Soundtrack Studies: ‘Garden State’

Tuesday, April 8 by
We get it. You're quirky and whimsical. JESUS.  

Through the lens of hindsight, time, cynicism, and a general aversion to Zach Braff, Garden State seems to have lost much of the luster that made it a critical darling in 2004. With a budget of a paltry $2.5 million, it found its way to Sundance and garnered over $35 million at the box office. It’s also not a huge leap to say that it ushered in an era of indie rock to the types of people who rely on independent films to usher in new genres of music.

The only film that may have forcefully pushed its soundtrack on to the masses in recent years is High Fidelity, but that film had the convenient excuse of being a film about snobby, narcissistic record store employees, so failing to have them shove music down your throat would have been remiss on the part of its director, Stephen Frears.

Garden State takes a decidedly different tact with its music, still shoving it down our throats, but often in a less diegetic form (“The Shins will change your life” scene being the exception. But we’ll talk about that later, even though I want to start yelling about it right now.)

Only ten years after the fact, Garden State feels as though it could be a parody film along the lines of Epic Movie, Date Movie, or one of those other terrible send-ups. A collection of scenes that can be played in any order and not really affect the outcome of the film. Sort of like Police Academy for whiners. Sure, it’s got more gravitas and more to say, but the film is so rife with tropes and quirk that it’s hard to get past having wallowed through the ennui of millennial along with hipster culture, and the archetypal characters that were actually largely established after the release of this film. But before we get much further, let’s acknowledge the plot of this film.

Zach Braff’s character, whose name is really not important, leaves his trite existence as an LA actor/waiter to return to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral, which he feels somewhat responsible for. Braff is a muted human with what seems to be myriad personal issues ranging from the psychological, to the social, to his relationship with his cold father.

Upon returning home, he meets a carefree sprite in the form of Natalie Portman. Portman’s character in this film has been repeatedly discussed as the template for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In short, the MPDG is a younger, carefree spirit who accompanies the protagonist on a journey of self-discovery to shed cynicism and just generally enjoy life by playing in the rain and other similar activities.

And that’s pretty much it for the plot. Braff meets some interesting people, but that’s it. It’s not really a romance, but more of a personal journey, and there’s not much resolution. So, to make up for something less than a complete story arc, Braff loads the film with stylization that often creeps into affectation. Some examples:

• Braff dusts off a motorcycle with a sidecar to tool around town
• His friend is a pot smoking grave digger
• Method Man plays an enlightening bellman named Diego
• He does ecstasy in a time-lapse montage sequence
• An adopted African sibling seemingly coming from nowhere
• He yells in the rain
• He is told by Natalie Portman that The Shins “will change his life”

And so forth. Along with these many, many shiny surfaces applied to a morose story is a soundtrack that is crammed to the forefront to such an extent that the appearance of every song feels more like a music video than it does a scene in a movie. Early on in the film, you get the feeling that Zach Braff really loves these artists and songs to the point that he struggles to maintain objectivity as he puts the his own film on hold for longer than he should to spotlight the songs.

This treatment makes a little more sense when it comes to light that the film is semi-autobiographical, and by Braff’s own admission was a somewhat cathartic exercise to work out his problems, similar to the problems of the character he plays. If you’re going to tell a somewhat aimless story about yourself, you might as well pepper it with colorful characters and some good music, no?

Yes.

So the soundtrack:

Many of these bands were new to the world around this time, so the Garden State soundtrack was absorbed by the Starbucks set and younger as a pleasant, rainy day offering. And to Braff’s credit, most of the music on the soundtrack had the virtue of being both new and enjoyable when the film came out. What diminished the effort was the way in which he presented it. As a person who loves music, I understand the compulsive need to share my musical taste and discoveries with any person that crosses my path. However, I like to think that quality would also make me a subpar filmmaker. That and the fact that I don’t own a camera.

You can like the film, like (love) the soundtrack, and still not enjoy the way in which the music is presented in the film. I’ve harped on this a few times now, so let’s address some examples.

Good music, and, in a vacuum, a bold presentation. However, sprinkle in a couple more of these efforts, liberally baste in oversized headphones, sidecars, and images like this:

His shirt matches the wallpaper.

And you get a film that, perhaps largely through its success, laid the groundwork for tropes and conventions against which it would be measured against itself to some degree. It’s weird, but it might also end up being more interesting than the film.

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