Are We in a New Golden Age for the Movie Soundtrack?


After watching “I Saw the TV Glow,” the new film from the director Jane Schoenbrun, I felt a sensation I hadn’t felt in a while: I need this soundtrack.

The genre-defying movie is a surreal story about two high schoolers in the 1990s who become obsessed with a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”-like show called “The Pink Opaque.” It’s a rich film that draws on horror, ’90s television and Schoenbrun’s experience coming out as transgender. But it also boasts some incredible tunes, like a hypnotic cover of Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl” by the artist yeule and performances from King Woman, Sloppy Jane and Phoebe Bridgers, who appear onscreen as musicians at a club the characters visit.

The full soundtrack has more to love: The swelling emotion of Caroline Polachek’s “Starburned and Unkissed” and the throwback rock of Proper’s “The 90s,” with lyrics about the TV show “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Listening, I felt like a kid again.

That was just Schoenbrun’s intention. The director thought the film needed a “great teen angst soundtrack.” But they were also nostalgic for the idea of soundtracks in general. They remembered thinking, “‘Wait, where did those go?’ You know, because the soundtracks of my youth were such a huge part of what brought me to movies,’” they said in a video call.

Citing soundtrack “canon picks” like “Donnie Darko,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Garden State,” which turns 20 this year, they admit these are “pretty obvious slash perhaps a little embarrassing” choices. I relate. I also had an iPod in the early 2000s filled with soundtracks, and one of the most frequently played was “Garden State.” The accompaniment to Zach Braff’s indie breakout — about a man in the midst of a quarter-life crisis who goes home for his mother’s funeral — was as much a cultural moment as the actual film, going platinum and elevating bands like Frou Frou and the Shins.

Indeed, the beginning of the aughts felt like the last great heyday for the soundtrack. Think of the indie vibes of “Garden State,” the bluegrass foot-stompers of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” or even the pop rock of “Shrek.” (If you want embarrassment, just ask me how much I loved that soundtrack.)

It wasn’t as if the soundtrack was anything new — tell that to “The Graduate” (1967), “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) or “Purple Rain” (1984) — but as streaming reshaped the music business, drawing attention away from albums, the soundtrack lost currency. You didn’t need to buy a whole CD if you were intrigued by one song from a movie, you could just queue it up on Spotify or another service. And to be clear, I’m not talking about soundtracks with mostly instrumental scores or those for movie-musicals like “Frozen” (2013). Even “A Star Is Born” (2018) felt like an outlier because music was so integral to the plot.

But we might be in the midst of a new soundtrack Golden Age. The LP for “I Saw The TV Glow” arrives in the aftermath of the pop delights of the “Barbie” soundtrack, which climbed the Billboard 200 last summer and earned Billie Eilish and Finneas two Grammys and an Oscar for “What Was I Made For.” Last year the “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” soundtrack, from the producer Metro Boomin, was filled with dreamy hip-hop that sounded like the kind of thing that the hero Miles Morales himself would have listened to. And on television, the Apple TV+ period piece about Chanel and Dior, “The New Look,” recruited Taylor Swift’s collaborator Jack Antonoff to produce covers of tunes from the era by modern artists like Florence and the Machine and the 1975.

It’s not as if soundtracks had gone away completely. A decade ago, “Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1” went platinum with its compilation of classic rock songs like Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling.” Still, with top artists like Swift and Beyoncé more focused on albums than singles, it seems fitting that Hollywood is getting back into the soundtrack game. Why not sell a movie with music as well?

It has the potential to be a fruitful symbiotic relationship. “People don’t really want to listen usually to the whole album anymore, they want to cherry-pick songs and throw them onto playlists, but something about ‘Barbie,’ people just wanted to relive the entire experience of it,” said Mark Ronson, the co-executive producer of that film’s album.

Ronson said in an interview that a soundtrack assignment can also provide fuel for musical artists like himself and his “I’m Just Ken” co-writer, Andrew Wyatt. (Ronson also cited the Goo Goo Dolls hit “Iris” for “City of Angels” (1998) as an example of a soundtrack gig as inspiration.) “You’re always searching for this sort of divine inspiration, and the fact that sometimes you can just get it from somebody else’s art and turn it into your own is also a nice thing,” Ronson said.

Schoenbrun explained that when they brought their idea for the soundtrack to A24, the studio was excited. “I don’t think that a lot of filmmakers are as big contemporary music nerds as I am, and I think internally they had been trying to do more music stuff,” they said. A24 established a music arm, A24 Music, in 2021, and is releasing an album of Talking Heads covers this month in conjunction with its restoration and rerelease of “Stop Making Sense.” The studio declined to comment further.

For Schoenbrun, the experience of building out the soundtrack, which mostly features original songs, was a creative endeavor unto itself: They chose the artists, many of whom are queer, with the idea of codifying scenes of musicians they believed were worthy of teen obsession. They made each artist a 10-song Spotify playlist for inspiration. Then Schoenbrun spent more than a year and a half listening to the resulting submissions in different orders. (They firmly believe that a soundtrack should not feature the music in the same order in which it appears in the film.) “I really did feel like, ‘Oh I’m giving myself the best gift ever,’” they said. “‘I get to make a mixtape that doesn’t exist yet from scratch.’”

That is a common feeling that connects soundtracks throughout time. Braff, in a phone interview, also likened crafting the “Garden State” soundtrack to making a mixtape (one that he won a Grammy for compiling). “It was a mixtape of music that I was listening to in that era of my life, my mid- 20s,” he said. “These were the songs that were scoring our life at the time.”

The choices still resonate, arguably even more than the movie itself. Braff said, “It’s a weird week if every other day it isn’t mentioned to me by someone.”

I get it. I was a high school freshman when “Garden State” was released, and listening to it felt like a window into the boldfaced emotions of the film, which was about finding yourself and embracing love in a way that spoke to me at the time. My affection for the movie was mainly because of the soundtrack, which is in part why soundtracks can be so meaningful for a film or even a television show. (Schoenbrun was also inspired by how music would play a role in shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” with real bands stopping by the venue known as the Bronze. I still sometimes put on “Music from ‘The OC’: Mix 1.”)

When Schoenbrun was working on the “TV Glow” soundtrack they said their producers asked why they were so obsessed with the musical element. “The way I would think about it is the soundtrack, if it works, reminds you of the movie and makes you want to revisit the movie,” they said. “And the movie, if it works, reminds you of the soundtrack and makes you want to revisit the soundtrack. It becomes less like a ‘fun thing that I watched for an hour in the theater’ and more, I think especially in a teen angst specific sort of way, a part of you, a place to return to.”

If that’s not a rallying cry for the rebirth of the soundtrack, then I don’t know what is.





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