Cinema Sounds: Adventureland

You would think that they had mainstream film marketing down to a science by now. If you go to a movie and are surprised by what you see on the screen, well, someone has fucked up. With movie previews, late night talk show appearances, print reviews, internet pop-up ads, and blogging, the uncertainty and risk-taking of buying an $11 movie ticket should be relatively low. But still, my heart goes out to the kids who bought tickets to see Superbad 2 and ended up with Adventureland. It’s not hard to understand why the film was misrepresented: Superbad made a lot of money. But, the scheme backfired and Adventureland flopped because the teenage crowd wasn’t so interested in a sweet, romantic coming-of-age story, and people who might have been were turned off by the lame previews.

Luckily for movie fans and for the creative forces behind Adventureland (notably writer/director Greg Mottola), the film seems to be finding its audience on DVD and could grab a significant cult following in the years to come. In one of the most memorable scenes, protagonist James Brennan reflects on what his friend Joel has told him about Herman Melville being called by the wrong name after he died and notes: “he wrote a seven-hundred page allegorical novel about the whaling industry. I think he was a pretty passionate guy, Joel. I hope they call me Henry when I die, too.” “One can only hope,” replies Joel.

As with any nostalgia film, music plays a major role in setting the mood of the time. For movies set in the 1980’s, this can be both a blessing and a curse. When done well (think Donnie Darko), it can not only create an interesting interpretation of the past, but can also turn a new generation of listeners on to music that may have slipped under their radar. Especially now, music of the 80’s is something that will not really be appreciated until the music listener reaches the college-age. For me, until I was about 20, 80’s music was all hair metal and new wave. Madonna, Michael Jackson, The Police: this was pretty much it. Bands like The Replacements and Hüsker Dü were just names I heard that didn’t really sound that interesting. Black Flag and The Misfits I imagined to be pretty intense. Crowded House and the Pixies sounded like easy listening. Then, when you’re ready to hear all this music, it finds you and changes your world. Adventureland shows that it wasn’t that much different for people of the time it portrays. James Brennan leaves college with an appreciation for Lou Reed, an appreciation he admires in others. There is a reason “indie” used to be known as “college rock.”

Regardless, it should be clear within the first five minutes of Adventureland that music is going to play a major role in the film. The Replacements’ “Bastards of Young” (one of the best songs ever, period) plays over the intro credits. Then, after a brief opening party sequence, we get The Velvet Underground’s “Here She Comes Now”. Add to this a credit that states that original music will be provided by Yo La Tengo, and you get a big “what the fuck kind of teen comedy am I watching” reaction. Well, strangely, it’s more of a comedic drama. And it’s not about teens. Oh, they look like teens. But these people are all in their early 20’s (Note to casting directors: I commend actually casting young actors for young characters).

From there, you get about three songs a minute for the next hour. In fact, 41 songs were licensed for use in the film. And while this covers everything from a Foreigner cover band to Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law” in a chase sequence, for the most part, the music of Adventureland would be a great jumping off point for someone wanting to delve deeper into the music of the 80’s. Some highlights include “Just Like Heaven” from The Cure as a few of the young people eat pot cookies and enjoy the rides of the park, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House during a fireworks scene, and David Bowie’s “Modern Love” in the introduction to the theme park. These are songs that I take for granted at this point in my life, but have to acknowledge that many people have never heard them and really wouldn’t have access to them without movie soundtracks and internet blogs.

I really appreciated the use of music in the film’s car scenes. When James begins working at Adventureland, he instantly gravitates towards Em, in part because she wears Lou Reed and Hüsker Dü shirts. The interest is sealed though, in their first car ride together, her tape deck playing Hüsker Dü’s “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely”. The two share a glance and both reach toward the stereo at the same time. She presumably was going to turn it down, but he gets there first and turns her radio up, showing approval of her music taste, and, because she obviously places such a high premium on the music she likes, this also shows approval and interest in her. The reciprocal of this scene would be the car scene shared by James and Connell, where the awkwardness of talking about a girl the two share in common and a lie Connell repeatedly tells is alleviated by the turning up of the radio, in this case playing “Satellite Of Love” by Lou Reed. These scenes show the power that music in a car can play. We are jammed in this tight space with people, sharing the same moment and same sounds. We can turn up the volume and drift into a shared emotion together. Or, we can merely turn up the volume to shut the other person up.

But the best use of car music comes from James’ “Bummer Songs” mix tape he makes Em, which they listen to on the way back from a bar. The featured song is The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes”, and James stares at Em as she drives and listens to the song. When he asks her “if they can go somewhere,” she obliges, and they share a kiss that is unexpected, passionate, and romantic. The song is equally beautiful and used perfectly.

The rest of the music doesn’t disappoint. When James rides into New York, we get “Unsatisfied” by The Replacements. Big Star plays in Em’s bedroom and The Jesus and Mary Chain when Connell visits. As for Yo La Tengo’s original score, it is a fitting homage to a movie obsessed with Lou Reed, as most of the songs could be mistaken for Reed originals. As the movie plays on and the comedy fades away, so do the tunes. There is a time and place for 80’s nostalgia music, but there is also a time for everything to get quiet and let the emotions of the characters speak for themselves. And though most of the stuff that happens in the movie seems like a bummer at the time, the end credits jam of “Don’t Change” by INXS serves as a reminder that even when you are young and things seem heavy, they will still be remembered fondly because of you were young. This is what nostalgia is. Just don’t market it as fuckin’ Superbad 2.


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