n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
In the above-mentioned efforts to keep ahead of the tides, the writers for AKAS have a job about which one should be overwhelmingly ambivalent. Rather than being assigned by an editor a mixture of the sublime and wretched pictures that will debut in theatres across the country, we get to pick the cream of the crop, zeroing in on the most superexcellent and iconic pieces of (mostly) American filmmaking, pieces which have pioneered the way in the always-burgeoning symbiosis between pop music and movies; pics like Goodfellas, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Reservoir Dogs have established themselves not merely as arbiters of this cineomusical fusion but the very benchmarks of film itself, and as benchmarks the importance of music to cinema as a whole has grown. Both in terms of their performative capacities as well as fiduciary appeal, moviemakers consciously capitalize on the effects music can have on an audience, and so whether it is an ambitiously-promoted single that forever marks radio during the time of a blockbuster's summer release (think Seal's “Kiss From a Rose” from Batman Forever or that god awful Chad Kroeger and Josey Scott-performed “Hero” from Spiderman) or a well-worn classic that harkens back to a bygone era all the while moving a few more units at Sam Goody, more and more we see the musical choices of a director, producer, or studio head dramatically impacting a film’s artistic and commercial reception.
Based on Michael Chabon's book of the same name, Wonder Boys weaves the familiar story of an English professor (more appropriately Creative Writing, a distinction not to be overlooked) moving crabwise through his academic and personal life, this particular one struggling to finish a long-awaited follow-up to his PEN-award-winning first novel Arsonist's Daughter while trying to stay afloat amidst the flotsam of his personal life. The particular weekend viewers first encounter him, replete with Michael Douglas's smoke-and-booze-treated voice narrating from a not-too-distant future, the film's hapless protagonist, professor Grady Tripp (Douglas), finds himself pressured by the demands of a self-created coterie of lovers, friends, well-wishers, colleagues and students, the lines between these normally well-demarcated categories blurring through a particularly bad case of myopia on the part of Douglas's character. In the course of a few short hours, Tripp experiences a decade’s worth of tragicomic mishaps, including his wife’s permanent departure, the revelation that his mistress, Sarah Gaskell (Frances McDormand) is pregnant with his child, the shooting of Sarah’s husband’s blind pit bull Poe by student James Leer (Tobey Maguire), the purloining by Leer of a prized piece of baseball memorabilia owned by Tripp’s mistress’s husband Walter Gaskell, who just also happens to be Grady’s boss, and the seductions of student Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), who also happens to live in Grady’s house as a boarder.
Unlike the more iconic films we here at AKAS tend to cover, Wonder Boys stakes out no new musical or cinematic territory in its choice of songs or how they’re used; instead it returns to terrain that seems as familiar and perhaps overused as the beaten up pink bathrobe Grady symbolically dons throughout the picture before sitting dolefully down at his typewriter. Not content just to have chosen the most important pop music players of all time (the movie includes the choicest cuts from Neil Young, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Van Morrison, to name the most famous luminaries of this particular musical menagerie) to soundtrack the film, Wonder Boys unfortunately at times floats perilously close to the callow surface of radio play both then and now, infusing many of the charming, well-adapted scenes backgrounded by pop music with all the originality of a Puff Daddy single.
Which is not to say the film is without its moments; the opening credits roll to Bob Dylan singing “Things Have Changed,” an infectious track for which he and the film won an Oscar in 2001 for Best Original Song. Later, as Hannah Green coaxes Grady onto the dance floor, we get to hear Little Willie John's "I Need Your Love So Bad" effectively set the tone for just one of the ensnaring possibilities in Grady's Odyssean weekend, the juxtaposition of two academic WASPs dancing together in a black R & B club in Pittsburgh with a relatively unheralded old R & B singer’s music playing on the jukebox giving an intimate glimpse of both character and setting. A short while later, the rarely heard “A Child’s Claim to Fame” by Buffalo Springfield comes on in the car as Grady tries to escape the interrogations of ‘Vernon Hardapple,’ who leaves the indelible imprint of his ass on the stolen vehicle in which Grady is driving around world famous author Q (Rip Torn) and his editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.).
No—while there is nothing particularly original about these tracks, they do not threaten to descend into the realm of the overused. What vexes about director Curt Hanson's choices for Wonder Boys is not necessarily their straightforwardness, not the fact that a seven year old, having been introduced to the entirety of classic rock's canon, would more than likely have shown more spirited decision-making--it is the realization as a viewer that more thoughtfully-chosen, less common tracks, provided by the same artists, might've given the film a much more authentic feeling, all the while maintaining the audience appeal such artists are doubtlessly chosen for. When John Lennon's "Watching the Wheels" plays as Grady and James take a road trip to the childhood home of Grady's wife, we must wonder at the depth, or lack thereof, such a choice lends the scene. Why not pick a more 'obscure' but no less apropos Lennon track—what about "Hold On" from Plastic Ono Band or "Crippled Inside" from Imagine? Either song would have infused Grady’s meandering conversation with a deeper and perhaps less obvious subtext than do the chorus and corresponding lyrics of “Watching the Wheels,” all the while helping the onscreen action avoid descending into a middle-of-the-road commonness that, while not necessarily disappointing, certainly fails to inspire the way that a well-chosen song can. Viewers may dismiss one incongruous track, but Wonder Boys begins to make a pathology of this tendency. As the film progresses we hear Neil Young’s “Old Man”play when Grady, hobbling on his bad ankle and left deserted by the side of the road, realizes he has ‘sold out’ the youthful James Leer; later Van Morrison’s “Philosopher’s Stone” plays on the car stereo as old friends Crabtree and Tripp converse intimately about the sorry state of Crabtree’s career while they go to rescue James from his parents’ home. In both cases, the line between song and scene is drawn so linearly that little is left to be gained by a more careful and discrete examination of the film (not to mention all three have been used ad nauseam in cinema already).
It is then perhaps with a degree of irony that some of the film’s best moments with music come from its use of new songs from old bards—when Grady and Tripp, complete with the newly-liberated James Leer, return to Grady’s house, Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet,” from 1997’s Time Out of Mind, aptly captures the emptiness and near-desolation of Tripp’s house, an emptiness Crabtree and James escape by going to bed together, an emptiness we feel Tripp wants desperately to escape by calling his mistress’s husband and confessing his love for Walter’s wife. Likewise Leonard Cohen’s “Waiting for a Miracle,” off of his 1992 release The Future gives a somber, somewhat ominous tone to Tripp’s return home after abandoning James, a trip capped by the revelation that not only has his editor thrown an impromptu party at his home, but temptress student Hannah Green has been reading his unfinished tome.
While Wonder Boys mostly succeeds as a film because of well-written dialogue and well-chosen actors, its score may be credited with providing those ambient features which make certain scenes in the film so effective, if not a little too precious (see Grady and James Leer's meeting outside of the chancellor's greenhouse at the Wordfest party) while its soundtrack, as soundtracks for mainstream movies have a tendency to do, ultimately gives the film the tellurian appeal which doubtlessly made it a success, both critically and financially. The best-known tracks produced by rock's finest (and now oldest) ambassadors lend Wonder Boys a sort of 'salt of the earth' accessibility that effectively counterbalances its concern with that most marginal and subversive of societal characters, the university professor of the arts, dope-addicted, faux-cross-dressing, fag-friendly, pet-killing, philandering liberal that he inevitably is imagined to be.
By: Drew Miller
Published on: 2005-08-25