There are maybe a handful of people in the television and film industry who can put together a soundtrack effectively. John Hughes and his people were the masters of the 80’s high school soundtrack for sure, but who has met the challenges in our time? One of my votes would go to Joss Whedon. He can hit or miss when it comes to background music, that inconsequential song playing in the background of a club or bar, but when it comes to the `big moments’ (to steal from his writing), he can do very little wrong with his song selections. And besides, he had Aimee Mann, The Breeders, and Cibo Matto guest star on his show. Quentin Tarantino is another one, especially after the two Kill Bill soundtracks, who excels at creating a meaningful and powerful soundtrack.
There is, however, a new king, an executive soundtrack producer to which all others will and should be measured. That person is Zach Braff, the talented writer and director of Garden State. I have to believe that Braff soundtracked the film as he was writing it, picking particular songs that he felt fit the mood of what he was trying to write and picture, or possibly even writing scenes whilst listening to particular songs, thereby entwining them forever. Most of the songs are from a few years ago, some of them a lot longer ago, but most from the time that he was probably writing the film. The soundtrack and film open with the jangly slow guitars of Coldplay’s “Don’t Panic.” The tone and lyrics of the song perfectly fit the mood of the film in its opening minutes, showing Braff as the numb and medicated loner, Andrew Largeman. The Shins’ “Caring is Creepy,” from their first album, Oh, Inverted World, is set to highlight the first feelings of freedom that Largeman feels after taking his grandfather’s motorcycle out for a spin.
Zero 7’s “In the Waiting Line” plays during a party Largeman’s friend Mark throws. As the soothing music plays, contradictory to the activity of the party but in sync with the passivity of Largeman, the party rushes around the stoic main character, showing his detachment from the world, and how, as the medicine leaves his body, he begins to thaw to the world around him. The Shins make another appearance in a moment that some might view as a forced way to get another song in, but that I see as one of the most real moments in the film. In a doctor’s waiting room, Large meets Sam, played by Natalie Portman. She is wearing headphones and so Large asks her what she happens to be playing. As has happened many times in my life, rather than explain it, she simply places the headphones on Large’s ears explaining that he’s “gotta hear this song, it will change your life, I promise you.” The song is the astounding “New Slang.” As I was watching the film in a Seattle theater, as soon as the opening strains of the song played, a voice behind me said, “Of course.” Yeah, my thoughts exactly. The song is brilliant and beautiful and there could be no other Shins song that would have been as effective.
Colin Hay, formerly of Men at Work, contributes a surprisingly powerful ballad called “I Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You,” another case of putting the right song in the right place. I won’t tell you all of them so as to not spoil the movie if you haven’t seen it. Underappreciated band Remy Zero has the distinction of being one of two bands that have the most memorable associates to the film’s scenes. The chorus to “Fair,” from the great album Villa Elaine, plays as Sam offers to tap dance for Large in front of a huge fireplace. It’s a touching and poignant event in the film and comes right after a moment that could easily bring one to tears. The lyrics, “So what if you catch me / Where would we land?” are central to the entire story.
The king of whispery singer / songwriters, Nick Drake, shows up with the great “One of These Things First,” originally from his album, Bryter Later. It seems as though contributions from this tragically deceased artist are mandatory in soundtracks, but again, here it’s placed wisely, taken care of, and loved. Thievery Corporation’s “Lebanese Blonde” is the closest thing to a Quentin Tarantino homage that the movie and soundtrack could come up with. In a nod to Reservoir Dogs, (somewhat, and somewhat Goodfellas, p.s. I know that’s not Tarantino), this song plays as Large, Mark, and Sam saunter in slow motion through a hotel’s hallways on a mission. (By the way, Goodfellas is not one of those soundtracks that is done particularly well, in my estimation. Most of the songs are cliché, obvious, and clumsy, especially movie closer “Layla.” The coda to the song sounds like it was designed for closing credits. Come on, let’s get a little more creative, shall we?) Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” plays as the trio return from their mission and has another set of lyrics that weigh heavy on the film: “Half of the time we’re gone but we don’t know where.”
Sam Beam, a.k.a. Iron & Wine, brings his b-side treasure to the world with his rendition of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” I had a slight problem with this song’s inclusion and placement in the film, but I will admit that it’s probably only I that has this problem. The song hit me so emotionally the first time I heard it that I was forever changed by it, just like Sam mentions about “New Slang.” I felt that the scene that the song accompanied should have had the same emotional weight the song had for me. This is a purely personal observation and takes nothing away from either the song or the movie. In fact, now that I think about it, it makes the earlier “New Slang” scene even more real. I did this same thing, placed headphones on a friend to force her to listen to this song that hit me so hard. After hearing it, she approached me somewhat teary-eyed, sarcastically said, “Thanks a lot,” and was also changed by it.
Frou Frou is the one other band, besides Remy Zero, that has the most memorable associations. First of all, it helps that the song is used in the commercials for the film. Secondly, you combine the beautiful voice of Imogen Heap with the production of Guy Sigsworth, who helped Bjork with a few singles, and you’re bound to get a good song. Combine that good song with the most emotionally charged scene of the film and you have a near perfect moment. What vaults it to perfection is the fact that, yet again, the lyrics match the event to a tee. The soundtrack ends with “Winding Road” by Bonnie Somerville, normally a song that I would dismiss as just a song for the rolling credits, a la “Layla,” it also has apt lyrics in “Someday we’ll find our way home.” For those of you who have seen the movie, you know what she means, in more ways than one.
Zach Braff, you talented S.O.B., I am in awe of your talents. Please make more films, and don’t let anyone mess with the soundtracks.
Various Artists- Lost in Translation
Various Artists / Elliott Smith- Good Will Hunting
Various Artists / Aimee Mann- Magnolia