There were two major releases this month that had people talking about soundtracks: Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here, his follow-up to Garden State, and Boyhood. I saw one of them, and I’ll let you guess which it was. I don’t have a dog in the internet fight regarding Braff and his movies and his supposedly/maybe treacly use of sensitive indie music — I’m of an age where Garden State should’ve been a gateway indie drug for me, but I was still too fixated on classic rock and British music to pay attention. The extent of my Braff interactions was a handful of Scrubs episodes I never got too into, so I largely missed out on the whole phenomenon of Garden State being the soundtrack that launched (a) a thousand Manic Pixie Dream Girls, (b) a thousand Shins jokes and/or soundalikes, or (c) a thousand similar sensitive-indie soundtrack movie tie-in marketing schemes.
All that stuff has already been written about endlessly in the weeks surrounding Wish I Was Here, and having little interest in the movie or many of the songs on its soundtrack, I decided to turn my attention to some lesser-explored corners, some of which you’ll find represented below. That being said, I did have a conversation with a friend, a person for whom Garden State and the subsequent O.C. soundtracks of the world were her gateway, educational listening experience. And eventually we debated what the lines are between a good and an important soundtrack and/or soundtrack moment, what the differences are between notable and personally resonant and objectively smart and clever and counterintuitive.
Those are questions that I started this column with, but I think they had been more subliminal. Now that we’re into the second half of Trackspotting’s first year, I’m planning on getting at them a lot more directly. Call it a consequence of — in the wake of discussing Garden State and Wish I Was Here — noticing notable and/or funny and/or clever moments in TV or movies that are (or seem like they will be) straight trash. This goes from Beyonce’s slow-burn remake of “Crazy In Love” in the Fifty Shades Of Grey trailer to the “I’ve committed too much time to look away now” experience I’m having with True Blood. I have distant memories of this show actually being well-written, but I think that was the delusion of a younger age or something — at any rate, these last two seasons have been somewhat better than the depths of Season 5, and there’s a fairly absurd and hilarious ’90s sequence set to Garbage’s “#1 Crush” as a Johnny Bravo-meets-A Night At The Roxbury version of Eric Northman proves he was supernaturally charming even while running a video store. That almost made the list this month, and then I fell into that rabbit hole of good art/bad art and whether a good soundtrack moment can exist if the TV/film element is no good — after all, I’ve listed numerous soundtrack moments where the songs have been lame or cheesy, but it was all about how they were used. That feels different, on some level. The host art, the TV/film, feels like it should be the smarter in the equation if the equation is unequal. Its ironic usage should be knowing. And, to be fair, that is a campily self-aware moment in True Blood. Maybe I’m just too mad at myself for the fact that I still watch it.
Also to be fair: Ironically occurring in that same month I had this Zach Braff conversation with my friend, my selections for the best soundtrack moments of the July hew very closely to things that hit me on some personal level. Three of these entries have received widespread mixed reviews, and have plenty of narrative or structural flaws. But I still saw something in them, and it often connected back to some personal experience, whether now or in the past. Perhaps that’s inescapable with the best soundtrack moments, since they might play on our familiarity with the images and sounds displayed together, and play on whether our familiarity will lead us to see it as a harmonious or a willfully dissonant pairing. Whatever the case, this is the stuff that stuck with me in July. I’m already playing catch up with a few TV shows, but as always, if there’s something I should be checking out, let me know in the comments.
5. Lucy – Damon Albarn, “Sister Rust”
Through much of Lucy’s not overly long running time, the music is score. And then as it fades from its fairly bonkers ending sequence into the credits, it begins playing a beat and a melancholy melody that seem another part of that score. Until, that is, my man Damon Albarn comes in, singing a song I didn’t know existed. Not sure how I missed this, but it turns out Albarn wrote “Sister Rust” specifically for Lucy, and he wanted an appropriately cinematic vibe — hence that big string break in the middle of the song. Before that point, it has the sound of some of the more downbeat Gorillaz moments, or perhaps something that could fit on a new Blur album if Albarn would ever stop taunting us with his desire to give us absolutely anything but new Blur music (even if sometimes that other stuff is really, really good). Anyway, “Sister Rust” is credits-sequence music after an ending that’s somehow both wildly epic and wildly abrupt to a movie that’s very stylish and very all over the place. So, not the most brilliant match-up of film and music, but hey, new Damon Albarn is new Damon Albarn.
4. Halt And Catch Fire, S01E08 (“The 214s”) – The War On Drugs, “Red Eyes”
When I read that Halt And Catch Fire would be making the anachronistic move of using a War On Drugs song, I immediately assumed it’d be “Burning,” the track off of Lost In The Dream that most immediately sounds as if it could’ve been recorded in the ’80s. Turns out it’s “Red Eyes,” another highlight off the Drugs’ newest, and a song begging to soundtrack a climactic drive. To that end, I wish the “Red Eyes” outro to “The 214s,” as the crew goes rogue and pulls away to COMDEX, was allowed to sprawl out a bit more, to let the impact land a bit profoundly. This might be a case of a great song in a good show, and the interaction between them being just OK. The catharsis of Adam Granduciel’s “Woo!” and the drum roll at the 1:48 mark of “Red Eyes” is undermined somewhat by how the show edits the song, so that the moment comes far too soon, then fades out as the credits come, only to immediately repeat itself and play out as it should have over the episode’s final images. And, though it depends on the context, I’m generally ambivalent about anachronistic music usage when it comes to a serious period drama like Halt borrowing from the present. But, small quibbles aside, Halt’s music usage has been on point, and I’m certainly not going to complain if a show I’m rooting for wants to use music by a band I’m deeply invested in, especially at this juncture in Halt’s lifespan. “The 214s” was the third entry in Halt’s strongest run yet, a series of episodes that suggest its intermittent promise might finally be hitting something powerful and unique (hopefully). “Red Eyes” works here — it’s a rare moment of triumph for characters that have not only been forced into too many overwrought dramatic confrontations in the office, but have also earned this small bit of victory at this point in the narrative.
3. I Origins – Radiohead, “Motion Picture Soundtrack”
Upon leaving I Origins, as the final strains of Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack” played, a thought occurred to me: Could I name any other uses of Radiohead’s music in movies or TV that I really liked? On a surface level, the band’s popularity and ability to flit between chilly, cerebral qualities and gut-wrenching emotional ones would’ve seemed to have opened them up to a whole glut of licensing in the last two decades. Then again, with a band as prominent and weighty as they are, using their music in your own piece of art could be a double-edged sword. As it turns out, David Erhlich had a thorough, smart take on this very topic over at the Dissolve. He gets into it in a lot more depth than I have room for here, but he has a similar conclusion on I Origins to mine: On paper, it should be one of the worst uses of Radiohead’s music, but it’s a stunning success. I liked the movie more than some, but it certainly works in a strange way. As it happens, director/writer Mike Cahill conceived of it as a prequel to another movie he hopes to make, and you can see that; I think it’d hold up much better once/if Cahill’s able to make that next chapter. As it stands, I still want to avoid spoilers more than I normally would in this column. Earlier on, an acoustic version of the song plays on a radio as two characters sit and talk in bed, and I thought — “Really, this small film shelled out the money for a Radiohead song and used it that way?” And then, at its conclusion, there’s probably a good two minutes with no dialog, between the final climactic realization and the credits, where it’s just “Motion Picture Soundtrack” and the weight of Michael Pitt’s protagonist’s revelation. To be fair, it’s a conclusion that some of the trailers give away, but I’ll just leave it at: There’s added power in the way “Motion Picture Soundtrack” recurs and links to the movie’s past, and it’s a moment where somewhat on-the-nose overlaps with lyrics (“I think you’re crazy/Maybe”) wind up being pretty powerful, too. Maybe I’ve got a bias for Radiohead, but I was more than sold on the sequence — I could envision a situation in which it lives on as both a touching closer to I Origins, and the world-opening segue into Cahill’s proposed sequel.
2. Land Ho! – Big Country, “In A Big Country”
Were it not for stiff competition this month, Land Ho!’s use of Big Country’s “In A Big Country” would’ve been an unchallenged #1 this month (and, in fact, was — before I wrote the entry below this one). Even as is stands, it’s one of my single favorite music moments of the year/kind of ever. If you’re unfamiliar with the film, it’s about two 60-something friends/ex-brother-in-laws who wind up going on a trip to Iceland together; as you might expect, it’s a small-scale indie that’s just about humans doing human things, with none of that filmic artifice like “plot” or whatever. It works because Land Ho! is funny and touching and has some great performances form its two leads, whom you probably won’t recognize.
This is another instance where I’ve got to admit some personal experience bias. (A lot of that going around in this month’s column, as it turns out.) Recently, I hit a point where my closest childhood friends and I all live in New York, like some sort of ’90s sitcom — and it’s impossible to see a movie like Land Ho! and not wonder whether this moment in my life has any chance of leading to that moment in the movie, whether some day some decades down the road I’ll live this thing out. And, well, they also use one of my favorite songs from the ’80s, Big Country’s “In A Big Country,” which is thankfully given a way more prominent showcase than the brief, background cameo in Dom Hemingway that garnered it a mention back in April.
The song first appears in one of two montages of the film’s protagonists just messing around on a beach, playing air guitar and taking pictures and such, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I didn’t take a perfect note of this, because at the time I didn’t realize the movie was about to end, but in one sequence one character says to another, “There’s still fun to be had.” And of course, he means on their trip, but it’s also that moment of coming to peace with your mortality and your age and realizing there’s plenty of stuff left for you to discover. Cut to the two old guys walking into the spa, slow-mo in an otherwise thoroughly un-stylized movie, and the hard-drinking boisterous Southern one makes a little pistol-hello motion at some cute Icelandic girls, and one smiles and blows him a kiss, and he laughs and he and his friend just keep walking and enter the steam and water and the movie ends. Throughout, “In A Big Country” booms over it. So, like I said, we’re talking a confluence of two major personal resonances on my part between ’80s music and long-time friendships, but: I loved this sequence. It became one of my favorite movie endings in recent memory. I really wish it was on YouTube so I could embed it here, but it isn’t, so you should check out the movie because it’s one of the best of the year. What is on YouTube is “In A Big Country,” and you already know how I feel about that.
There is the obvious, big hook to Boyhood — that it was filmed over the course of 12 years, and the actors involved actually age in front of your eyes. The second, also very prominent, hook has been the soundtrack, which, of course, helps you trace those 12 years. A good deal of the press surrounding the movie has dealt with this alone, honing in on how music effects our notions of time passing and our connections to other people (See: Ethan Hawke’s solo career Beatles mix, which played a role in his real-life child’s life as well as his on-screen child’s in Boyhood). When I went to see it at Manhattan’s IFC theatre, they were selling the soundtrack at the concession stand. And, no doubt, Boyhood is a musical tour-de-force, using songs as signposts the same way it will occasionally zoom in on an Xbox controller, now a Wii controller, or the way it’ll sprinkle in references to current events, elections, or famous movies that would’ve been capturing the attention of its teenaged protagonist. Boyhood’s an incredibly powerful movie-going experience because of the way it uses these things to show a life actually unfolding in front of you — inevitably, it makes you think about the passage of time in your own life, and what songs or movies or people you use to mark it. Come year’s end, I have no doubt that Boyhood will stand as having some of the best use of music of 2014 and well beyond, partially because it has the advantage of using it in a way that no other movie could.
What I mean by that is, when it comes to singling out the moments that stand out the most in a month, Boyhood is an overwhelming, elemental experience, but its use of music is primarily that of color — playing in parties and on radios as little tracers. Popping up in characters’ conversations. Its a major, major factor of this movie, but its also one of several mechanisms Richard Linklater uses to tease out the way your relationships play out over a decade.
For me at least, there are two very striking moments here, and they’re both courtesy of Arcade Fire. In his late teens, Boyhood’s protagonist, Mason, takes a drive to Austin with his girlfriend. As the truck rolls down the highway and they begin to talk, the guitar intro of “Suburban War” plays. I’ve long held that to be one of Arcade Fire’s best and most underrated songs, and it works perfectly in this sequence — it has the sound of something on the precipice of something else, just as these characters near college age (and thus adulthood/the movie’s conclusion). And after a final sequence that, to be honest, felt far weaker to me than Mason’s last scenes with each of his parents, the credits come up and Arcade Fire’s “Deep Blue” plays. These are both songs from The Suburbs, an album that I’d call my favorite Arcade Fire album against what some of my peers would consider “logic,” but I’d argue is “logic colored with a bit of generational bias for when Funeral came out.” At any rate, The Suburbs came out in a summer I was spending back home in Pennsylvania after being in New York. From the looks of it, Mason lived in a town like mine — not technically suburban, more like a small town within some driving distance to a city. There was a lot of resonance in that “Suburban War” drive to me, because I think I’ve taken that drive in some other form. It made me realize the genius of this film, and the genius of how it uses music. Unlike almost any other movie out there save, perhaps, biopics, the strength of Boyhood isn’t being told a new story. Instead, it’s: I know this story. I know it very well.