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The Cover Song Rule: How to Tell if a Reboot is Any Good

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | October 14, 2014 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | October 14, 2014 |

Rebecca wrote an excellent piece last week about why certain movies or television shows are able to be rebooted while others are simply “unrebootable”. This was in the wake of the news that Say Anything was getting the reboot treatment on television, followed by Cameron Crowe declaring war via Twitter, and its quick cancellation before anyone got too hurt. Dustin celebrated in his typical manner by burning piles of Dawson’s Creek DVDs, smearing himself in mud, smoking peyote made of ground-up Fox executives, and dancing nude around the fire. It’s an exquisite tradition, deserving of proper anthropological study some day.

But I wanted to chime in because I have a very specific theory on this particular question, a rule of thumb such as it is.

It’s the same approach that should be taken when asking if a band should cover a song. Because that’s all that reboots, remakes, and all the other slight variations we use on the theme really are underneath: they’re cover songs of an old greatest hit.

These days, we see the “dark and gritty” reimaginings of old material, to the point that it’s become a modern cliché. But the reason we’re seeing that is because the old school materials that we draw upon rarely have that feel, so it’s a shorthand easy route to doing something original and different. Of course, often that’s all the imagination that is had in these attempts, but it’s one point of easy departure. It’s like during the nineties when there kept being swing covers of old songs, or the ought’s predilection for acoustic versions of the rap songs of the preceding decade. They are templates being widely applied.

Remember how U2 covered All Along the Watchtower on Rattle and Hum way back in the day? Overall it’s a fantastic album, but that cover has essentially no point. Not because it’s not well enough done, but because it’s just the Hendrix cover performed by a different band. It has the same attitude, the same basic sound, the same basic take. And there was no way to cover it on Hendrix’s terms and come out on top. Of course the Hendrix version is a cover, but the reason it works is not because it’s better than Dylan’s original, but because it’s a completely different take on the same song. Years later, Battlestar Galactica, a cover song that surpassed its original in every way, went and used a cover of All Along the Watchtower in a climactic season ending scene. And it worked too, because it was fundamentally different than either the Dylan or the Hendrix versions of the song. It was soft and haunting but brash in a way that had not been applied to that song before.

Movies and television work that same way. The question isn’t whether you’ve got a talented team or actors, the question is whether you’re doing an original take on the source material. It’s the question of whether you’re going to be U2 or whether you’re going to be Hendrix.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.