So I’m sitting in a well-populated movie theater at the Sundance Film Festival, watching a coming-of-age-somewhere-in-America drama by a novice filmmaker. The setup seems to be: A pretty, thin young woman in a small town meets a scruffy, sexy-with-dirty-hair man who’s just passing through. He’s a mysterious, unsavory traveler driving a beat-up car. She’s chomping at the bit in Boonieville, pawing the ground for adventure, so she slides her cute tush into his jalopy. The two drive away.
At which point I turn to the guy sitting next to me in the dark and say, “Cue the music.”
“Cue the neon motel sign, too,” says my neighbor. Whereupon a twangy on-the-road-again song fills the air. The camera pulls back for a long shot of the car barreling down an empty somewhere-in-America road. Then the focus tightens to observe the passing man-made landscape — of funky neon motel signs, of course.
If Pavlov wanted to cue sympathy for Yearning Youth, he would have cleared music copyrights, too. But Pavlov never showed his work at Sundance. So tell me, when did soundtrack singles take the place of filmmaking skill as a setter of mood? Was it “The Big Chill,” when a corpse was dressed, in the opening scene, to accompaniment by Marvin Gaye? Was it when movie studios realized that soundtrack sales can earn them a bundle even if the movie tanks? (For your consideration: Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” the saving grace of “Dangerous Minds.”)
Whatever turned this trend into cliche, it’s now gotten so that every punk production (i.e., “Another Day in Paradise”) — as well as slick Hollywood vehicles — are tricked out with theme songs, ballads, and rock hits suitable for lip-synching by jaunty women crooning into hairbrushes. (“Hope Floats” and “Stepmom” both go for that particular groaner.)
And it’s not setting a good example for the next generation of Sundance-hopeful filmmakers. While the right music, expertly chosen, can richly enhance a production with inventive counterpoint (I’m thinking of Wes Anderson’s apt use of British Invasion tunes in “Rushmore”), there’s nothing more ersatz than, oh, “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” thrown into “You’ve Got Mail” because Nora Ephron can’t think of any other way to get her point across.
At least I don’t recall any down-home neon signs serving as shorthand for “golly-Manhattan-sure-is-big.” And Meg Ryan didn’t lip-synch into a hairbrush.