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Strange Magic: The Pop-Music Soundtrack From American Graffiti to Sofia Coppola

By Phil Dellio

On the second-last day of school this year, I showed my grade six class American Graffiti. Pop music and film already exert some influence on most of my 29 kids, though clearly not as much as television, the Internet, or Digimons. My hope was that this would be the first time they'd experience pop music used expressively in a film (as opposed to merely decoratively or cross-promotionally, i.e., the Nine Inch Nails/Red Hot Chili Peppers/Busta Rhymes kind of soundtrack with which they're familiar), and that a few might be as permanently affected as I was at their age when I sat through American Graffiti twice one summer afternoon in 1974. If such an awakening did take place, those affected were pretty quiet about it; some fidgeted, most looked bored, and the only time they got into the spirit of things was when Paul LeMat barreled into the parking lot to save Charles Martin Smith from a beating. For those 30 seconds, my guess was that they were responding to what seemed a little like a Jackie Chan film.

American Graffiti appeared more or less simultaneously with Mean Streets in 1973, and even though the style and sensibility of their directors are worlds removed from each other, the two films are closer than you might think in the way their characters relate to pop music. The music in American Graffiti and Mean Streets primarily belongs to George Lucas and Martin Scorsese; characters make occasional reference to what they're hearing--David Proval's insistence on "only oldies tonight" in Mean Streets, LeMat's dismissive preference for Buddy Holly over the Beach Boys in American Graffiti--but for all intents and purposes, the soundtracks express the tastes, personalities, and autobiographies of Lucas and Scorsese much more than that of their characters.

In Mean Streets, this seems especially obvious. When De Niro makes his flashy entrance into a bar accompanied by "Jumpin' Jack Flash," the effect is virtuosic, but it's highly likely that Johnny Boy has only the dimmest awareness of who the Rolling Stones are. Even Charlie (Harvey Keitel), through whose ambivalent eyes we're seeing Johnny Boy, is more a product of the soundtrack's Italian standards than he is of Beggars Banquet. And the one time that Johnny Boy responds directly to what we're hearing--when he does his little spastic dance outside the getaway car to the Miracles' "Mickey's Monkey"--you're again aware that he's not someone who'd ever actually own a Smokey Robinson record, much less think, talk, or develop any kind of an opinion whatsoever about Smokey Robinson. The Miracles, the Rolling Stones, and to a lesser degree the doo-wop and girl-group music that takes up the bulk of Mean Streets' soundtrack, are there because Scorsese wants them to be there. The decision of whether to use "Jumpin' Jack Flash" or "Street Fighting Man," for instance, is one of infinite meaning and nuance for Scorsese, the difference between the "everyday inferno" (Pauline Kael's words) he's after, and the easy period-identification that would be enough for a lesser director. For his characters, though, such distinctions are nonexistent: it's all just amorphous background din.

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American Graffiti, where the music would seem to be of paramount importance to Lucas' cross-section of seven California teenagers, is somewhat trickier. Every kid listens to Wolfman Jack's radio show incessantly, they go to their school homecoming and dance to "At the Hop" and "The Stroll," and their dress, mannerisms, and talk reflect the teenage worlds vividly mapped out in songs by Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, and Dion DiMucci. For all of that, however, pop music often doesn't have any more of an emotional pull on Lucas' nascent surfers and hippies than it does on Scorsese's low-rent hoods--less, actually. Do Richard Dreyfuss' Curt and Ronnie Howard's Steve seem like pop obsessives, the kind of characters who'd mark the events of their lives by specific songs heard in specific situations, who'd look to pop music for a deeper understanding of themselves, who'd maybe even romantically (and foolishly) weigh a life decision against a line from a favourite song? To me, no, they're too levelheaded, and so is Cindy Williams' Laurie. (LeMat, Smith, and Candy Clark, maybe; Mackenzie Phillips, definitely.) The music drives the narrative forward--the Monotones' "Book of Love" when Phillips flees LeMat's car, Booker T.'s "Green Onions" as an omen of disaster--and it routinely mirrors what characters are feeling, but again, it's first and foremost a directorial device. You're hearing what's inside George Lucas' head, not what's in Curt's or Steve's.

I've singled out American Graffiti and Mean Streets because together they set a framework within which most of the worthwhile pop-driven films of the past 25 years can be located: a director visualizes a particular scene or sequence through the filter of some favourite piece of music, and the music in turn is used to shape and choreograph the scene in a way that is meant to resonate deeply. Generally, the song has only the most incidental, historical, or casual connections to the characters on hand, and sometimes not even that. This holds true for Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" in Jonathan Demme's Melvin and Howard (Paul LeMat's Melvin Dumar is the very definition of who John Fogerty was trying to find a voice for, but, for that very reason, Dumar himself wouldn't know the first thing about CCR); the Byrds and the Turtles in Jonathan Kaplan's excellent Heart Like a Wheel (housewife-with-kids Shirley Muldowney's sole connection to music is the country & western her dad used to sing for her; the Byrds and the Turtles come out of Kaplan's life); and GoodFellas (the slow-motion shot of De Niro underneath Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" gets to the core of Jimmy Conway's spiritual rot like nothing else in the film, even though Jimmy himself couldn't possibly be any more removed from the world inhabited by Cream). The same dynamic is evident in the more recent mastery of Boogie Nights (where Paul Thomas Anderson's porn-happy ensemble essentially has the same relationship to disco that American Graffiti's teenagers have to rock 'n' roll: music's a plaything, an ever-present ambience that fills the space around them and gives them something to dance to, but it's far from the central fact of anybody's life) and Rushmore (Jason Schwartzman's Max Fischer is like one of Pete Townshend's misfit heroes come to life, but Max's own tastes are better represented by the cheesy seduction tape he plays for Ms. Cross than the Who, Kinks, and Creation songs Wes Anderson chose for Rushmore).

In each case, there's a disconnect between the film's characters and its soundtrack, a pattern that reaches its logical conclusion, at once comical and hypnotic, in Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves. Here, the narrative is literally stopped at various points for a series of static landscape shots underneath a progression of 1970s art-glam songs (David Bowie, Jethro Tull, Roxy Music). I suppose someone could develop a reasonable case for how these songs are intricately linked to the psyches of von Trier's characters, but to me their inclusion is much more easily explained: they're the director's favourite songs, and he was going to get them into his film no matter what. If von Trier had instead been directing The First Wives Club, I'm almost willing to bet that the same soundtrack would have been part of the package.

There are exceptions in these films and others--stray moments when a character reveals a deeper attachment to whatever music's playing in the background, when ownership of the soundtrack passes from director to character. Towards the end of Boogie Nights, in the celebrated firecracker/"Sister Christian" sequence, there's a close-up of Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler as his attention shifts from the surrounding mayhem to the lyrics of Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" from one of Rahad Jackson's "awesome mix tapes." Dirk loses himself in the song, gets caught up in the way Springfield tells the story of Dirk's own feelings for Julianne Moore's Amber Waves, and the trace of a smile starts to cross his face. It's a profound pop-music moment, the best cinematic translation I've ever encountered of an old Steely Dan lyric: "All night long, we sang that stupid song/And every word we sang I knew was true." Anderson went on to give his characters an even greater emotional stake in Magnolia's soundtrack during the great "Wise Up" montage.

Three recent films have appeared that may or may not signal a new kind of pop-music movie, one in which the soundtrack is less in service of a director's personality and is more intimately connected with the thoughts, actions, and aspirations of the film's characters--in short, where characters either talk directly about the music we hear, ruminating on its place in their lives or using it as a sounding board for their theories about the world, or, in one extraordinary instance, consciously choosing soundtrack music that is going to speak for them. The Virgin Suicides, High Fidelity, and American Psycho are very different films in terms of tone and genre, yet their soundtracks all feel like clear departures from the Scorsese/Lucas-influenced style of the past quarter-century.

Mary Harron's American Psycho is the weakest of the three, a heavy-handed art-splatter film whose one idea, that the materialistic excesses of the Reagan era produced monsters in our midst (with Reagan himself, predictably enough, dangled out there as the biggest monster of them all), was handled with more wit and economy in TV's Family Ties. That aside, Harron sticks close to the digressions and detours of Bret Easton Ellis's novel, preserving for us the bizarre juxtaposition of Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman expounding earnestly on the significance of Huey Lewis, Robert Palmer, and Phil Collins just before putting his victims out of their misery in more ways than one. Speaking as someone who worked at a record store during the summer of 1986, Ellis's intuitive grasp of the music which came to define that precise moment in pop history is flawless. Lewis, Palmer, and Collins, along with maybe Lionel Richie and Billy Ocean, are locked into place as surely as Bateman himself--weird, immaculate, anonymous spaces that still linger. Mary Harron's musical voice can be found in I Shot Andy Warhol and old issues of Punk magazine; American Psycho's soundtrack is meticulously and presciently programmed by Bateman, as precise a pop critic as he is serial killer.

Bateman's Top-40 monologues are an opportune time to bring up Quentin Tarantino, whose most famous musical set piece, the Stealer's Wheel scene from Reservoir Dogs, would fit comfortably into American Psycho. Tarantino is something of a bridge between the Scorsese/Lucas tradition and the recent blip of character-driven soundtracks. Unlike Scorsese's hoods, Tarantino's characters reveal an intellectual, if not always emotional, attachment to pop music: observe the Madonna roundtable and Chris Penn's close analysis of "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" in Reservoir Dogs, or Sam Jackson trading thoughts on the Delfonics with Robert Forster in Jackie Brown. In the first two cases, it's hard to hear the talk that accompanies the music as coming from anyone other than Tarantino himself. When Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue start dissecting "Like a Virgin," it's like a great in-joke on the gulf between Jimmy Conway and Cream in GoodFellas--the words are Tarantino's, not Mr. Brown's, and they carry about as much spiritual weight as Homer Simpson wistfully pining for the bygone days of Supertramp. But in Jackie Brown, you really do hear the Delfonics through the ears of Forster and Pam Grier, signalling a move from Tarantino to his characters as the controlling sensibility.

There's probably more talk about pop music in High Fidelity than in any narrative film ever made, much of it lifted verbatim from Nick Hornby's novel. Too much talk, sometimes--after a thrillingly resonant opening, "You're Gonna Miss Me" blaring over a close-up of a spinning 45, the music drops out and John Cusack needlessly starts explaining what the Thirteenth Floor Elevators' monument to spite and self-pity has already made perfectly clear. Far from channeling its characters and its music onto two separate tracks--with the narrative looking after the former and the director in charge of the latter--High Fidelity immerses Cusack and his record-store buddies in the daily rituals, idiosyncrasies, and private enthusiasms that grow out of a full-fledged pop obsession. Sometimes the surfeit of detail works fine: You could see High Fidelity six times and still have fun scanning the frame for familiar album covers, and the one time when the record store's busy and we hop from fragment to fragment of overheard conversation--Stiff Little Fingers, Blonde on Blonde, Psychocandy, the Beta Band--director Stephen Frears lowers the volume on Cusack a bit and lets the film find its own rhythm. In the end, however, the movie has all the surface noise of Hornby's novel without the underlying melancholy.

Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides is pitched far away from High Fidelity's esoteric clutter, but its austerity and restraint are deceptive: no matter how encyclopedic Cusack's pop-music I.Q. is in High Fidelity, or how much his record collection dwarfs the solitary milk crate owned by Kirsten Dunst's Lux in The Virgin Suicides, it's Coppola's film that comes closer to capturing from the inside the experience of what it's like to give part of your life over to pop music--closer, maybe, than any film ever has. In Dazed and Confused, an earlier version of growing up in the '70s, Richard Linklater's teenagers seemed barely cognizant of the Foghat and Edgar Winter that played non-stop on the radio as they drove around town. Linklater had the songs down cold, but I only rarely sensed that any of them meant anything to the kids--whatever feeling of kinship I took away were for Linklater, who clearly shares some biography with me, not for his characters. The Virgin Suicides uses about one-seventh the amount of music heard in Dazed and Confused, but every second registers. Sometimes, like with the incredible introduction of Trip Fontane to Heart's "Magic Man," Coppola sticks close to Scorsese: pick the right song, play it loud and let it play, and let the music do the rest. Even there, though, "Magic Man" pointedly speaks for all the girls hanging off their lockers and swooning as Trip walks down the hall, so when "Crazy on You" accompanies Lux's and Trip's seismic first kiss soon after, it's as if Heart has been officially designated as a talisman to the kids, something that closes off their world to outsiders. From there it's a short step to the homecoming dance, where Electric Light Orchestra's "Strange Magic," 10cc's "I'm Not in Love," and Styx's "Come Sail Away" speak a secret language of longing and desire understood immediately by anyone who went to high school at the time. Which would not, significantly, include Sofia Coppola--I haven't read the source novel for The Virgin Suicides, from which I take it some of the songs are lifted intact, but in any case the music is wholly an extension of the characters, not Coppola (who was five years old at the time).

All of this serves as prelude to the fallout from the dance. First, Mrs. Lisbon's record-burning edict, the first time in the movie one of the daughters is forced to articulate the role that pop music plays in her life. It's important that Mrs. Lisbon's ultimate punishment should target Lux's record collection: as Lux clings to her milk crate to the point of being dragged down the stairs behind it, the same music that has already been established as a binding force among the film's teenagers is now moved into the realm of the purely personal, the realm of the pop obsessive. The sight of a record (any record) going up in flames might not resonate like the sled in Citizen Kane, but to anybody who collects vinyl it's a disturbing image nonetheless. (For a whole gallery of traumatized record collectors, see Alan Zweig's recent documentary Vinyl.)

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Finally, there's what I've come to think of as the playing-records-over-the-phone sequence. I'd place it alongside the Copa entrance in GoodFellas (to the Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me"), the pool party in Boogie Nights (Eric Burdon's "Spill the Wine"), and Max's extracurricular resume in Rushmore (the Creation's "Making Time") as the scene against which all pop cinema should be measured. For no apparent reason other than the simple truth that there's nothing one can say that hasn't been said with perfect eloquence somewhere in a pop song, the Lisbon girls and their worshipful chorus of boy admirers renew contact by playing records to each other over the phone. The songs are carefully chosen and a story emerges. The boys lead with Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me," a smile and a new beginning; the girls respond with Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again, Naturally," which talks of suicide. The boys come back with the Bee Gees' "Run to Me," an intimation of safety and acceptance; the girls promptly cut them off with Carole King's "So Far Away," leaving only distance and resignation. I might have extended the scene to find room for Badfinger's "Day After Day" and Harry Nilsson's "Without You," but otherwise, perfection. Coppola takes one of the most basic instincts of pop fandom, the desire to share your obsessions with the world--"Hey, you've got to hear this"--and retells the film in miniature.

Coppola, who like most directors her age has been influenced to one degree or another by music videos, suggests a new kind of synthesis for pop cinema: a combination of Scorsese's dazzle, Lucas' command of period, a complex and carefully developed affinity between character and soundtrack, and something more elusive--an intuitive feel for the kind of atmospherics needed to sustain the best music videos across minutes of wordless narrative. Music and image are melded in The Virgin Suicides in a manner that gives resonance not just to the dynamic high points (where Scorsese and Lucas operate), but also to the quieter, Air-scored passages that give the movie an enigmatic dreaminess befitting the five Lisbon sisters. The scene where the boys read from Cecilia's diary, triggering a fantasy of Lux frolicking in sun-drenched fields underneath Air's "Ce matin la," is video-influenced in the best sense, the sensual elevation of mood and gesture above all else. Coppola's husband, Spike Jonze, is probably the most celebrated video director of the past decade, and her brother Roman directed Green Day's "Walking Contradiction," on the short-list of my favourite videos ever. Clearly Coppola has benefited from some helpful familial ties in terms of drawing on the conventions of video, and she uses them exceedingly well. In doing so, she opens up new possibilities for the pop-music soundtrack.

(Reprinted with permission from Cinema Scope, 2000)