Music guides film viewers

Emily Horstman | October 4, 2012    

If you’ve ever read Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age novel “Perks of Being a Wallflower,”…

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Soundtracks help to dictate movie plots.

If you’ve ever read Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age novel “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” then you probably understand why my ’80s-alternative-rock glands were salivating the entire way to the theater to see its movie adaptation when it premiered in Pittsburgh this weekend. And if you’ve seen the movie, you probably understand why I was so disappointed by the entirely underwhelming usage of the soundtrack.

The purpose of a soundtrack is to guide viewers through the film. A soundtrack should shape their emotional reactions to whatever is happening on screen in an organic way that allows them to access a level of meaning than what would have been possible given the film’s visual aspects alone. A soundtrack should harmonize perfectly with the film it accompanies, complementing and resonating with the melody of the film itself and producing a work of art with depth and layers of complexity. It is a tall order for any director, but some manage to pull it off with startling facility. Others allow the music to simply fade into the background.

The “Perks” track list isn’t bad — it includes the necessary Smiths, Sonic Youth and David Bowie tracks alongside a few lesser-known gems. Chbosky has good taste, but the problem is that the soundtrack could have been great. For the main character Charlie — as with the rest of us modern teenagers — music has a huge impact on his coming of age and became a sort of lens through which he sees the world.

But contrary to the high hopes of music-loving fans, the soundtrack that Chbosky used felt like more of an afterthought than the integral part of the film that it could have been.

Those are the most unforgettable soundtracks: the ones that are so necessarily tied to the film that you couldn’t imagine the movie any other way. Plenty of films fit this description, and whether they showcase the work of a single artist or various musicians, they all use music as a backbone, a thematic element of the film or just as the emotional and tonal guide for their viewers.

The most successful integrations of film and soundtrack will result in an inseparable bond between song and scene, where the song you heard becomes irrevocably tied to that scene, character or work as a whole. What comes to mind when you hear “Don’t You Forget About Me”? Exactly my point.

Some of the best soundtracks are those featuring just one artist, like the “Superfly” soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield. Other prominent examples are movies such as “The Graduate” featuring songs by Simon & Garfunkel and “Harold and Maude” featuring Cat Stevens. And, of course, there is The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” A major advantage of the single-artist route in soundtracking a film is the effortless continuity of tone. The vocalist becomes somewhat of a narrator throughout the film, a familiar voice to guide you through events and allow you to experience the characters’ emotions.

The music needs to fit the mood, such as when Benjamin’s romantic dreams crumble away to “Scarborough Fair” in “The Graduate.” The soundtrack defines the scene, and the film defines the soundtrack.

Often times, the best soundtracks come from the films with music written deep into their storyline. Anyone that has ever seen “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” cannot help but notice that it is as much a story about the development and rise of Americana music as it is about Homer’s “The Odyssey” or life in the South. The film is also rife with only partially obscured references to the country music greats of old. Just put “O Brother’s” fictional Soggy Bottom Boys next to the old-time bluegrass Foggy Mountain Boys if you weren’t sure.

Featuring old classics by the likes of Ralph Stanley and “Man of Constant Sorrow,” the film managed to bring appreciation of old-time country to a whole new generation while still employing the track list in a way that helped the audience emotionally process the film’s events: Cue a chilling, a cappella rendition of “O Death” just as the three main characters are lining up to be hanged at a Klu Klux Klan rally.

Similar to the way in which “O Brother” encompassed early 20th-century country music and southern life, “Perks” could have been the movie testament to growing up in the ’90s, feeling disenfranchised by high school peers and listening to emotionally charged and contemplative bands. It could have reimagined the Smith’s “Asleep” for a whole new generation of kids, letting them appreciate the music with the same emotion that Charlie did on his first mixtape. Instead, the film left music to play in background, leaving us looking fondly back on “The Graduate” OST for all of our heartbroken growing-up needs.

Emily Horstman is the station manager at WPTS-FM. Write her at

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