It’s hard for time to be on the side of Swingers. The film was forward looking in its portrayals of swing dancing, bro and hookup culture, and Vegas, baby, but all those things are pretty terrible, and were popularized by the film.
So do we hold Doug Liman and Jon Favreau responsible for these things? I mean, it’s not their fault if these things seemed like a good idea in 1996. Is it?
Ehhh. Maybe. I’d rather not assign blame or even discuss those cultural blips from 20 years, because we’re all pretty happy that they’re gone, but to the producers’ credit, they did create a version of Los Angeles that was both satirical and realistic, although L.A. can do a pretty good job of that on its own.
Swingers follows the lives of several underachieving males as they dick around, but not in the way characters like Jay and Silent Bob do. Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn, Frank Whaley, and Ron Livingston are dicking around in very ambitious fashion, trying to find the best parties, passively trying to be better actors and writers, and trying to bed the best women. Because the sun rises and sets on “cool” for these guys, even though they’re not particularly cool. They seem like relatively nice guys, except for Vince Vaughn’s Trent, who is a jerk.
In hindsight, being cool in 1996 wasn’t really an enduring cool. It was frosted tips, bowling shirts, tinted sunglasses, and goatees. Basically, it was looking like either a greaser or the guy from Smashmouth. So it wasn’t bad that these L.A. transients were not cool. The problem was they were buying into a shitty version of cool where you drive around all night looking for a party that either doesn’t exist or won’t let you in.
To match the ethos, there’s the aesthetic. The look adopted by the film’s characters largely harkens back to the rat pack. For those old enough, imagine a pre-fedora, pre-speakeasy culture in which everyone was drinking martinis and smoking cigars. That wasn’t QUITE the norm in some circles, but it very much was after Swingers popularized it.
With this look came a sound. A sound that could have, before this film and trend, been called “timeless.” It turns out all you need to do to have something stop being timeless is to have everyone do it incessantly, and look dumb while they do it. For that reason, swing music has proved to be as timeless as the Macarena.
Even the name Swingers nods back to a certain era when everyone was cool and smooth and everything that these guys weren’t. But every era, disco, the 80’s, prohibition…had smooth sights and sounds that, in the right hands could convey cool. That doesn’t mean they exist for everyone.
Here’s a a rough sampling of the Swingers soundtrack:
A big caveat here is that this Spotify playlist doesn’t include two Big Bad Voodoo Daddy songs that serve as the lynchpin of the soundtrack, by best demonstrating the mood of the soundtrack, but also playing in two of the more memorable scenes.
Here are the songs via YouTube:
I could spend all day speaking ill of the “swing” movement and its ridiculous suits, but, taking that off the table, the soundtrack does a pretty great job of punctuating just how in-the-moment these characters are. They operate with a narcism that could never allow them to gain any perspective on themselves, let alone the ridiculousness of their contexts. And to that end, the film serves as a great tale about Los Angeles. These characters, just like many of the other transplants in this city, must, to some degree, remain oblivious to the absurdity of it all, because if you don’t believe in it, you can’t play the game.
And these guys are never not playing games. They’re playing games when they gamble their money away in five minutes. They’re playing games when they leave countless messages for a love interest. They play games when they roll, all in separate cars, to an unnamed bar in an alley. They have to believe in this stuff, or they wouldn’t be doing it.
Similarly, they have to believe that they are as cool as Frank Sinatra when they step into a bar, even if, in reality, they’re only as cool as Jon Favreau.