Indie film hits like Juno and 500 Days of Summer; have their try-hard soundtracks become too much?

Indie film hits like Juno and 500 Days of Summer; have their try-hard soundtracks become too much?

As your archetypal, discerning, 20-something male, any big screen portrayal saccharine enough to remotely teeter on a Disney bluebird happy ending will be met with the kind of caustic scorn and scathing venom Bill Hicks once reserved for George Michael. You could say I’m a bit of a cynic, but it didn’t always used to be like this. Perhaps it was when I crawled from underneath the 16-24 duvet, blinking wide-eyed into the very real first stage of my mid-20’s malaise, that I took the world at face value. All the films and music that burgeoned hope and invited optimism, gave you those naively buoyant ideals, did just enough to make you believe strangers – typically attractive girls – would curiously take the time to lean in to your headphone dirge and inquisitively strike up conversation‚”you know, those kooky, quirky, natural beauties that light up the mundane of the everyday: the wallflowers engrossed in the classics, the sunshine girls who cut a swathe of sassy bravura on a busy commuter train – the girls in the movies, basically. And, just in case they weren’t perfect enough, then came the words to put the white picket gloss on the whole well-adjusted charade.
“The Smiths‚” I love The Smiths.”

Cue the impossibly cute Zooey Deschanel singing a line to the inevitably smitten Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer. Sweet, huh?

And there, in a lyric and a script line, is the encapsulation of the salubrious love affair quaint indie rom com’s are continually enjoying with cooler-than-thou musical references and soundtracks. At a base level it makes perfect sense to have your DVD and music collections intertwine in artistic incest but it’s fast reaching tipping point. From The Shins and Garden State to Juno and the Moldy Peaches, the consensus seems to be romance, and light-hearted comedy couldn’t possibly blossom unless there’s a suitably acceptable cult band playing cupid, cued with a mix tape playlist, and set to ride shotgun for the journey.

Admittedly there is always going to be a strong overlap between the two forms but it’s gone from touching to cringe-worthy in a few short releases. “If they [the film’s characters] were bonding over some shitty band, that would actually make me close the script,” Deschanel admitted to Rolling Stone. Ok, it’s not exactly a damning indictment of her musical taste, but it does give a worrying indication of what’s fast becoming an offbeat indie hit parade. And if the soundtrack is indeed having an impact on the film’s direction, doesn’t that make it a glorified music video? Could they not have bonded over Sepultura, then?

Of course films can be a fantastic, subconscious route to new music, but increasingly the music used at this quirky end of the genre seems a crass effort to drop bands and music primarily to boost consumer interest. Take 9 Songs‘ brazen approach to shoe-horning in BRMC, Dandy Warhols and The Von Bondies as part of its low-budget, primal pop culture love story, and you can kind of see where it’s coming from.

The characters meet at a BRMC gig in Brixton and a dirty whirlwind of a relationship ensues. Does it benefit from pandering to music fans? Commercially, perhaps, but is the film enhanced as a result of the soundtrack? Not especially. Going old skool, Quadrophenia took the social energy and cultural rivalry of the 60’s and depicted it quite brilliantly with the assistance of a pretty seminal soundtrack. Did the music benefit the film? Undoubtedly, simply because it was an intrinsic part of the era’s identity and supported the events being portrayed.

Paradoxically, High Fidelity stands up as a worthy clich√© case in point. A film centred around a music obsessive’s unravelling love life, there isn’t a self-congratulatory soundtrack forced down your throat – the Beta Band scene withstanding, of course – and it doesn’t revert to needless, pretentious type. So it ultimately gets its kicks out of heavy muso geek dialogue, but it is a film primarily based in a record store, duh.

Regardless, I love these films and all the musical baggage they come with because they can, and are, still treated right. Hark back to the gloriously sleek aesthetic of Lost in Translation with its elegant scores and understated inclusion of Air’s ‘Alone in Kyoto’ or Steve Buscemi’s dogged perseverance to find the finest jazz and blues in Ghostworld.
So the next time I’m publicly conspicuous on account of the music I’m listening to, and someone casually taps me on the shoulder, trying to talk over the angry crackle of headphone music, here’s hoping some pretty young thing screeches a few lines of At the Drive In’s ‘Enfilade’ at me. Now wouldn’t that be lovely?

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