Music can elevate drama.
At its best, a score or a precisely selected song can turn a powerful moment in a television show or movie into something even more profound and mentally lucid. You dig into the moment more, sitting right there with the characters due to the interaction of a tune and its emotional force.
Few shows captured that better than Byron Balasco’s “Kingdom.” The Netflix-rescued DirecTV hit series about a family of MMA fighters and the gym that houses their drama calibrated all of its greatness into a set list that includes the likes of, but is definitely not limited to: Deer Tick, The Howls, Roddy Walston and The Business, The Fratellis, The Palace Steps, The Zion Travelers, Brad Armstrong, Mozes and the Firstborn, and even the punk rock band, The Casualties.
Over the course of three seasons and 40 episodes, these tunes were suddenly filtered into my personal playlist, which gave me a chance to relive those episodes outside the house on a run or during a long drive. Take Deer Tick’s “Goodbye, Dear Friend,” a song that will take a piece out of you before it reaches the final seconds of its run. Placed in a pivotal scene late in the second season with Jonathan Tucker’s Jay Kulina preparing for the fight of a lifetime after someone very close to him was murdered, the song pierced through the screen. By the end, I was thinking about my family and friends who were taken too soon. In the right moment in time and space, a song on a show can transcend.
In the magnificent series finale, “Lie Down in The Light,” the wonderful “Slow” from The Fratellis penetrated the final moments, right up until Frank Grillo’s Alvey was sitting alone and wounded in a locker room shower. The Zion Travelers packed some punch into their short yet sweet “The Blood,” which opened an episode in Season 3 as Alvey trained for his fight with Matt Hughes. As Grillo whipped around the cage, throwing shadow punches at his demons and trying to fight off the neurological pain surging through his body, we heard those precious words howling Zion and company.
The Palace Steps’ “Nothing but a Fight” could have been used as wrapping paper for the entire series and its plight, a song that boils the troubles and insecurities of fighters down to one line: “This is nothing but a fight.” Like Alvey said, once that bolt drops, you have clarity of purpose. It’s nothing but a fight between you, the other guy, and yourself. A fight that extended into the bitter hours of the night, which I am sure has overtaken Grillo at times during his long run as a fight enthusiast.
It’s not all dreary and sad. Take on Eddie Rabbitt’s “Drivin’ My Life Away,” which opened up that same episode that turned the corner on its close with Tucker and Deer Tick. An upbeat song placed inside a traumatizing moment involving Jay, a clean-up crew, and a notorious hotel room. Balasco wisely mixed a rough moment for one of the main characters, someone as acerbic as anyone, being rendered speechless by a provocative sight. I can watch that cold open four times in a row due to Eddie Rabbitt, Tucker, and the script. All three lean and kick us in the gut right here.
I can’t get into Armstrong’s “Brothers,” which drapes itself over a pivotal scene in the series finale. Often times, like with this tune and several others, the music drowns out the dialogue, taking over the scene for all the right reasons. I love the way that “Kingdom” didn’t need to manipulate or toy with your emotions; they knew the right highway to get there directly without fault. Every time, you were taken aback by a music choice.
Truth: I hadn’t even heard of half of the bands used in the show. But once I heard them and saw their connection to Balasco’s world, I couldn’t leave them alone. I played “Slow” during a rough moment in my life, and I can tell you some solace and calm came to me faster than most songs. I was able to identify its place in the show and then relate to it instantly. Great writing, acting, and basically everything can do that. It just takes you there.
The Kingdom song list is available on Spotify, but here’s a playlist I recently put together, including a Harry Styles song used in the series finale trailer:
“All” by The Howls
“Goodbye, Dear Friend,” “Smith Hill,” “Baltimore Blues No.1” by Deer Tick
“The Blood” by The Zion Travelers
“I Got Skills” by Mozes and The Firstborn
“Don’t Look Down” by Curse of Lono
“Drivin’ My Life Away” by Eddie Rabbitt
“Twenty Odd Years” by The Shades & Trapper Schoepp
“Brothers” by Brad Armstrong
“Slow” by The Fratellis
“Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles
“My Blood. My Life. Always Forward” by The Casualties
“Boys can never tell” by J. Roddy Walston and The Business
Great music can elevate a show to another plain, a place that viewers can relate to and take extra power away from. No show did this better than “Kingdom.”
It’s on Netflix waiting for you.