The motion picture soundtrack, rescued briefly from dollar bins and esoterica by (of all people) Zach Braff, seems to have had its day. The indie-pop playlist nature of Garden State’s soundtrack was a good idea for the digital age, reflecting our ever-expanding digital tastes but reminding us, again, of some of those great tunes buried in old iTunes playlists. After the formula was recapitulated on Juno and the endless Michael Cera hipster-romances, however, things began to feel predictable. With indie musicians aiming in such an overtly mercenary way for movie-trailer spots and iPod ads, too, we may have reached a saturation point for that guitar jangle that’s supposed to trigger the poignant thing at the end of a medium-budget dramedy.
In the face of this downturn, Judd Apatow’s collection on the Funny People soundtrack is a valiant, though ultimately unsuccessful, bid for relevance. Apatow, ever a stalwart traditionalist, has collected a series of tracks that at first seem even more old-fashioned than is necessary. We have Lennon, McCartney, and Starr (separately); post-Zep Robert Plant; James Taylor; and Warren Zevon. But there’s an idea here. Namely, these performers are generally aging or have passed away. They’re in the later parts of their careers, after the dissolution of the super-successful groups they were in previously, and their subjects are aging, mortality, legacy. Paul Simon (“American Tune”) or Johnny Cash (“Hurt”) could easily have fit in here.
The highlights are the same songs that are meant to catch your eye. Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.”, recorded live with Andrew Bird on violin from the group’s summer 2008 tour, is a downbeat gem, nicely recreating the atmosphere of the original. The rare acoustic version of Lennon’s song “Watching the Wheels”, recorded soon before his death, is so carefree that you can’t help reflect on the old familiar tragedy once more. And Zevon, his old mordant humour on show, shines again on “Numb As a Statue” The familiar chorus “I’m gonna beg, borrow or steal / some feelings from you / so I can have some feelings too” is certainly apropos.
The addition of the Sandler songs from the movie, a couple tracks by Jason Schwartzman’s band Coconut Records, and Apatow’s daughter Maude’s rendition of “Memory” are problematic for this vision. Sandler is supposed to be a fool in his songs, but his foolishness should take the form of buffoonery, that old potent comedy of “The Chanukah Song”. But his cover of the Lennon classic “Real Love”, with its thin, whistled interlude, is just embarrassing. Can I criticize “Memory” without coming off as callous as George Simmons? It’s an indulgence, surely. But worse is the way that each of these inclusions dilutes the power of the soundtrack’s overarching conceit.
Overall, the Funny People soundtrack, though it contains some good, if familiar, tunes, isn’t a complete enough package to stand alone as a successful album apart from the film. It requires the film for its emotional impact, and therefore is likely to be foregone for the DVD of the movie itself, or the downloading of one or two key tracks from iTunes. That’s not a terrible thing; the film had many admirers. But it may have a difficult time avoiding that dollar bin in a few months.