Soundtrack Studies: ‘American Psycho’

Tuesday, July 8 by
 

Here we go. This should be a pretty common lexicon among Screen Junkies readers. American Psycho was largely considered “unfilmable” when the Bret East Ellis novel hit shelves in 1991. The book, meant to be a satire of 80’s excess, and the privileges afforded the wealthy, males, and of course, the wealthy males, followed around one Patrick Bateman, a shallow material sociopath.

The only things that really moved Bateman were a predilection for the finer things in life (condos, clothes, gym memberships, vacations) and brutally murdering people for no reason. He was insane and empty, but his status alone masked these shortcomings, and his peers were all too self-involved to notice.

That’s American Psycho. For many reasons, including brevity, and to omit extremely graphic and tedious scenes, director Mary Herron decided the film would leave most of the book on the cutting room floor. For instance, it was nothing for Ellis to have Bateman take us through five pages of why one designer’s latest work had fallen flat. Or three pages on why Genesis were the greatest rock band of our generation.

Except the parts about music made the cut and stayed in the movie. In American Psycho, Christian Bale’s Bateman would often give his unknowing companions a brief education on Whitney Houston or Huey Lewis before chopping them up with an axe.

It was one of several moments of levity that helped us digest the gravity of the film. What made the scenes so fun was a) Bateman’s taste in music was TERRIBLE and unabashedly 80’s and b) he really was interested in talking about these bands.

One of the more interesting things about the film and its pop soundtrack (it also has a score we won’t discuss) is that all the pop music that we hear in the film is heard by Bateman as well. I’ve talked before about diegetic music vs. non-diegetic, and by hearing only what he hears, we’re taken one step further into his mind (or, at the least, one step further out of our reality). It’s not like when the hip young architect is riding his bike to his San Fran townhouse and “Semi-charmed Life” is playing for no reason. We are listening to this music because Bateman listens to this music. In fact, we never leave Bateman for any significant period of time throughout the entire film. We’re here to follow him, and that’s what we do.

There’s no better way to make fun of an era than to discuss the clothing and music popular at the time. And unfortunately, Bateman’s fashion is pretty much on-point, so we’re left to revel in his terrible pop music tastes from which he strives to derive meaning that just isn’t there.

There he goes on talking about Phil Collins while getting a friend and a hooker to have a threesome. Note the wistful and satisfying look on his face when he gets to talk about these guys. He’s over the moon.

Then he kills them with a knife and chainsaw. Tricky business, this dichotomy.

While the soundtrack did sell particularly well (mostly because very few people saw the film in the theater), the film has found a second life due to word of mouth and ridiculous scenes like the one above.

I guess the moral here is that as mean and as sociopathic as we can get, we’re never immune from the charms of pop music.

Enjoy the soundtrack and, if you haven’t already, go see the film, it’s very fun.