Nostalgia is a big card to play in storytelling. To harken back to an earlier time in a character’s (and often the audience’s) life CAN be an efficient, powerful way of developing a character or set of circumstances in a film. However, it’s just as likely to evoke for the sake of evoking, as though the producers of a film are walking by with a silver platter, asking “Remember this? How about this? This sure was neat, wasn’t it?”
As the pace consumption of pop culture continues to accelerate, it’s pretty easy to take the lens of nostalgia back not 30 years, but 5 or 10. Grosse Pointe Blank, an odd dark comedy starring John Cusack and Dan Aykroyd(!) as rival hitmen, takes this approach, looking back to protagonist Martin Blank’s somewhat recent awkward high school years, and the soundtrack that accompanied them.
Rather than using a high school reunion as an excuse to bring back the hits (which Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion managed to do shamelessly and skillfully), Grosse Pointe Blank finds the soundtrack for an outsider, peppering the film not with Bon Jovi or even the Beastie Boys, but with an array of next wave ska, post punk, and Pete Townshend – a mix odd enough that when “99 Luftaballoons” (the German version, of course) inevitably does pop up, it feels organic, as though it was the next song in a very diverse playlist, rather than the aforementioned nostalgia play.
While pains are taken in the film and soundtrack to show Martin Blank as an outsider, the soundtrack also serves to solidify his relationship with Debi Newberry, the “cool girl” from high school, who, 10 years later, is working a tiny radio show in a tiny town, still playing The Specials and the English Beat.
The younger you are, the longer time can seem, so when this film came out almost 20 years ago (1997), a generation of people saw this as a genuinely backwards-looking film, especially those too young to have experienced the 1980’s high school experience. I include myself in that group, relegated to drawing from John Hughes films and…John Hughes films to piece together that experience. However, the film takes place at a 10-year high school reunion, which now seems like the bat of an eye. To give some frame of reference of how recent that actually is, The Strokes’ debut Is This It? came out 13 years ago in 2001. So the film wasn’t actually looking THAT far back.
But it looked back 10 years to a corner of pop culture that existed between the cracks of hair metal, pop and grunge. And the film’s soundtrack does a good job of reflecting the poor fit of the character in a high school context.
In this film, Nena and a-ha don’t exist as cornerstones of Time-Life Remember the 80’s collection, but just as other new wave songs that happened to be a little more popular than the early output from The Pixies and Faith No More.
In the film, as we follow Martin Blank on assignment, in his affluent suburb, we stop over at his high school reunion. And, as with all high school reunion tropes, we see Blank take inventory of his life. But Blank is such a stranger to not only his classmates in the film, but the audience as well, that we can only speculate what’s going through his mind in this scene:
But we know it’s deep, because David Bowie is walking us through the moment.
Outside the context of the film, the collection works in part not because it’s accessible, but because it traffics in “cool.” Not everyone likes The Clash, but the bet this soundtrack makes is that no one would ever say they don’t like The Clash. Because that would be like not liking Prince, and not liking Prince would be completely ridiculous.
So the film loads up on music from the fringe of a generation of audience that would have sooner bought the soundtrack than admit that they didn’t get it. The fact that the soundtrack is eminently listenable even to those unfamiliar means that it doesn’t just recruit listeners, but keep them as well. At my high school, this soundtrack had a fair number of uppity girls conducting sing-alongs to “Rudie Can’t Fail” at keg parties, and if that’s not a hallmark of success, then I just don’t know what success is.