Soundtracks can enrich a film’s narrative, if used wisely

Music has always been an integral part of films in India. Bollywood is the most recognized form of Indian films and its song & dance routine is now a rage the world over. Music plays an equally important role in Indian regional films. The concept of playback signing and lip-syncing onscreen is also quite unique to India. Since ‘Talkies’ entered the Indian film industry, songs have been used to further enhance the plot. Over time a film’s soundtrack became its most important component. The script, acting, and direction were often overshadowed by the soundtrack. The success of the film often hinged on the popularity of its soundtrack. This led to songs being forced into the narrative. In recent times most songs do not make any sense in the context of the film’s storyline. They exist as separate entities. Let’s not even dwell on the quality.

the-perks-of-being-a-wallflower

A recent Hollywood flick demonstrated how a well-planned soundtrack can enrich the movie-watching experience. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) is a coming-of-age tale based on a novel of the same name by Stephen Chbosky, who is also the director. The soundtrack of this film is as much part of the script as the dialogues. The filmmaker uses music as a storytelling tool. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower the major musical moments of the lead character Charlie (Logan Lerman – of Percy Jackson fame) is crucial to film’s progression.

The first time he listens to The Smiths’ track “Asleep” on a mix-tape Charlie is close to a breakdown. The original song by The Smiths is generally believed to be about a person with suicidal thoughts on his mind. But in the context of this film this track marks the reaching of the threshold in Charlie’s mind space. He had expected the first day of high school to be the start of something good. Instead it turned out to be quite lonely. His old friends ignored him and he failed to make any new friends. And now he is dreading the next ‘1384 days’ left of high school. The opening scene of the movie shows Charlie writing a letter to his friend (we later learn that his best friend Michael shot himself recently) and he expresses the need to “turn things around”. He hasn’t interacted with anyone besides his family the entire summer and the beginning of high school holds some hope for him. Unfortunately it doesn’t turn out the way he imagined and now he is close to crossing his threshold of self-belief once again.

The film opens with the track “Could It Be Another Change” by The Samples. The importance of this track is clear a few minutes into the movie. It signifies a new beginning – Charlie’s first day of high school and his overcoming of the issues that plagued him over the just concluded summer break. And The Samples sing “…could it be another change? To come and rearrange…”

Homecoming Dance

The two most important people in Charlie’s life are Sam (Emma Watson) and her stepbrother Patrick (Ezra Miller – you might remember him from the brilliant 2011 film We Need to Talk About Kevin). His relation with them, its blossoming, growing and maturing is also depicted through astute use of music. At the Homecoming Dance, soon after high school begins, Charlie makes his first attempt at overcoming his social awkwardness. “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runner starts playing and seeing Sam and Patrick do their ‘living room routine’ on the dance floor Charlie decides to join them. This scene and the song beautifully portray how Charlie for once let’s down his guard and allows his impulses to take control. Post the Homecoming Dance they head to Patrick and Sam’s place and there he succinctly bares his thoughts – “I didn’t think anyone noticed me.” And so he gets welcomed to the ‘Island of Misfit Toys’.

Island of Misfit Toys

This brings us to “the tunnel song”. Who hasn’t heard “Heroes” by David Bowie? It is the most significant track on The Perks of Being a Wallflower soundtrack for a couple of reasons. It is referred to as “the tunnel song” by Sam, Patrick and Charlie. It marks the moment when Charlie finally feels he belongs somewhere. He has managed to ‘turn things around’. And in a way he feels like a hero. The possibilities are endless and he says so to Patrick – “I feel infinite.” The first time Charlie, Sam and Patrick discover this song playing on the radio during a drive, is also when Charlie realizes he loves Sam. The original context of the song is slightly different and you can read about it here. Incidentally this song was covered by an American band called The Wallflowers back in 1998 and was part of the soundtrack of the Ronald Emmerich film Godzilla. Jakob Dylan, Bob Dylan’s son, was the front-man of this band.

A couple of tracks from the cult musical comedy horror film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, also feature in this film. Sam, Patrick and their friends perform the musical stage play this film was based on at a local theater. When Charlie subs for one of the absent members he becomes a part of something very close to their heart. The first track – “Don’t Dream It, Be It” – is followed by a scene in which Charlie makes his first move to get close to Sam. He does an awkward job of it, but we realize that he is trying. The second track – “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me” – is used more as a symbol of the changes taking place within Charlie’s mind, rather than to add any particular meaning to the narrative.

Emma Watson

The film ends with “the tunnel song” and for Charlie life has traversed a full circle. He is no more the cautious, insecure, hesitant boy. He is at peace with himself and he is ready to participate in whatever life has to offer. And he says, “But right now these moments are not stories. This is happening. I am here, and I am looking at her. And she is so beautiful. I can see it. This one moment when you know you’re not a sad story. You are alive…” as the song starts playing.

The soundtrack is also perfect because the selection of songs belongs to the same time period this film depicts. In the late 80s and early 90s these were the tracks teenagers listened to. Mix-tapes were a rage back then and exchanging of such tapes and discovering new music is a key element of this film. Alex Patsavas and Chop Shop Music were the music supervisors of this film. Fans of Grey’s Anatomy, The OC, Gossip Girl and the entire Twilight Saga series might recognize her; she was the music supervisor for these. The Perks of Being a Wallflower would have been incomplete without the soundtrack. Of how many films is this true? It should be a lesson to all filmmakers that selecting the right music is more important than selecting popular music.

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