SPEAKER | We earn it
I've heard that the sense of smell is the sense most linked to memory, and I find that easy to believe: there are certain odors that act like mental time machines on me. But olfactory nostalgia is different for every person; the smell of warmed-over grade-D ground beef wafting from a Taco Bell drive-thru instantly transports me back to the middle school cafeteria, while it may just make you nauseous. There is no mass-produced entertainment for our noses, scratch 'n sniff stickers aside.
But our ears have pop music, and, as I've stated before and should be obvious to everybody, music is just as powerful a memory trigger as smells can be. And, because to a large degree we all listen to the same music, musical memories can have significance for large groups of people--music that is widely considered "bad" can acquire cultural significance because many people associate it with a specific time period or particular events.
Which is why, to again hop on the obvious train, movies and pop music have always had a symbiotic relationship. Movies use pop music as emotional shorthand. We all know how we're supposed to feel when we hear "Shout!" or "I Will Survive" for the thousandth time in a movie. But it's rare when a movie actually earns
the music it uses. I think we have a stronger emotional connections to music than to movies, because music is always in the background, soundtracking our lives. You go to the movies; music comes to you. So we know when we're being manipulated by a movie's use of a favorite song, even when we allow ourselves to be manipulated. We project the emotions we feel because of the song onto the scene we're watching, when the scene usually has not earned those emotions. It takes a gifted filmmaker, with a keen sense for how the audience will react to certain songs--a Tarantino, Scorcese, or Wes Anderson--to use pop music to its maximum effect. The final scene of Jackie Brown
, with Pam Grier singing along to Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" as she drives away from Robert Forster. The interplay between the characters, dialogue and Aimee Mann's songs in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia
. Stillwater singing "Tiny Dancer" on the tour bus in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous
. The harrowing climax of Michael Mann's Manhunter
, set to "Inna Gadda Da Vida": These are films and filmmakers that earn the music they use.
The Girl Next Door
, however, does not earn its music. It's an intermittently amusing teen comedy, with devastating hottie Elisha Cuthbert in the title role (her character is barely one-dimensional, but it's nice to see her doing something that doesn't involve getting caught in bear traps and lured into bomb shelters by lonely hillbillies) and Timothy Olyphant in a pretty good performance as a funny-scary porn producer. The romance between Cuthbert and Emile Hirsch is every teensexcom cliche rolled into one, with the prominent addition of a weirdly conflicting attitude toward porn, but Hirsch is given a couple of opportunities to convey the gut-twisting feeling of having done something wrong and knowing that you're about to pay for it, and he nails it.
But we're here to talk about the soundtrack. Like most teensexcoms, this one is mostly made up of anonymous "inspired by" album filler, with the occasional nod to the cool kids (Elliott Smith pops up at one point). That's all...well, not exactly great, but not unexpected. The Girl Next Door
, however, features three songs that you might not expect in your average teensexcom in 2004: "Under Pressure" by Queen and David Bowie, "The Killing Moon" by Echo and the Bunnymen, and The Who's "Baba O'Riley." The presence of these songs indicates one of two things: either the filmmakers were trying to make something that aspires to be more than a tits-and-jokes romp, or they were trying to make us think they were. Based on the flashes of genuine feeling in the movie, I think it's the former. Based on the other 90% of the movie, I've gotta go with the latter. These songs, two of which were used to greater effect in similar, better movies, come with built-in audience associations and expectations that The Girl Next Door
tries, and fails, to appropriate for its own use. It doesn't earn the songs.
"Under Pressure" is the Queen/Bowie collaboration that Vanilla Ice infamously "didn't" sample for "Ice Ice Baby." It opens The Girl Next Door
, playing over a montage of yearbook memories and shots of the various high school cliques hanging out and being cool (or so uncool they're cool, or whatever). It's used in a bludgeoningly literal manner--these kids, particularly Hirsch, are "under pressure" to go to college, get laid, etc.--but it's also there to give this opening montage a weight that it doesn't inherently have via insta-nostalgia. The modern teensexcom gets most of its DNA from the high school comedies of the 80s, particularly those of John Hughes. The use of instantly recognizable 80s songs, even ones that weren't used in Hughes's movies, remind the audience of other, better movies of the same ilk; perhaps of their own high school years. And, in a more general sense, the juxtaposition of ultra-contemporary images and a somewhat older song is an attempt to give those images a timelessness that they wouldn't otherwise have. It tells us that the action we're seeing on the screen now is already consigned to the past. These kids whose hijinks we're enjoying now will grow up, youth and beauty will fade, and a former porn star's seduction of a high school senior will be a distant bittersweet memory, etc. This is all smart filmmaking. Except that The Girl Next Door
uses "Under Pressure" in the most thuddingly obvious way possible. Consider instead the way the song is used in Grosse Pointe Blank
: John Cusack's hitman Martin Blank goes to his 10-year reunion and hooks back up with his old flame. At the reunion, Martin talks to a former classmate who now has a baby. Martin has spent most of the movie looking with contempt on the people he left behind, but as this woman talks about the joy the baby has brought into her life, Martin's guard slips. And though it would have been easy for the woman's gushing to be satiric, it's played with complete sincerity. She gives Martin the baby to hold, and as Martin and the baby stare at each other, the climax of "Under Pressure" rises on the soundtrack:
Love's such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
It's such a powerful scene, not least of all because they found, like, the best six-month-old actor in the world, but also because the song is so unexpected and yet totally of a piece with film's "Class of '86" vibe. When Martin holds the baby and "Under Pressure" plays, Martin reaches a turning point--he's kept everyone else away for ten years, but now he's ready to let someone get close to him. And he never has to say it, because the song does it for him.
I'm not going to post "Under Pressure," because it's hardly a rarity. I do recommend you hunt down Crooked Fingers' cover of it, available on Reservoir Songs
or from the iTunes
"The Killing Moon" plays when Hirsch first sees Cuthbert moving in next door. It's a slo-mo jump-cut montage of her carrying her luggage in and generally looking hot while Hirsch stares at her. The song comes completely out of nowhere, though it's easy to guess that it's here because it was used in Donnie Darko
. There, Echo and the Bunnymen fit right in with The Church's "Under the Milky Way" and Gary Jules's cover of Tears for Fears' "Mad World." Donnie Darko
director Richard Kelly used 80s pop--specifically, a certain kind of epic, gloomy New Wave--to tie Darko
to the high-school movie subgenre in which it had its roots, but also to give the film an off-kilter, dreamlike, slightly sinister edge. "The Killing Moon" is a love song, but it's not all sweetness and light:
Under blue moon I saw you
So soon you'll take me
Up in your arms, too late to beg you
or cancel it though I know it must be
The killing time
This is love out of control, fated to happen and doomed to fail, and The Girl Next Door
tries to grab some of that weighty portent for itself. Unfortunately, the love affair in The Girl Next Door
has all the weight of one of Cuthbert's flimsy bras, and there's none of Darko
's time-travel and bunny-costume weirdness to hide the cliches.
"The Killing Moon" by Pavement
The original version is readily available on CD
, so here's a pretty faithful cover by 90s alt-rock gods Pavement.
The Girl Next Door
ends with a "Where are they now?" montage set to "Baba O'Riley," aka the "teenage wasteland" song. This is the perfect high-school movie song, and as such, it's the one song that most high-school movies should avoid. It's just too big. How many teen sex comedies have actually earned Pete Townshend's huge power chords? Or the jittery synthesizer intro, the three-chord piano melody, Keith Moon's relentless drums? How many high-school movies have any single moment that can compete with Roger Daltrey singing in his highest register "Don't cry / Don't raise your eye / It's only teenage wasteland?" Maybe Dazed and Confused
, but Linklater didn't even need it, because he had the unlikely one-two combo of "Tuesday's Gone" and "Free Ride." "Baba O'Riley" is
what it's like to be a teenager; just about any image you throw under it will fail to measure up, much less Hirsch and Cuthbert making out against a New Beetle.
"Baba O'Riley" by Pearl Jam
"Baba O'Riley" is from Who's Next
. Here's a live cover by Pearl Jam from their November 6, 2000 Seattle show, complete with five minutes of crowd noise at the end. Three years ago, I heard a cover of "Baba O'Riley" on the University of Georgia student radio station, WUOG. I don't know the name of the band that did it, but it was just a male voice and an upright bass, and it was incredible. If anybody knows who that was or has a copy of the song, let me know.
(MP3 disclaimer: All MP3s offered on this site are for evaluation purposes only--i.e. download them, listen to them, decide whether you would like to purchase the music from a friendly retailer, and then delete them. All MP3s will be available for one week after they are posted. If you are an artist or represent an artist or label whose music appears here, and you would like your music removed, just let me know.)