How Phil Collins' 'In the Air Tonight' Influenced 'Miami Vice' Director Michael Mann -- and Lorde!

Miami Vice illo -- bb36
Remie Geoffroi

Michael Mann doesn't see what the big deal is. "I guess Miami Vice was a radical departure from everything else that was on TV at the time," says Mann, executive producer of the series. But the tricks Mann and others incorporated, including the prominent use of current music to create specific emotional reactions in viewers, were common in filmmaking. On Vice, Mann aspired to a grand, Hollywood sense of theater. "We were making movies, in a one-hour frame, on television."

A Look Back at 1984: Full Coverage

The music cue that first set the show apart was Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," in the series' two-hour premier, "Brother's Keeper," on September 16, 1984. That episode had a lofty soundtrack, including songs by the Rolling Stones, Lionel Richie, Rockwell, and Cyndi Lauper. Collins' song, which had been released in 1981, sits masterfully under a sequence where Crockett drives his black Ferrari Daytona Spyder to a rendezvous with the Colombian drug dealer Esteban Calderone. (Collins' fantastic drum fill occurs as the Ferrari races out of a dirt parking lot.) "That is probably the prototypical Miami Vice sequence," Brother's Keeper director Thomas Carter told TIME magazine in 1985, while taking credit for the idea of using Collins' song.

"I watched MTV a lot, back in those days, and ‘In the Air Tonight' was a favorite piece of music of mine," says Mann, whose subsequent directing credits include Heat, The Insider, and Ali, all of which he also wrote and produced. But as a cinema historian, he notes that "the actual, premeditated architecture of the collision between music and pictures" dates as far back as Alexander Nevsky in 1938, when director Sergei Eisenstein drew storyboards on the charts of Sergei Prokofiev's score.

Mann does admit to one innovation in Vice: the show's editors cut the picture to accompany the music, rather than placing music as a secondary priority, as was "the conventional Hollywood mode." So it wasn't just a radical departure from TV, but also from movies as well.

Thanks in part to its dramatic usage on the show, "In the Air Tonight" has had an enduring influence. "That song is so good, in terms of vibe and melodies," Lorde told Billboard recently. "It's a pretty major model for me at the moment."

An edited version of this article first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of Billboard.