The soundtrack of our lives
What's a movie without a few pop songs?
By Todd Leopold
Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst star in "Elizabethtown."
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(CNN) -- I've always wanted a movie to start with the Clash's "Brand New Cadillac."
I can see it now: the opening guitar riff over a black screen. Credits paced to the beat. A manic montage of ... I don't know. Maybe a heist. A car chase. A long, dreamlike fall from an airplane.
I'm sure I'm not the only who's had the idea. Pop songs -- pop songs that offer counterpoint to the action on-screen, or a chance to show a budding, goofy friendship, or pop songs that underline the characters' emotions -- are now so common in films as to be uneventful.
We're not talking about movie musicals here -- that's a separate beast. More like the use of the "Layla" coda in "GoodFellas," or "She Smiled Sweetly" in "The Royal Tenenbaums," or -- one of the most ingenious, and unobtrusive, uses -- the whole "American Graffiti" soundtrack.
The trick is doing it well. Do it poorly and your movie is just an extended music video. On the other hand, Martin Scorsese's use of "Layla" as the bodies pile up in "GoodFellas" was brilliant -- each image wickedly enforcing the sadness and wistfulness of the melody, which already carries its own weight from repeated playings on the radio.
Cameron Crowe, who cut his teeth as a music journalist, uses pop songs all over his movies. Sometimes their use has become iconic, if a little much -- think of John Cusack holding the boombox playing Peter Gabriel in "Say Anything ..." or the tour bus singing along with Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" in "Almost Famous."
For Crowe's new movie, "Elizabethtown," he told Entertainment Weekly that he kept a notebook full of songs for every scene.
"I felt that I took it to the max, because if we were gonna make a movie that was a love story, a tribute to my dad, and a love letter to [Kentucky], we needed music to set a tone and bind the stories together, to integrate them into one yarn," he said.
It's also integrated into a contest: VH1, Best Buy and Paramount Pictures are uniting to sponsor "Elizabethtown's Ultimate Road Trip Contest," which "asks consumers to plan the ultimate journey from their own hometown to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, making 12 stops along the way and choosing the best 12 songs to get them to their destination," according to a press release. (Find out more)
Does it work? That probably depends on what you think of Crowe's previous movies -- and his taste in music.
Eye on Entertainment gives a listen.
Among the songs in "Elizabethtown" are "My Father's Gun," an early Elton John song; a pair of Tom Petty tracks, "Square One" and "It'll All Work Out;" and a new song by My Morning Jacket.
They support a plot that concerns the morose Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom), a shoe company designer who gets fired after a nightmarish product debut. Not long after, his father dies, and he has to return to his hometown in Kentucky (the source of the title), and meets an upbeat flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) on the flight there.
Eventually -- after some run-ins with wacky townspeople -- Baylor takes his father's cremated body and hits the road, following a map and mix tape created by Dunst's character.
The film also stars Susan Sarandon as Baylor's eccentric mother, Alec Baldwin as his shoe company boss and newly crowned Esquire "sexiest woman" Jessica Biel as his ex-girlfriend.
Critics have praised Crowe's use of music in "Elizabethtown." However, many have found little else to savor.
"Crowe's mastery of the music-aided emotional catharsis is in fine form; it just needs a real story," wrote Laura Sinagra in The Village Voice.
"Although rich in screwball silliness and sharp one-liners, film lacks the narrative drive one finds in the classic comedies of Preston Sturges, Frank Capra and Billy Wilder, whom Crowe always seems to try to emulate," observed Variety's Leslie Felperin.
Crowe's already been through some rough times with "Elizabethtown." The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in a rough cut and was roasted by critics. The version set to hit theaters has been trimmed here and there, but whether it works will be left to the audience to decide.
Otherwise, they may just take their iPods and go somewhere else.
"Elizabethtown" opens Friday.
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