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...
If inclined towards the same kinds of frivolous arguments friends and I become enamored with after an evening of drinking Löwenbräu at a dollar-fifty a glass and playing bloody knuckles, one could easily, under such a veil, contend that if the staid, June Cleaveresque, velveteen consumerist 1950s and profligate, raucous, equally-velveteen 1970s came together in coital embrace, the result might well be the innerly-misshapen child that is American Beauty. I know, it’s unlikely—the 1970s would probably be smoking a Virginia Slim and rocking out to Peter Frampton while the 1950s busied itself trimming the hedges while supervising construction of a backyard bomb shelter, but if this cosmic copulation of decades were to take place, the soundtrack of American Beauty would undoubtedly be the one heard playing in the couple’s house as they attempted to raise their seemingly doomed lovechild.
As is the case with all May-December romances, something equally grotesque and charming, solemn and sordid, Bert yet Ernie is bound to be the outcome. Sam Mendes, with the help of renowned cinematographer Conrad Hall and screenwriter Alan Ball, did an exceptional job creating a lasting piece of film and pop culture history his first time out of the gate. The triumvirate, along with a mostly fabulous cast, manages over the course of two hours to not only convincingly transform caricatures into characters, but also depicts the iconography of Americana so effectively one initially disbelieves that such a spectacle could’ve been engineered by a Brit. American Beauty is the rare piece of ornately-crafted, commercially-viable cinema that even the most draconian of critics may label ‘art’ unabashedly. Though the soundtrack may not be as memorable nor as crucial to the film’s emotional tenor as Thomas Newman’s alternately haunting and jaunty original score, its selections go far beyond the function of simple Jerry Bruckheimerian marketing-motivated ‘filler.’
Mendes uses pop music as it has rarely been used in cinema before, giving unconscious voice to characters’ motivations and mindsets by pairing on-screen actions with a background of pop songs; unlike other soundtracks, which often rely strictly on the superficial tempo or intangible feeling a song may lend to a particular scene, Mendes has chosen to rely solely on song lyrics to help ‘narrate’ the film’s subtext at times. And though it’s normal to feel that one is not in desperate need of a large polo mallet when the music accompanying a scene has been used ad nauseam for similar, if not identical purposes in countless other films, shows, and pay-per-view WWE events, such instincts should be avoided in ourselves and shunned in our friends; at these moments, which audibly mirror the movie’s visual reexamination of conventional American imagery, Mendes is obviously engaging in a certain parody. American Beauty proves time and again that careful detail was exercised in the coordination of scenes with their accompanying songs, making good on its encouragement that viewers look closer (a slogan which also appears in Lester’s cubicle at the film’s outset) every step of the way.
Since the soundtrack seems to progress through the history of American popular music by decade, it is appropriate that Peggy Lee’s 1949 recording of “Bali Ha’i” is the first piece of ‘pop’ music played, being the oldest song used in the movie. As the songstress’ wistful voice unfolds over melodious strings and what may or may not be a crescive timpani, descriptions of a metaphysical island paradise float down out of nowhere, the music seeming to have started earlier than it should have. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) achingly looks over at the comparative Xanadu of a family symbolically beginning their lives in a new house just before having to reenter the stifling environment his own has become. The film then cuts abruptly from one series of family portraits to another, depicting first Janie Burnham’s (Thora Birch) physical evolvement from childhood on before moving to family portraits of the type taken right before Christmas so mom has something to put on the cover of the family newsletter, Lester and Jane both masked in parodies of the shit-eating grin Carolyn dons in public through much of the movie. Peggy Lee’s dreamily evocative voice continues to soothe the ears, tempting viewers to believe in the resurrected innocence of a bygone era such choreographed and wholesome imagery is doubtlessly meant to imply. The camera again cuts quickly away, this time to a long, slowly-zooming shot of Lester, Carolyn, and Janie Burnham at present, eating dinner together at a hyperbolically-proper dining room table. Two sets of candles, both of offset height, mirror each other on either end of the table, the centerpiece stocked with fresh flowers. Janie complains to Carolyn: “Mom, do we always have to listen to this elevator music?”
And so we are introduced to the movie’s use of pop music, a contentious ground in America, one where identities are wrapped up in tastes and people are willing to fight bitterly in defense of their own. The Burnham’s première dinner is the first instance where musical genres and time periods serve as thematic backdrop for specific characters. The most popular sanguine music of the 1940’s and ‘50’s, replete with its full, lavish backing by big-bands and orchestras, is clearly the music of Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening), who is a maternal American archetype transplanted into the luxury-consumed 1990s. A later dinner has the family listening to Sinatra’s “Call Me Irresponsible,” a grating tune I imagine has not just a little to do with the escalating tension which causes Lester to throw a plate of asparagus against the wall. While the music of both scenes connotes a seemingly bygone era, the second scene suggests a hypocrisy absent from the first, as Carolyn castigates Lester (who has just ‘lost’ his job according to her) for behaving in a manner exactly commensurate with the lyrics sung so sweetly in the background by Old Blue Eyes.
We later see Carolyn cease to limit ‘her’ music to the background during dinner, as she progresses to full on performance of Bobby Darin’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade” while coming home from the gun range. With intermittent gunshots initially eclipsing parts of this little ditty (recorded in the 60s but unquestionably a 50s song), during her ensuing drive home Carolyn exultantly croons along to lyrics which articulate a patently self-concerned attitude, at one point, a Charlie Manson kind of glaze in her eye reflective of her monomaniacal upper middle-class ambition, echoing the stilted song-ending lyrics “No-bah-dey, I said No-bah-dey, Better Rain On My Pah-rade,” a handgun and self-help tapes quaintly riding shotgun. While the song foreshadows Carolyn’s near-homicidal emotional reaction to the world figuratively and literally raining on her parade following Lester’s discovery of her affair, filmgoers with even the most nascent knowledge of pop music can appreciate the overt irony of Bening’s character so wholeheartedly sublimating through such a song.
In perfect contrast to his wife, Lester Burnham initially exists as the model of the spineless but well-intentioned man, a consumerist America’s Leopold Bloom. The browbeaten and forgotten husband, the despised and emotionally absentee father, pop music is perhaps most overtly used to accompany and give context to Lester Burnham’s transformation from stifled middle-class expendable working stiff to ballsy, sexy, muscular, dope-smokin’ rock-‘n’-rollin’ burger jockey. Just as the counterculture relied on music and drugs to lead it out of the repressive environs of the 50s, so too does Lester begin to rely on those same aspects (music and grass) to reacquaint himself with a lifestyle reliant on something besides the superficial, commercialized beauty and accumulated wealth that serve as estimators of self-worth for both his wife and the advertising industry he has slaved for his entire adult life. The same man who at the film’s outset sleeps in the backseat while being driven to work is soon ‘busted’ smoking dope in his garage while bench-pressing to Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” but unlike the protestors and radicals of the 60s, Lester’s revolution is a private one, and the presence of a Harvard-professor type is noticeably absent, Lester instead relying on his 18 year-old pot-dealing neighbor and fantasies of a 16 year-old virgin to spur his personal insurgency on.
The Guess Who’s “American Woman” serves as perhaps the quintessentially overused pop-standard, a song whose hi-fi cultural groove has revolved so often it no longer comes out too clearly on those vintage Altecs. Perfect, then, for American Beauty. Whether it’s some old codger’s rendition of the Bachman classic at a karaoke jam in The Cable Guy or that indelibly ingrained image of Heather Graham atop an Airstream trailer grabbing herself in the video for Lenny Kravitz’s wanting cover, there are so many associations with the Canadian supergroup’s defining anthem it’s virtually impossible that any viewer of American Beauty might be able to confront the song and Lester Burnham’s (burn ‘em) smokin’ sing-along without these same kinds of peripheral associations.
While we wonder which succubus is metaphorically being warned away through song, like some born-again Evangelical preacher for the counterculture Lester Burnham smokes a joint contentedly in his Camry while a red Jaguar passes him quickly on his left (Jaguar being the car Carolyn’s idol and lover, Buddy “The King of Real Estate” Kane drives, red being her thematic color), its driver looking somewhat angrily over at Lester. Though we are meant to acknowledge the significance of what occurs immediately on screen, Mendes doesn’t miss an opportunity to insert several subtle visual clues. Just after Lester allows wealth, along with that lifestyle his wife so dearly cherishes, to pass him by a motorcycle cop weaves quickly in and out of frame in the rear windshield. In a literal sense he is doubtlessly too stoned or liberated (take your pick) to notice or care about the cop behind him, but in order for Lester to Buttafuoco (sorry, a friend beat me at peeknuckles the other night) the “American Beauty” Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) and thus fulfill the libidinous impulses ostensibly responsible for his rapid ascendancy, he must figuratively leave behind the law. The sacrifices required for such a transgression are not paltry ones in the well-shellacked confines of mythic Rockwell, America, though they doubtlessly would appear as mere peccadillo in comparison to Long Island’s own infamous early 90s Humbert Humbert.
But if Carolyn and Lester’s music is given a clear and appreciable voice throughout the picture as they either reinforce or reinvent themselves, Jane occupies that nebulous point in life where one’s parents won’t play their music in the car, a place whose bittersweet fragrance is bottled exclusively for teenage-dom. From Betty Carter’s “Open the Door” (which supports one of the film’s funniest scenes, Kevin Spacey figuratively opening the door to some sort of liaison with Angela by sneaking into Jane’s room and calling her, moments later abruptly hanging up and running away as Jane literally opens the door from the bathroom) through Bill Withers’ appropriate “Use Me” and on into music that was, and largely still is, on the cutting-edge of the indie-rock scene, Mendes continues his adept placement of pop tunes when depicting Thora Birch’s awkward and self-conscious character.
Unlike her parents, the music we might most naturally associate with Jane, music from ‘her’ generation, lacks a clear and public voice in the movie. We only hear the opening drum beat and first riff of the Eels’ “Cancer for the Cure” before Lester and Carolyn arrive home, scaring Jane off to her room with Angela. While few viewers are likely familiar enough with the band to recognize the song from the snippet, Mendes uses its abruptness to make viewers again look closer in the hopes that they not only appreciate its homicidal references as foreshadowing the movie’s climax, but also recognize thematically that Jane’s is an unvoiced voice, one cut short at every turn in the movie, in this instance by her parents’ early arrival home. Eels’ frontman Mark Everett sings “The kids are diggin’ up a brand new hole, Where to put deadbeat mom,” lyrics which echo Jane’s own deeply-sown hostility towards her parents and are of course also reminiscent of the grainy videotape opening the film, Ricky asking Jane if she wants him to kill Lester, she in turn looking directly into the camera with a face one can imagine becoming even greater tabloid-fodder than the angelic countenances of the Menendez brothers and replying “Yeah, would you?” (Originally Mendes had edited the movie so it began with Ricky and Jane on trial for Lester’s murder, but ultimately decided it destroyed the film’s tone and removed the scene).
As the film crescendos to climax, its frequent and variegated use of pop music virtually stops. With viewers having become accustomed to the stereo playing in Mendes’ America, its conspicuous absence creates a disturbing tempo, the strained silence we associate with the Fitts’ house seeming to somehow filter through the red door of the Burnham’s house on Robin Hood Trail, the camera enduring in one place longer and longer as it methodically moves from one character in crisis to another with only the abbreviated tones of Newman’s piano and the sound of rain accompanying it. Only Annie Lennox’s sexy cover of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” punctures the comparative silence of the film’s last twenty minutes, the stereo coming softly back into the film as Angela tries to attract Lester to the living room following Ricky’s ‘revelation’ about her character. The wily old rock veteran’s lyrics sound as sage coming from Lennox as they do from the man himself, Lennox’s silky voice acting first as the perfect accompaniment to the scene’s slow seduction, the song’s tone quickly becoming as inconsistent as it was, moments before, appropriate, Angela having crushed the fantasy with the revelation that it is “her first time.” While they shouldn’t let it bring them down, the on-screen moment is a metaphorical instance of castles burning, as the rosy, fantasy-driven exterior of the “American Beauty” burns down, uncovering, in its wake, the timid, small-breasted girl who, like his wife, has willfully developed a false public self, the worse part being Lester’s firm belief in such an easily-torched structure (did I take that metaphor too far?).
But then that is the America Mendes so acutely chooses to depict, one where the plethora of men’s magazines and NASCAR fans inspires a return to the old and comfortable, starving out or ghettoizing the new. It is thus appropriate that the tortured and soon-after departed soul of Elliott Smith reinvent The Beatles’ “Because”, the song’s lyrics and psychedelic origins representative not only of the larger life-issues Lester’s voiceover addresses after his murder, but also serving as the final example of the old being reexamined and reused. Abstract, exegetic lyrics again provide the auditory backdrop to the on-screen visual, but finally we get something seemingly cut and dried, the rolling of credits in white lettering on a black background.
By: Drew Miller
Published on: 2004-07-20