Zach Braff in Garden State.One of the many clichés perpetuated about music is that it functions as the “soundtrack to our lives.” There seems to be one main vessel through which this concept could've entered our consciousness—movies. Or, more specifically, the “indie” romantic comedy.
Barring High Fidelity, which gets a pass because the soundtrack is not trying to break any new artists, all this arguably began with the success of Garden State in 2004, in which Natalie Portman cries a lot, and Zach Braff directs, writes, stars and rides around on a scooter.
Also, the film declares that The Shins will “change your life.” Really? My life is pretty much exactly the same. But The Shins certainly have it much better.
Though it wasn't originally funded by a major studio, Garden State was picked up by Fox Searchlight, the company's “independent” development branch, and the soundtrack eventually went on to sell more than 500,000 copies and win a Grammy. Concerning the soundtrack, Braff said, “Essentially, I made a mix CD with all of the music that I felt was scoring my life at the time I was writing the screenplay.”
No doubt he was laughing all the way to the bank.
To the studios that market these films, indie has become synonymous with “quirky,” as if the attitudes and mindsets of independent thinkers can be easily encapsulated in Michael Cera's endearing goofiness or Ellen Page's cutesy character flaws.
Here's proof: In 2007, Fox Searchlight scored another hit with Juno, its soundtrack reaching No. 1 on the Billboard charts, fueled by the songs of the Moldy Peaches' Kimya Dawson, which were actually weaved into the film's narrative, along with direct references to Sonic Youth, The Velvet Underground and others. Juno went on to earn more than $200 million worldwide.
Director Jason Reitman has said of the Juno character, “I wanted her to be into music that was very real and authentic, like punk music.” Therefore, in the film, she expressed interest in Patti Smith, The Runaways and The Stooges.
As for the character Mark (Jason Bateman), Reitman wanted his interests to be less honest, apparently. “I liked the idea that he was into pseudo fake punk music, which is grunge,” Reitman said. So, in the screenplay, he had Mark's former band open for—the Melvins?
This desire to name-drop groups simply for cool points screams of manufactured authenticity. For a film with such widespread appeal, making an off-handed reference to a band that's had a massive impact on the course of heavy music doesn't just feel forced; it feels entirely misinformed.
Most recently, Fox Searchlight's (500) Days of Summer focuses on a young man who painfully recounts a relationship gone wrong. We bear witness to the central character, Mark (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), attempting to woo his female counterpart, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), by playing The Smiths loudly in his cubicle speakers and singing the Pixies' “Here Comes Your Man” at a karaoke bar.
Here, two indie prototypes are used to tag team the audience's pleasure centers, providing the optimal amount of quirky-yet-accessible reference points. But the redundant usage of Temper Trap's “Sweet Disposition,” as well as songs by Black Lips, Regina Spektor, Feist and Wolfmother display a grab-bag of tracks that feel thrown together, rather than representative of a singular time and place.
It's not that these films aren't well-made or entertaining. Shit, I watched each one and even laughed a few times.
It's just that they've been so carefully marketed toward an audience that is supposed to thrive on individuality. A band like The Smiths means so much to generations of fans who have prided themselves on thinking against the grain that it seems like a crime for their songs to be used as background fodder in a romantic comedy that simply maintains the status quo.
That said, I'll spare you an examination of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.
But there are still a few bright spots. Both 2008's The Wackness and last year's Adventureland feel more natural, if still functioning in the similar realms of romantic comedy. Their soundtracks evoke bygone eras—the former recreating New York City in 1994 with Notorious B.I.G. and Nas and the latter, suburban Pittsburgh circa '87, making great use of Hüsker Dü, The Replacements and The Cure.
Then again, that leads to a discussion of how nostalgia pushes our buttons, too. But like those soundtracks, it's reserved for another time and place. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.