Surround Sound: Personality Crisis (Juno/ Walk Hard/ Into the Wild)

It’s clear that some filmmakers inherently understand the value of music in setting up the tone of their film. It’s a two way street, of course. The right selection of songs, or perfectly executed score, can turn the everyday into something epic, or the mildly amusing into a comic cavalcade. Yet there are times when, because of excessive ambition or smug self congratulation, the tunes take on a tainted life all their own – and the screen’s not ‘big’ enough for both the sonic and the storyline. Finding flawless examples of the former is far harder than locating mediocre members of the latter, basically because the meshing of music and movies is typically left to those (Scorsese, Tarantino) who know what they’re doing. In this latest installment of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we’ll focus on a trio of soundtracks that truly understand the importance of sonics within the cinematic. They also reflect three of 2007’s best efforts.

Juno – Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 9]

How does one match a movie built almost exclusively on quirk? Do you go for an equally eccentric collection of songs, or try and reflect the borderline precocious personalities of the cast? For director, and soundtrack producer Jason Reitman (with help from Peter Afterman and Margaret Yen), you do a little of both. Wisely, son of Ivan relied on Kimya Dawson and the idio-indie vibe left over from her work with the Moldy Peaches to propel the Juno soundtrack toward perfected mix tape nirvana. The selections here celebrate all that’s good about the pregnancy parable, exploring the tentative twee universe of adolescent sexual discovery with the down to earth worldview of its simple syrup heroine. Though it’s lacking the aesthetic cornerstone that drives our ‘with child’ champion – namely, old school ’70s punk – it does pick through the last 40 years of music to find symbolic soulmates for the character.

Dawson’s work is delicious, a combination of lo-fi lollipops and angst fueled confessionals. “My Rollercoaster”, “Tire Swing”, “Loose Lips” and “So Nice So Smart” are all winners, all walking the fine line between imagined bedroom singalongs and full blown coffee house concertos. Similarly, the ‘main’ musical number, the Peaches pubescent love lament “Anyone Else But You” does double duty – functioning as both theme and last act truce between Juno and her boy joy Paulie. And while it would seem that tracks from established bands like The Kinks (“A Well Respected Man”), The Velvet Underground (“I’m Sticking With You”), and Sonic Youth (the Carpenters cover “Superstar”) would announce their obviousness and overstay their welcome, the way Reitman handles them in the film makes their presence more than mandatory here. Besides, anyone wise enough to give Mo Tucker’s lunatic lullaby a place on their playlist deserves unfettered kudos. The Juno soundtrack is exactly like the film itself – clever, original, and just a tad out of step with normalcy.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]

For a composer, it must be an impossible dilemma to overcome. How does one write songs for a specific actor to sing while also creating music that’s supposed to be the result of said performer’s specific character? Luckily, the minds behind the wacky wintertime comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story took a hands on approach. Director/co-writer Jake Kasdan, along with collaborator/comedy savior Judd Apatow, made sure that star John C. Reilly had some sonic substance to work with, hashing out lyrics and stylistic ideals before calling in actual musicians to bring them forth. Members of the Candy Butchers (Dan Bern and Mike Viola) as well as established artists like Van Dyke Parks and Marshall Crenshaw used the sketches and outlines as the basis for their clever contributions. The results become one of the best parody albums ever, matching considered classics from Spinal Tap and Tenacious D, note for nutty note.

As the movie is meant to mimic the recent biopic of Johnny Cash (among others, including Ray and The Buddy Holly Story), we get several man in black moments. The title track is terrific, a perfect amalgamation of message and mock bravado that comes across as iconic and idiotic. Similarly, early narrative numbers like “Take My Hand” and “(Mama) You Gots to Love Your Negro Man” take stylistic satire and brave bad taste to new levels. During the middle of the movie, when Reilly’s character is experimenting with sound and inspiration, the Parks’ penned psychedelic epic “Black Sheep” reminds us that rock and roll is almost inherently a self-parody to begin with. Between the faux folk protest of songs like “Dear Mr. President” to the late in life resurgence stated in “Beautiful Ride”, this is a score that celebrates the best – and excesses – of a life as a musician. It’s just too bad that the film and the album failed to connect with audiences. Like other examples of the genre, however, it’s destined to become a signpost of cult cool in the years to come – just like another similarly styled heavy metal spoof.

Into The Wild – Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 9]

For close to two decades now, Eddie Vedder and his post-modern Bob Seeger Everyman routine have kept Pearl Jam a relevant, exciting rock and roll entity, long outliving the band’s neo-nostalgic grunge groundwork. Chosen specifically by writer/director Sean Penn to take on the onerous task of complementing the story of Christopher McCandless and the young man’s self-imposed exile from the world, the famed frontman delivered a collection of amazing tracks. They provided the perfect sonic backdrop to deal with the film’s complex emotional layers. They functioned as celebration and sermon, the All-American instinct toward wanderlust balanced against the needs of Penn’s reinvented road movie. The combination struck a chord with listeners as well as critics, many who saw the acoustic based material as instrumental in the film’s success. Of course, the old coots at the Academy didn’t get it. Vedder missed out on a sure thing Oscar nod (and probable win) when his work was deemed too “song oriented” to be considered a proper score. Huh?

Revisiting the tracks recorded, there is clearly a nomadic troubadour feel to what Vedder has created. Early tracks like “Setting Out” and “Far Behind” are statements of separation and distance, while later numbers like “Rise” and “The Wolf” provide insight into the sense of self-discovery (or delusion) and freedom that McCandless was striving for. Vedder is in fine voice, his balladry belying years as the aural accessory in Pearl Jam’s punk-poseur guitar sound. Yet he also shows with a pair of collaborations – dueting with Sleater-Kitty’s Corin Tucker on the Gordon Peterson/Indio track “Hard Sun”, polishing the Jerry Hannan penned “Society” – that there is a real sense of artistic community in the man. Along with Michael Brooks, who provided the more ambient cues for the film, Vedder’s work on Into the Wild feels like one massively important part of the much bigger motion picture. It verifies the faith Penn had in the musician, and the man’s own belief in his amazing muse. The results speak for themselves – over and over again.

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