About a Soundtrack

4 minute read
Benjamin Nugent

“About a Boy,” an upcoming Hugh Grant movie about a playboy who learns British left-of-center family values from an emotionally needy child, should have had a soundtrack for the ages. For one thing, it’s based on a novel by Nick Hornby, the abject music nerd who gave us “High Fidelity,” a fictional record store clerk’s plaint adapted for the big screen by director Stephen Frears. Novelists usually have no input on any aspect of film adaptations whatsoever, but in this case Hornby brought on board Badly Drawn Boy, aka Damon Gough, to supply the tunes. Badly Drawn Boy is a hot young bearded songwriter of the sort that generally doesn’t cut soundtracks for sweet-natured comedies — his 2000 self-titled debut snagged awards and major-league sales by UK standards, and his addition to the project would seem to insure soundtrack greatness.

So why is the resulting album good but not great? The answer may be that any batch of songs written by just about anyone for the express purpose of setting the tone for a film is doomed to middling success. One reason for that, to borrow from our president, is the soft bigotry of low expectations: neither filmmakers nor musicians expect much of soundtracks, so nobody puts in the effort to make them great. But in this case the culprit appears to be the necessity of unobtrusiveness — an obstacle it’s hard to imagine any soundtrack is ever likely to overcome.

It wouldn’t be quite right to say Gough’s songs are atmospheric, a word usually reserved for ambient techno and Radiohead and the like; they’re mostly pop-rock songs with guitar, drums, piano and vocals. It’s just that they’re a little too ethereal, even when they’re really good. “Something to Talk About,” the best song on the album, doesn’t just leave you humming the chorus; you hum every word from first verse to coda. But catchy as it is, it shares with the rest of the album a feeling of tinkly lightness that undermines the granite foundation of its chords and melodies. What it needs to deliver it from goodness to greatness is a rock band in the Keith Richards sense of the word, just enough bass and drums and noise to insure it’s not going to fly away on gossamer wing.

While easy to overlook on songs as good as “Something to Talk About,” the same problem wreaks havoc on the less exceptional songs. You can hear them getting ready to find a groove, but they never quite settle into one because the production screams “background music” the whole album through. And well it should, because that’s what the music should do in a film. Its first duty is to crank the pathos or cuteness or comedy up to 11 whenever the movie needs it, not to steal center stage from Grant and Rachel Weisz and the cute kid. Indeed, “Something to Talk About,” with its forceful melody, is relegated to the portions of the film without much dialogue, and much of the music actually used in the movie is from other albums — one scene prominently features the deeply atmospheric (in the Radiohead sense of the word) introduction to U2’s “Zoo Station” instead of a track from the soundtrack album. The director can’t stop the flow of banter just to give good songs their due.

Of course there are movies, like “Reservoir Dogs,” that use good, obtrusive songs, but they usually need long swaths of speechlessness to pull it off (like Quentin Tarantino’s famous slow-mo opening credits sequence). For movies where the audience is supposed to remain fixated on the plot and the dialogue the whole way through — which is to say, most movies — a brilliant, in-your-face soundtrack would be a pesky distraction.

So while it was awfully self-effacing of Badly Drawn Boy to follow up his lauded debut with a soundtrack Hornby apparently really cared about, there was no way it was ever going to be a hard-hitting collection of tunes. The demands of the film, which somebody surely impressed upon Gough, because the album contains a lot of short, incidental pieces, preclude it. Maybe someday a talky movie like “About a Boy” will permit a killer soundtrack to compete with its actors and joke-writers for glory. But if one with Hornby’s and Gough’s names attached to it didn’t, don’t hold your breath.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com