2020 has been a whirlwind for professional wrestling fans, and while regular programming like WWE’s Monday Night RAW and AEW’s Dynamite have certainly been hurt by the lack of crowd interaction, there have been major highlights, such as Vice TV’s documentary series, Dark Side of the Ring. After receiving plaudits for season 1, creators Jason Eisener and Evan Husney returned with a jam-packed and powerful season 2 in March of 2020, highlighted by two episodes on Chris Benoit and a finale on Owen Hart that moved the hearts of wrestling fans and the ratings for Vice TV. The painful and moving tales of the theatrical world of wrestling, combined with stunning re-enactments and memorable music, truly sets the series apart from anything else in the genre of wrestling documentaries.
In an interview with SteelChair Magazine, Evan Husney spoke about the importance of music in Dark Side, and now the series’ composer, Andrew Gordon Macpherson, gives his insight into how the music came to life. Macpherson, who has created original music for high profile video games like Far Cry 5 and Far Cry: New Dawn, breaks down how he came on board to compose for Dark Side, the original placement of the song “Erased” in the Chris Benoit episode, and he even gives us a tease for season 3 of the series. Enjoy!
Dark Side of the Ring is a wonderful documentary series, but it is, of course, a wrestling documentary series as well. Are you or were you ever a wrestling fan? If so, do you have any memories of watching wrestling?
“I was a WWF fan, pre-attitude era. Shawn Michaels putting Marty Jannetty through the barbershop window was probably the most violent thing I had seen in my life at that point. I never looked at my Rockers action figures the same again. Ultimate Warrior dripping with black ooze from a Papa Shango curse is seared into my mind. I guess a lot of people hate that angle, but when I was a kid, that shit terrified me!”
Dark Side has undoubtedly become one of the most talked-about wrestling documentaries in 2020, but it also set records not related to wrestling, such as setting Vice TV rating records. How did you become involved in composing the music for the series, and what was your initial reaction to working on this type of project?
“Jason [Eisener, director/creator] and I went to film school together in Nova Scotia. Afterwards, I left and was working in post-production in Montréal and Toronto before taking a hiatus to pursue some music production work and touring with Jacques Greene’s live show playing synths. I reconnected with Jason on the feature film Goon: Last of the Enforcers, where we spent a whole year together sharing music and movies and videos, jamming on ideas, and rekindling our friendship. I would compose little pieces for sizzle reels on other projects of his and wrote about half a dozen sample pieces for Dark Side before it was greenlit. By the time the pilot was happening, we could read each other’s minds.”
When I spoke to Evan Husney earlier this year and I asked him about the unique visual style of the series, he went on to say, “the music kind of carries the momentum of the show; the music is really what drives it.” Did Evan and Jason ever stress how important the music was going to be to the show?
“Absolutely. I think Jason has an incredible gift for crafting sequences and uses music so powerfully in all his work. I learned a lot from watching him work on Goon 2 and absorbed some of those instincts and put them into my work on the show. Evan and Jason had the dream to try and make each episode have its own genre/sound, and music plays a massive part in that. They really make me feel like an important part of the construction/reconstruction of the story.”
This year especially, documentaries like Dark Side and The Last Dance, in their own ways, have highlighted just how important music can be to documentaries. I feel documentaries can sometimes forget how much great non-diegetic music can positively affect the final product. Would you agree with that?
“I would agree! I think it comes down to a philosophical difference between filmmakers when it comes to documentary style. The sort of verité idea of being a “fly-on-the-wall” can extend to music, and I think some filmmakers fear being “manipulative.” Sure, It is a risk to assume the responsibility of telling somebody else’s story, but when it’s done well and with style and heart, it can be so beautiful. Jason and Evan do an awe-inspiring job of treating these wrestling stories with authentic reverence, awe, sympathy, and dignity that I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t push to make the music rise to that passion.”
Could you describe what the process was like when putting the music together for the different episodes? Were you simply given the story of an episode, or did you ever get an opportunity to see the visuals to get inspiration?
“I’m often delivering music after the interviews but before the re-enactments are shot, and then Jason and the editorial team music edit as the cuts progress. I usually get a rough cut with black title cards describing what the re-enactments might be, and I call Jason when I don’t know what the scene is going to look like, and he describes it visually for me, but also how he wants that dream space to feel. Other than that, I just obsess over finding the big emotional transitions of the story and work on those until they resonate, and when I see the final product, it’s usually even better than I thought it would be.”
There’s so much great music created by you, and I believe, Wade Macneil. However, the highlight for me is the music in the two Chris Benoit episodes. What was the thought process behind creating the various tracks for arguably the most powerful, startling, and captivating story of both seasons?
“Wow, thanks for saying so! That episode was so moving, even in its early forms. When I saw the first cut, I did a fifteen-minute improv on a string and woodwind ensemble patch in Ableton Live that reflected what I was feeling from watching the interviews for the first time. Wade was about to leave on tour with the Cancer Bats, but he had a couple of acoustic riffs and delay pedal textures that we put down as seeds of the Eddie Guerrero and early Nancy pieces. I knew I wanted to try a smaller string and wind ensemble sound rather than a big orchestra or synth feel while we got to know the family and what they meant to each other. It just had this emotional weight, and this bittersweet-ness that just felt the way the past and happy memories feel to me.
“Towards the middle of the two episodes, it becomes a tragedy with shades of horror, so I added more percussion and synths and dissonance and noise to the menu. I also started slowly adding bigger orchestral strings and choir to make it feel more operatic as the rest of the world reacts and the gravity of the situation sets in. After all, that stuff was developed a bit to picture, Jason came by, and we watched everything on repeat and manicured every cue, so we were landing in what felt like the right places emotionally and even built a couple of extra cues. I started working on both Benoit episodes, and the New Jack episode in the first week of November 2019, and they were all due on November 25th. I spent so much time sitting working on them that I had to go to physiotherapy for three months for my panini butt. It was worth it!”
I believe the incredible qualities of Dark Side, such as the interviews, re-enactments, and, of course, the music all came together absolutely perfectly in the first Benoit episode when they discuss his reaction to Eddie Guerrero’s death. I believe the track is officially titled “Erased.” What was your reaction to seeing that scene along with the music, and would you say that track was one of the highlights for you?
“I was blown away when I first saw it because that cue was never intended to go in that scene! But it worked brilliantly and even better than intended! The cue is called “Erased” because Vickie and Dean Malenko both say that the WWE “erased” Chris’ legacy after what happened. In the original cut, this segment was intercut with the story of David getting the news of what happened to his family and his reaction of punching the police officer. There’s a sound from Absynth that I modulated with an LFO and processed through a blackhole reverb that I envisioned as this banshee-scream of pain; getting the most painful news of your life… but I originally intended it to fall against David’s reaction to the police officer. Jason lined up that “wailing” with CHRIS when he gets the news about Eddie, and it just punched me in the gut when I saw it line up with that shot. This is the kind of moment that somehow Jason Eisener keeps creating over and over again, and why I love writing music for him. Incredible director/editor.”
What episode did you find most challenging to compose for and why?
“The pilot [“The Killing of Bruiser Brody”] was the toughest because it was first, and there was no standard for what the show was yet. It was also the most amount of original music in an episode (forty-three minutes of music in a forty-four-minute episode). It holds a special place in my heart, though, and its DNA can be found in every episode in one way or another.”
Is there a track in an episode that you’re particularly proud of and is perhaps not talked about as much, as say, the Benoit episodes?
“I really love “Las Vegas” from “Cocaine & Cowboy Boots: The Herb Abrams Story.” I was watching a lot of ‘90s Michael Mann and David Lynch movies at the time trying to get inspiration for “hazy dreamy sleaze,” and there’s something about that ensemble of jazz drums/sax, Moog bass and arpeggios, and guitar harmonics through the retro digital reverb that I’m really happy about. At some point, I would love to make a record to just explore that ensemble/mood. It’s not wildly complex musically, it’s just really aesthetically pleasing.”
The emphasis and importance on music for Dark Side of the Ring was really brought to the forefront when they released the soundtrack on Vinyl. What has the reaction been like to that and would you say that was a career highlight to have something that zeroed in on your work specifically?
“The reaction has been so inspiring and flattering and is really just icing on the cake of this dream project. It’s really cool to have a beautiful artefact to commentate the music from those first two seasons. Signal Noise, Nathan Boone, Kevin and Sue from Waxwork, Evan and Jason did a beautiful job on it!”
Has there been a particular highlight for you since working on this series?
“It’s a cliché, but it’s been amazing watching people’s reactions and embracing the show so much. Every episode is a highlight to me, and it’s that rare project where I get to work on material I love with people that I love that I really believe in while playing and writing off synthesizers (laughs).”
Finally, wrestling fans are undoubtedly excited about the third season. I know you can’t say much, but can you leave us with any words about next season?
“One down, thirteen to go!”
Andrew Gordon Macpherson is a film and music producer. Co-founding Midnight Print Studios in 2014 with Vivian Lin and Jennifer Millington, Andrew has contributed original music to AAA video games Far Cry 5, Far Cry: New Dawn, Starlink: Battle for Atlas (Ubisoft), TV shows Dark Side of the Ring, It’s Suppertime (ViceTV) and feature films, Random Acts of Violence (Elevation), Spare Parts (Hangar18/Raven Banner Entertainment), and The Ranger (Shudder). Andrew has mentored international participants as part of the Red Bull Music Academy from 2010 to 2019 and has been a guest lecturer at Ryerson University and Sheridan College. In 2015, Andrew was a writer/producer on the Juno-nominated album “Dirty Laundry” by Ben Stevenson.
You can purchase the Dark Side of the Ring music here.
Dark Side of the Ring will return for season 3 on Vice TV in 2021.