Soundtrack Studies: ‘Juno’

Tuesday, June 17 by
That's a pretty creepy album cover.  

Restraint is a concept that Diablo Cody has yet to master. She may practice it these days, but she certainly hasn’t mastered it in Juno follow-ups Jennifer’s Body, Young Adult, and Paradise. And not practicing restraint isn’t necessarily some death sentence or fatal flaw. Oliver Stone doesn’t practice restraint. Quentin Tarantino probably doesn’t. But the reason those guys can get away with it while Diablo Cody catches heat is that they have much more to say in their films than Diablo Cody.

Stone often exercises a painfully political agenda. Tarantino creates a world and an engaging story within it. And Cody talks about a girl in Juno. And there’s nothing wrong about making the story of a girl the alpha and omega of your film.

But when that girl is one of the most annoying and unrealistic characters put on film, it’s a problem. And fortunately for this recurring piece, much of her flaws and shortcomings are closely tied to the soundtrack of the film.

Before going down this path, I would like to briefly address the things I like about the film. I like the songs on the soundtrack. I think it’s very ambitious to introduce an audience to Mott the Hoople or even Sonic Youth. Cody does it in a very heavy-handed fashion, which I will discuss. But the effort is admirable, if misguided.

The story succeeds where the writing lacks. It’s not easy to make teen pregnancy a breezy, charming issue, and again, Cody comes up a little short, but it’s easy to see why people saw promise in her after this film premiered. Much in the same way that people saw promise in Kevin Smith after Clerks.

The performances are pretty great. From Ellen Page, from Michael Cera, from Allison Janney, from J.K Simmons. These were performances that more than forgave the sins of the screenwriter, especially in the case of Page.

So with those four or five backhanded compliments, let’s get to really talking about Juno and its soundtrack.

My major issue with Juno, as it was with Dawson’s Creek, is that it paints its child characters as adorable little adults, except when its convenient to revert them back to children for the purpose of conveying a point or manufacturing sentiment. It’s unfortunate because people don’t really go back and forth like that in reality, and also, children who act like adults are the worst type of people in the world.

This all come to a head when Juno posts up with Jason Bateman, the future adoptive father, to talk about music. This is something very relatable and a completely practical manner in which to bridge the glaring generation gap between the two. Bateman, in an effort to connect with Juno, sees that music resonates with her, then pounces on that topic to endear himself to her. Much like if you see a kid playing a video game, you talk to that kid about video games as best you can.

Here’s how it starts:

In this scene, it’s clear that Jason Bateman knows his shit when it comes to music, because he’s an aging hipster who is realizing he’s waving goodbye to his old life with the birth of his new baby. That half of the conversation works. He talks wistfully about old bands no one has ever heard of, and tries to get someone else to like them. It’s very true to the archetype that he represents.

But the other half – the Juno half, falls woefully short on several fronts. She’s shown as a firebrand, so it’s fine that she gives as good as she gets in the “You don’t know good music, I know good music” convo. Unfortunately, no clips are available of this scene, but it serves as the most obvious demonstration that Juno is a manifestation of an adult’s notion of “cool,” which sells the character woefully short.

Perhaps it can be chalked up to Diablo Cody’s inexperience as a screenwriter at this point (but given her subsequent outings, probably not), but much as a Police Academy movie serves as a collection of scenes that can be played in any order without really affecting the outcome, the scenes with Juno don’t seem to build on each other to get us very familiar with her character.

In the above scene, she sees Jason Bateman’s guitar and suddenly she’s an expert on guitars. When she speaks of music and film, she’s an expert on things that only a 45 year-old at a comic book store would a) know and b) discuss. They could have spent 12 minutes of screen time just listing songs from the Guided by Voices catalog, and it would have been a lateral move.

She speaks knowingly of Dario Argento, Velvet Underground, Moldy Peaches, and Mott the Hoople. She’s 15 years old.

What’s interesting here is that the tastes of Juno’s character, and ultimately the soundtrack were suggested by Ellen Page after director Jason Reitman asked her what he thinks Juno would listen to. Reitman had originally thought she would be a fan of glam rock. While that choice is a terrible one as well, the fault of the writers and soundtrack consultancy here isn’t that they asked the kid what the character would listen to, but that they accepted it.

It’s makes Juno a archetype of cool to uncool audiences, miring her in hamburger phones, dated TV references, and bands people listen to, but really don’t like. The result is an effect that makes the character seem mildly disconnected from the world and into a world of hers. Another, more incidental result is, conveyed contempt from the filmmaker to the audience via affectations that they expect viewers to blindly accept and nod, all slack-jawed. Which is actually a perfectly apt scenario for a teenager. However, the world she withdraws into is one that was formed by a creative committee that apparently had just seen the film Garden State before making these decisions.

As I mentioned, the soundtrack is inspired, catchy, and certainly an education for many people who won’t know these bands or songs. But the line is crossed when these esoteric songs and artists become diegetic and aspects of the Juno’s world. They become as trivial and contrived as that fucking hamburger phone she talks on, which ends up selling everything a little short and serves as a non-major flaw that compromises the rest of the film.

But listen to the soundtrack. It’s not bad, and that recurring song through the film, “All I Want Is You,” WILL get stuck in your head.

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