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"Listen, It'll Change Your Life"

By Drew C. Ashwood and Chris A. Kukstis, Crimson Staff Writer and Columnists

HRIS: That the soundtrack to last year’s Garden State has peaked at 20 on the Billboard top 200 seems somewhat significant, but not as significant as the word of mouth concerning the film’s score. For those who knew and loved the song beforehand, that the Shins’ “New Slang” is forever destined to be “that song from Garden State” is a humorous tribute to their good taste, and usually a prod to remind the listener that the opening doohs and dahs graced a McDonald’s commercial long before Natalie Portman’s oft-quoted pronouncement that the Shins music “will change your life.”

The film’s selections also cover the ages, peaking with Simon & Garfunkel’s “Only Living Boy In New York,” which overtly picks up the film’s Graduate leanings, and Nick Drake’s “One Of These Things First” makes an appearance, plucked from the same album, 1970’s Bryter Layter that gave The Royal Tenenbaums the song “Fly.”

Wes Anderson’s films, along with the “Kill Bill” movies, Lost in Translation, and even 8 Mile, have joined Garden State in rejuvenating popular music on film, a genre that had grown tired by the late ’90s when the tacky label of “music inspired by the film” came about as another way for greedy artists to cross-merchandise. I love “Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me” by U2, but couldn’t recall where it played in Batman Forever, the movie on whose soundtrack it appeared. It was during the credits, and the bulk of the film’s score was instrumental.

In our new Napster age, when many foresee the death of the album as an artist’s cohesive statement, soundtracks have returned as albums in their own right, mix-tapes evocative of the particular feel and mood of a film. It’s a return to the association of a song with a moment—much like the bloom in the late ’80s, when Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” achieved fame as the Breakfast Club crew finally departed detention.

Movie moments like this transcend conventional cross-marketing. The recent vogue of movie scores peppered with the past and present of pop is a great return, allowing us new levels of association, and exposing great music to new audiences.

DREW: I’m glad you invoked The Graduate’s legacy here. Although I think there is a vast qualitative difference between it and Garden State, they both share a heavy reliance upon pop music that unifies the film’s “sound” with its overall artistic sensibility. Certainly, there are times when pre-released pop music can be used well in an original film, but far too often it’s an easy out for a studio that needs something for their sister record company to sell.

So I say this bluntly in hopes of moving the dialogue along: compared to The Graduate’s, Garden State’s soundtrack is a leech, promoting its artists but not being a useful part of the film. There are clear cases where a song is significantly part of the film, not just on top of it or behind it (8 Mile, or the ultimate music-leeching movie Moulin Rouge!). Similarly, there are clear cases where the use of pre-recorded music serves either as a juxtaposition to the action (“What a Difference Today Makes” in Lola Rennt), or where aural-collage becomes the goal (anything Tarantino), and pre-released music then becomes a very deliberate choice that can be measured as harshly as cinematography or art direction.

But so often, pop music in a film is a sign of laziness. There’s not a weak song on the Garden State soundtrack—but do any of them really need to be in the film? Unlike Coldplay’s “Don’t Panic” or Frou Frou’s “Let Go,” “Mrs. Robinson” was written expressly for The Graduate, and there is something to be said for original music that supports an original film. Granted, the Shins’ song is a plot point in the movie, and “The Sound of Silence” which accompanies Benjamin Braddock’s conveyor-belt anesthesia was recorded before The Graduate was made. Ultimately, what I hate is that the Garden State soundtrack isn’t a great soundtrack, it’s just a great mix-tape.

KUKSTIS: I’d contest that the songs do well in the context they’re in: not so much the rather forced entry of “New Slang,” but the other Shins track, the Colin Hay track (we last heard him doing something about a “Land Down Under”) and the Frou Frou do wonders at conveying in music what’s going on in the movie.

Original scoring can do some movies some good—where there’s a clear artistic statement, one which can be easily translated to a single musician or band. But it’s transitive—there are times when the associations already present in a written pop song bring something to a movie. What would it have been like if anything other than Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” played during the reflective scenes of Trainspotting?

Wes Anderson’s recent soundtrack vogue (last seen with the excellent Life Aquatic, musically curated by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh) is the best example of this, culling from all realms of pop music. A filmmaker with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop becomes a disc jockey in this process, and perhaps that’s responsible for our difference in opinion.

Drew, I’m a disc jockey, and you’re a musician. I try to put together the best mélange, bringing together music of a similar aesthetic with unexpected twists and turns to recreate a complex and distinct feel. You try to write your own songs to produce an album of a distinct mood and feel.

Elliot Smith’s “Needle In The Hay” is used to great effect at the lowest point of The Royal Tenenbaums, but could Elliott Smith have raised himself from his perpetual melancholy to write anything happy enough to rival “Judy Is a Punk” for the film’s lighter moments? There’s no way, and the film benefits from the diversity of its songs and artists, hand-picked to ensure the greatest cohesion with the film.

Also, frequently artists’ original soundtrack work ranks among their worst, like Belle & Sebastian’s soundtrack to Todd Solondz’s “Storytelling,” where the band was cramped by the demands of making music appropriate to the film. Even when a band is dexterous enough to handle that emotional range, it tends to be a bit of a strain on the music. Tell me I’m wrong.

DREW: Kukstis, you’re not wrong, you’re just overlooking the fact that for every one Trainspotting, there are 20 Charlie’s Angels. These are the films that sell the most soundtracks, and these are the ones which void your theory of the “best mélange.” Films that rely on original music only (or even largely) end up with the more powerful symbiosis. I like Wes Anderson, but he’s an exception—Tenenbaums was far from a box office hit, and its soundtrack wasn’t a bestseller. There’s no returning to the days when the “composer” credit on the big screen meant something, or when polymaths like Chaplin would score their own parts.

Certainly, Hollywood’s general reliance on a pop music sensibility is a fantastic trend, and one that, for better or worse, made it impossible to go back to the “pure score” (Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On” has shown us why). But Badly Drawn Boy’s soundtrack for About a Boy (a fitting title) was a masterful use of music both fitting the plot material, and fitting around it.

Similarly, Jon Brion—who has produced for Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, and about three dozen others—is exceptional at producing movie “pop” that isn’t the product of a sell-out (I Heart Huckabees, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Pop music does have a place in the movies, and a very important place. I just don’t want that place to be in music videos masquerading as films.

—Staff writer Christopher A. Kukstis can be reached at kukstis@fas.harvard.edu. —Columnist Drew C. Ashwood can be reached at ashwood@fas.harvard.edu.

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