Friday, August 12, 2011

Soundtrack Sampler - Adventureland

Soundtracks are a wonderful thing. There's a bootleg of John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats covering Neutral Milk Hotel's "Two-Headed Boy" where he says "I'm sorry if I screw this up, because I know there's a lot of you out there who are living and dying with this song" and that perfectly sums up what great music has the potential to be. If you truly love certain songs they become the soundtrack to your life - you live and die with them.

The only problem with that is that your life is under-rehearsed, way over budget and full of people who are far less interesting and attractive than those you see on the big screen. Movies are less messy and more satisfying. Good directors know that music is an emotional short-cut, able to short-circuit logic and quickly hack directly into our emotional-response centers. That means that a well-chosen soundtrack can not only open minds to new music but turn a good movie into a great one.

Adventureland was a middle-budget coming-of-age story released in 2009 that never really took off, but remains a gem to those lucky enough to recognize its genius. Lovingly and painstakingingly written, directed and scored by Greg Mottola, it's the story of James Brennan (Jessie Eisenberg), a freshly-minted Kenyon ('87) grad who planned on spending his summer losing his inhibitions and virginity in Europe with his best friend before heading to Columbia in the fall. James soon discovers that Reganomics has dealt his family a rough blow and must instead spend his summer putting his Renaissance Studies degree to use in a Pittsburgh-area amusement park. 

The musical motif is set from the movies first seconds as the first glorious chords of The Replacements' "Bastards Of Young" ring out over the Miramax logo before fading into the opening scene. This is not an accidentally chosen song as its themes will be developed for the rest of the film. Paul Westerberg's lament of being left behind economically and personally by baby boomer parents plays all-too-perfectly as Adventureland details pains of those with "dreams unfulfilled" who "graduate unskilled".

James spends his summer chasing the mysterious and not-quite-unattainable Em (Kristen Stewart), whose also alienated from her parents (James' parents may have lost his Europe money but Em's father abandoned her cancer-stricken mother for another woman) and who is more wizened but no less Romantic than the open-hearted James. Em walks around in Lou Reed and Hüsker Dü t-shirts, with is no coincidence. She and James first connect in a shared love of "Don't Wanna Know If You Are Lonely", a heart-on-the-sleeve cry to an ex right before he informers her that he's a virgin whose "just had his heart broken". Bob Mould couldn't have been more candid.
Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground are also a running reference in Adventureland. Em's distance stems from her inability to break off a previous affair with the married repairman, Connell (Ryan Reynolds) who achieves local notoriety with blustery tales of "jamming with Lou Reed" in New York. James eventually realizes the emptiness of such boasts too late when he informs Connell that Reed's song was entitled "Satellite Of Love" not "Shed A Light On Love". Brennan also includes the gorgeous "Pale Blue Eyes" on his "Bummer Songs, Pit Of Despair" mix for Em and White Light White Heat's one pop inclusion "Here She Comes Now" plays over the opening credits.

The rest of the movie is literred with loving, thematically appropriate musical references, each one of which is clearly placed with meticulously dorky care. When Em hosts a party, the director goes out of the way to show the album cover to Big Star's Radio City whose "I'm In Love With A Girl" plays while James worms his way into the girl's heart. Later, even the philandering phillistine Connell slips Nick Lowe's Jesus Of Cool on while having a heart-to-heart with Em.

Adventureland captures that time in America before "indie" became ubiquitous, before the internet when music was tribal and knowing bands like these wasn't just a sign of discernment but a secret handshake to a club that you didn't know existed until you were in it but then never wanted to leave. While James, Em and their friend Joel live and love to these songs, they're surrounded by people and music representing an antithetical culture. It's no suprise that the James' anti-Em spends her days at the park dancing to an endless loop of Falco's "Amadeus" or that Connell's favorite hangout is home to a bar band that churns out cock-rock covers like Foreigner 's "Hot-Blooded". This was the eighties; you were either a Reaganaut or an outcast and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line.

But even when the filmakers aren't being quite so blatant about their taste, a great musical sensibility pervades the film. Yo La Tengo wrote all the orginal music, perfectly capturing that 80's sensibility (having been there helps). Elsewhere, songs by Crowded House ("Don't Dream It's Over"), The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" and The Jesus & Mary Chain's "Taste Of Cindy" pop up unobtrusively at key moments. This is a movie for people who never take good music for granted and I don't think it's coincidental that that sensibility also perfectly captures the frustrations and aimlessness of twentysomethings in 2011 as well as in 1987. It's hard to imagine that underground music will mean as much culturally now as it did then, mostly due to the ever-fracturing music market but I still can't wait fifteen years till someone tries the same thing for us.

Bastards of Young - The Replacements Buy it.
Pale Blue Eyes - The Velvet Underground Buy it.
So It Goes - Nick Lowe Buy it.
I'm In Love With A Girl - Big Star Buy it.

Bonus Track:
Here She Comes Now [The Velvet Underground] - Nirvana
This obviously came out after the movie is set, but the original appears over the opening credits and Kobain absolutely shreds this version.

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