Is there a difference between a movie with good music and a good movie soundtrack?
A movie soundtrack needs to be many things beyond just a collection of good music. The filmmakers and music supervisors need not only to concern themselves with finding quality songs, but also how that collection works within the movie itself, how it relates to the characters it’s presenting and also the existing cinematic legacy of the songs themselves.
This is the question I left Beautiful Boy considering, and though it presents a collection of quality songs I found myself more in a position of questioning decision-making instead of enjoying a film that clearly didn’t cheap out on its musical budget.
Nic Sheff (Timothee Chalamet) is presented to the audience as a musically-advanced teen from the get-go. His walls are covered with posters of David Bowie, Tupac, The Melvins and others, and one of the first times the camera shows him in his room, he’s spinning Massive Attack’s sophomore record, Protection.
But, as the story progresses, more effort is made to pass the ball, musically-speaking, between Nic and his father David (Steve Carell), and it’s here where the mix starts to run out of gas.
The two share the same tastes, and the audience is presented with Nic’s musical education as an essential part of his upbringing. The two scream along to Nirvana’s “Territorial Pissings” on a road trip, marking a bold use of one of the worst song off of one of the 20th century’s greatest albums. They later smoke a joint together to David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision,” and one as Nic’s drug habit deepens, he spirals to the sounds of Sigur Ros’ “Svefn-g-englar.”
So far so good. Bowie’s always a good decision and apart from the fact that Jean-Marc Vallée already found the definitive use for that particular Sigur Ros song, everything checks out.
Music supervisor Gabe Hilfer (who also supervised Suicide Squad) and music exec Bob Bowen (whose soundtrack credits range from this year’s Suspiria remake to sublime work on 2000’s Magnolia) find less-obvious, believable, era-appropriate songs for the father and son to share, on era-appropriate media. There are lots of CDs.
Halfway through the movie, you buy it. You get the kind of father-son relationship that would have the former apologize to the latter when he finds a college roommate with a desk full of Billy Joel and Steve Miller Band albums.
The second half of the movie, however, feels like a mixtape without an exit strategy. Soundtracking can be a difficult line to walk when it comes to weighing a narrative shift against the songs used to form the bedrock of the film’s musical identity.
At its best, you have a film like Goodfellas, that rolls through a couple decades’ worth of Tony Bennett and Phil Spector before veering hard off the road with “Live at Leeds” and “Let it Bleed” highlights and culminating in a glorious Sid Vicious coda.
Beautiful Boy is not Goodfellas. And, while that may be an unfair standard to hold movies to, it seems like the second half of the movie eschewed any kind of musical flow in trying to find anything to make a scene work.
The titular John Lennon track shows up as a lullaby (doesn’t it always?), there’s a California coast moment to Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” and a crucial plot point unfolds to mid-70s prog rockers Pavlov’s Dog. Where it’s not obvious, it seems a little inexplicable.
Which brings back the opening question… Is there a difference between good music and a good soundtrack?
Beautiful Boy certainly has the former. In addition to all the songs listed above, there’s a new track from Sampha, unexpected use of Brazilian DJ Amon Tobin and Tim Buckley. But in terms of how the song selections work with the narrative arc, it almost seems like a mixtape that boasts and incredible A-side with no B-side exit strategy.
Soundtracking is a regular feature on how new releases and classic titles use music on screen.