Grizzly Bear was the perfect choice to score Derek Cianfrance’s heartbreaking indie vehicle Blue Valentine. I say this as someone who finds the group of Brooklyn harmonizers over-hyped and overly precious. Yet, even someone with such prejudices must acknowledge their popularity and assume the inclusion of their name in the film’s trailer likely drew a few loyalists to the box office. Although no new material was contributed from the band (a change in the film’s release date made knocking out some new songs too hurried a task), the wistful instrumental cuts of existing Grizzly Bear material are wholly appropriate for soundtracking a young couple’s idealistic courtship and dissembling. No matter how well the instrumentals and alternate takes work when the story is unfolding before us, listening to the soundtrack without the visuals feels a little wanting.
Blue Valentine opens with present day discord and flashes back to freer times, juxtaposing scenes from a couple’s (played by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling) early stages of love. Grizzly Bear’s songs are largely used to ready the viewer for a step back in time. The gentleness of the score keeps the flashbacks from jarring; this noninvasive quality also compliments some of the more charming characteristics of Gosling’s character, Dean. At one point, Dean–a Brooklyn-based mover–travels in a van full of an old man’s belongings to Pennsylvania, the site of Dean and Williams’ character Cindy’s first encounter. As the setting changes, an instrumental version of “Easier” builds from sparse beginning to poignant flourish.
Other uses of music in the film are more central to the plot. The couple’s “song” — a soul rarity by Penny and the Quarters called “You and Me” — appears first as a stab at reconciliation and later in flashback as a heartfelt declaration of love. Thankfully, the song has been included on the soundtrack, and for it we should applaud Dean’s tastes. A Gosling-sung and ukulele-strummed version of “You Always Hurt The Ones You Love” makes an appearance on the soundtrack as well.
This break from Grizzly Bear material works as a split between the songs that work and the ones that do not. The soundtrack’s second half largely consists of alternate Grizzly Bear tracks. As we heard their instrumental incarnations earlier, these songs largely seem like filler. The one exception is “Alligator”, which plays over the movie’s closing credits and is a bit harder (by Grizzly Bear standards, anyway). If you’re not already enamored of the Grizzly Bear sound, you may find the soundtrack as a whole initially interesting but drab in retrospect.
In this instance, the soundtrack does not measure up to the film, which, stripped of all music but Gosling’s courtship ditty and the Penny and the Quarters track, would likely do just fine without Grizzly Bear’s aid. Compared to a powerful piece of filmmaking as Blue Valentine, the soundtrack comes as kitten soft. As an accompaniment for the giddy early stages of love, it works well, but anyone who has seen the movie knows how that turns out.