What makes Sebastian even more remarkable is that he doesn’t even care about the money! He’s there for the opportunity to decipher the most labyrinthine puzzle boxes on earth. It’s adorable watching him handle the Valkyrie safe; he practically holds it like a tender, newborn child. He can’t even stop himself from gushing about the story of Wagner’s opera even as they’re being swarmed by interpol agents, because he’s that much of a dork. When he’s not deciphering the most intricate puzzle boxes on earth, he’s constantly in panic at the chaos unfolding around him – a trait which I deeply connect with.

He’s literally a wholesome manchild, and I am here for it. 

As it turns out, the real heist was to steal our hearts!

Jamie Tram is a culture writer, screenwriter, and musician from Naarm/Melbourne.

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