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Hipster-baiting “Summer” soundtrack fails to inspire

By Danielle Gewurz

Section: Arts

September 4, 2009

“(500) Days of Summer” is a cute movie, but sometimes seems more like a marketing ploy targeted to young twentysomethings with affectations for vintage clothes and the Smiths. The premise of the film, centered around aimless and ambitionless postgraduates, has been around for decades, but it’s been somewhat aggressively commercialized since Zach Braff’s “Garden State,” and it leaves doubt about the sincere use of music versus a sense of pandering to the audience’s taste.

“Days” is nonlinear in narration, covering the beginning and dissolution of a relationship between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) that commences, fittingly enough, when she sings “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” to him, cuing his complete and utter surprise that the cute hipster girl likes the Smiths. Not to mention, our introduction to the character Summer mentions her yearbook quotation as having come from Belle and Sebastian’s “The Boy with the Arab Strap.”

And in his single most obvious move, Tom tries to woo Summer by blaring “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” from his cubicle, both expressing a message and conveying that imprimatur of coolness that is good taste in music.

Their story is told with accompaniment from Regina Spektor, among others, paralleling neatly Zach Braff’s romantic encounters with Natalie Portman, right down to the meet-cute cued by music (Portman tells Braff that the Shins’ “New Slang” “will change [his] life”).

Both movies make use of music in ways that are both conscious (part of the story itself and referenced by the characters) and unconscious (background music, on the soundtrack). The conscious uses acknowledge that the characters, much like the audience, are the sort of people for whom music is transformative, sweeping, and, yes, life changing.

The issue here is that some screenwriters, much like not a few real life hipsters, believe that taste in music constitutes a sufficient character trait and common ground for a relationship, meaning that both girls in question aren’t fleshed out any further than their winsome looks, their vintage clothes, and their impact on the leading man.

Deschanel’s Summer is well-rendered, but we’re given no indication that she has any life of her own; Tom falls hard for her without even knowing her, and her taste in music is merely part and parcel of an ultimately shallow attraction.

Nonetheless, the slickly directed film does present a lot better than “Garden State,” more complex and interesting in its narration. “Days” does heavily rely on the crutch of the omniscient narrator, but the actors bring far more depth to the film than the script suggests. A few interesting directorial conceits serve to better illuminate the narrative, and there’s no denying that the film is a pleasurable watch.

It’s undeniable that both films owe a lot to “The Graduate,” from the now-stock themes of listlessness and disillusionment for twentysomethings out of college to the heavy music usage. “The Graduate” uses Simon and Garfunkel to capture the mood and flow of the movie is masterfully done. From “Mrs. Robinson” to “The Sound of Silence” the music serves to tie into the plot without referencing it, and the movie is in many ways defined and shaped by the soundtrack.

Similarly, “Harold and Maude” is shaped by its Cat Stevens soundtrack, which in no way references the plot itself but nonetheless is woven through the movie. There’s something to be said of the cohesiveness that results in both of those films from having a single artist soundtrack the film, and the use of the music feels more atmospheric and less geared towards moving units of a soundtrack album.

However, in a world where Thom Yorke, Bon Iver, and Death Cab for Cutie are writing new songs for the next “Twilight” movie, there’s less and less point in the sort of self-selecting audience that “(500) Days of Summer” is being sold to. Several friends of mine have since started listening to the Smiths, which is something I can only be in favor of, but I nonetheless feel a bit of trepidation in going to see a movie that’s so clearly targeted to me based on my taste in music. The sense of recognition draws me out of the movie and makes me more conscious that I’m actually watching a movie. I’d rather the soundtrack be more fully integrated into the film; while I’m pretty sure I like being pandered to, I don’t want to be able to recognize it.

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