Soundtrack Studies: ‘Boogie Nights’

Tuesday, May 13 by
Whatever they're selling, I'm buying.  

The Boogie Nights pitch is: A 1970’s ensemble epic about the porn industry, and it will star Mark Wahlberg as a guy named Dirk Diggler. So it’s pretty clear, even though this was a Paul Thomas Anderson (who was just making a name for himself) that this movie was going to have a sense of humor about itself.

Which is a good thing, because if you take away the ridiculousness of the film, you’re left with a lot of heavy stuff. Suicide, infidelity, drug addiction, hate crimes, rape, armed robbery, armed robbery again, and of course, lots of sex.

Looking at Anderson’s work both before and after Boogie Nights (before consisting of Hard Eight, and after consisting of Punch Drunk Love, The Master, There Will Be Blood, and Magnolia), there isn’t a lot of humor. Or smiling. Or anything that puts a fun time between you and the art. The gift of hindsight affords us that perspective. But a nascent Anderson in 1998 came with no expectations.

And he gave us Boogie Nights, a movie that’s equal parts sprawling, moving, disturbing, funny, and sad.

While most of Anderson’s works, all enduring, exhibit all those qualities save for “funny,” it would be dismissive to say that there’s an aspect of Boogie Nights that made the film funny. Like it was an accident.

Anderson set out to make a ridiculous film about a guy named Dirk Diggler, who fucks for a living, but also wants to be in a rock band with Chest Rockwell, and who works for Burt Reynolds and a pedophile called The Colonel. There are also roller skates and an Asian houseboy with fireworks named Cosmo.

It’s about this time we should talk about the soundtrack in this context. The film takes place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the music is firmly planted in that era as well.

This is very arguably the most fun soundtrack ever assembled, and helps shift the film from being P.T. Anderson good to very re-watchable and fun. Here, the music scores a bunch of big dumb idiots stumbling and stealing their way through life, and allows us to enjoy it in a way that Daniel Day-Lewis and Jonny Greenwood could never let us in There Will Be Blood.

The film is so packed with music that it was released on two discs, one in October of 1997, and one in January of 1998. In them is included almost all the music featured in the film, save for the regrettable exclusion of Nena’s “99 Luftballoons.”

In this dark world, we’re constantly assaulted with happy music that could serve as a failed juxtaposition, but, because Paul Thomas Anderson is who he is, K.C. and the Sunshine Band and Rick Springfield do nothing to diminish the onscreen drama, but make it not only more bearable, but enjoyable.

I could harp on this a little more, like someone trying to describe how good a donut is, but the easier thing to do would be to just give you the damn donut and let you figure out how good it is.

Here’s the donut:

And that’s pretty much that. With a knowing sense of humor in the writing and certainly acting, this soundtrack helped turn Boogie Nights into the P.T. Anderson that entered the cultural consciousness. Which, in case you underestimate the profundity of that act – that’s something even Adam Sandler couldn’t do.

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