Sunday, March 28, 2010

Lights, Camera, Action!

Songs of Summer

After watching the Academy Awards and seeing The Weary Kind from the movie Crazy Heart win Best Song, it got me thinking about the significance of music, namely songs in movies. Whether it is to further convey an emotion, a narration or create a particular mood, the use of specific songs in movies, can either make or break a film. One film in particular, (500) Days of Summer, creatively uses an eclectic blend of songs that help to show what can happen when the very different expectations of two people do not meet the reality of their relationship. I dare to ask if more movies might take a cue from this type of storytelling.

Shown from the point of view of Tom, a lovesick and hopeless romantic who thinks he has finally found his soul mate in Summer, the movie reflects (in non-linear fashion), the highs and lows that Tom goes through in trying to woo the girl of his dreams. Unfortunately for Tom, Summer, is an independent woman who has a casual, carefree stance on relationships and dating. The songs in the movie show the ecstasy and agony that Tom experiences along the way.

In one particular scene, it is morning and Tom has just had his first “casual” encounter with Summer in his apartment. As he leaves for work, the Hall and Oates song, You Make My Dreams, starts playing. The song reflects Tom’s complete and utter bliss at making his first physical connection with Summer. Not only do we hear the song, but it seems that Tom does too. As he walks down the street smiling, the sun is out, the sky is blue, and everyone seems to be his friend congratulating and high fiving him as he walks along. As he continues walking, Tom breaks out into a dance routine with everyone else around him as a marching band comes trumpeting by. A little animated bird then comes fluttering down upon his shoulder whistling a sweet song. The music stops abruptly as we are fast forwarded toward day 303 in his relationship with Summer and a very different looking Tom comes out of the elevator to work. He’s tired, his clothes are disheveled and it’s obvious that things with Summer are anything but blissful.

One of the most effective and powerful scenes in the movie occurs when Tom meets up with Summer after they have been estranged for a period of time. Summer invites Tom to a party she is giving. Tom accepts thinking that the two of them will pick up right where they left off. As Tom approaches Summer’s apartment, the screen splits into two. On the bottom left of one screen, the word “Expectations” appears. On the bottom right of the other screen, the word “Reality” appears. On the “Expectations” side of the screen we see Tom’s image of how the party goes. At the party, he and Summer are inseparable and she greets him with a huge kiss and loves the gift he has brought for her. They are talking, giggling, snuggling and joking around like they did in the past. On the Reality side, we see, well we see the reality of the situation. Summer greets Tom with a hug and curtly thanks him for the gift he’s brought over for her. Tom basically hangs out by himself drinking while Summer carouses with the rest of her guests. Toward the end of the evening, he is also shell shocked to learn that Summer is engaged to be married. He staggers out of the party blindsided.

What makes this scene so innovative is not only the split screen, but the choice of the song, Hero of the Story by Regina Spektor. As the scenes at the party unfold, particular lyrics of the song really stand out. The first lines of the song, “He never, ever saw it coming at all” is a foreshadowing of what Tom is about to experience when he sees that his expectations are not aligning at all with the reality of the situation. Throughout both scenes, the words, “I’m the hero of the story, don’t need to be saved” and “It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right”, reverberate over and over and serve as a reminder to Tom of what is and what he wished could have been. In one world he is indeed the hero and everything is all right. In the other, the words serve to mock him and falsely reassure him that everything will be OK despite Summer’s revelation. The use of animation to convey Tom’s hurt and loneliness as he staggers down the street is a fitting end to the scene.

Whether it’s a sappy song like She’s Like The Wind by the late Patrick Swayze, or a powerful, nostalgic song such as Old Friends (Bookends) by Simon and Garfunkel, Marc Webb, the director of (500) Days of Summer, utilizes music in innovative ways to keep you not only emotionally invested in the main characters of the film, but also to help move Tom and Summer’s story along.

I’m not a fan of romantic comedies. They’re too generic, overly sappy or melodramatic, or just plain dumb. But much like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Michel Gondry, (500) Days of Summer offers a new and creative twist on an otherwise boring and lame genre through its use of music, animation and cinematography. I dare to ask if more directors of this genre could take a hint from both Webb and Gondry.

(500) Days of Summer image courtesy of

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