Graphic: Nick Wanserski
Soundtracks Of Our LivesIn Soundtracks Of Our Lives, The A.V. Club looks at the dying art of the movie companion album, those “various artists” compilations made to complement films on screen but that often end up taking on lives of their own.  

I never owned the Garden State soundtrack. I didn’t have to: When I first saw the feature-length debut from director-writer-star Zach Braff, I brought many of its songs with me, in the massive Case Logic CD binder stored securely in the backseat of my third-generation Ford Taurus. Swept out of the theater by the strings and loops of Frou Frou’s “Let Go,” I plopped into the driver’s seat, reached for the binder, and put The ShinsOh, Inverted World on the stereo. “Caring Is Creepy” whistled into the night, and I took to the suburban streets just like the film’s protagonist, Andrew “Large” Largeman (director-writer-star Zach Braff). Only I was in a Ford Taurus, not a military motorcycle with a symbolically empty sidecar. My passenger seat was occupied, by a friend who was once my girlfriend but was now a friend again. But other than that, I was just like Large, heading back to a house that wasn’t really my home anymore—to a family that was more like a group of people that missed the same imaginary place, you know?

Let’s get it out of the way now: I haven’t come to bury Garden State. There’s plenty of soil on top of that corpse, enough to necessitate the occasional excavation effort. Once upon a time, I found a lot of resonance in the way it depicts Large’s complicated relationship with his old New Jersey stomping grounds; that time has passed. (On a recent rewatch, I was surprised to discover what a big deal I’d made of such a small component of the movie.) The perception of the film as a cynical act of taste-flattery for boys in hoodies and girls in cardigans strikes me as false—a film that chases footage of a tear being caught in a Dixie cup with audio of Sam Beam singing Ben Gibbard lyrics doesn’t have a cynical bone in its body. Braff’s script about an out-of-work, overmedicated actor going home for his mother’s funeral strains for meaning and eccentricity, but it truly believes in its reasons for straining.

I hold no illusions that my experience with the film, or the songs on its Grammy-winning, platinum-selling soundtrack album, is unique. Such illusions were dispelled during Garden State’s theatrical run, a campaign that stretched through the final months of 2004 and more than quintupled the $5 million spent by Fox Searchlight and Miramax to acquire the film at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. It never cracked the top 10 at the weekend box office, but for a movie of its scale, style, and substance, Garden State made a big impact. It painted Braff as a Woody Allen in the making, and raised the profiles of the musical acts that provide the emotional underpinnings of Large’s surreal homecoming and budding romance with Sam (Natalie Portman). A conventionally attractive pathological liar, Sam gives Garden State one of its rallying cries (later retrofitted as a punchline) when she passes her ear-swallowing headphones to Large and tells him that The Shins’ “New Slang” is going to change his life.

Advertisement

All of these effects were magnified if you, like me, happened to be between semesters at a major American university. Garden State depicts the aimless ennui of characters born at the tail end of Generation X, but it was passionately embraced by my peer group, the one no one calls Generation Y anymore. To the oldest millennials, the internet wasn’t “the internet” until we were in high school and college, bringing with it the Web 2.0 delights of LiveJournal, Flickr, and the various peer-to-peer applications that sprung up in the wake of A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc. We were predisposed to our older cousins’ sense of irony and disdain for the mainstream, but also prone to our kid siblings’ earnest nature and digital vanity. We weren’t in Garden State, but we were (to borrow a phrase from the film) “in it,” our MySpace profiles primed for quotes from The Book Of Largeman and LimeWire queues ready for more of Sam’s recommendations.

Or maybe you were already making those recommendations yourself. I wouldn’t have had Oh, Inverted World (or its follow-up from 2003, Chutes Too Narrow) in my car if it weren’t for the people I’d met during my freshman year at Michigan State University and the strong opinions they had zero qualms about sharing. During one of my first days in the dorms, somebody played me an album made by the girl from Troop Beverly Hills and one of the campers from Salute Your Shorts, and Rilo Kiley has been one of my favorite bands ever since. A friend I’d made through the college improv troupe sent me The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” over AOL Instant Messenger; I learned of Neutral Milk Hotel and The Shins through our troupemate’s T-shirts. Garden State saw us and our record collections coming from a mile away.

Advertisement

The music was tuneful and melancholy, easily translated to the acoustic duo my best friend and I formed when our high-school band booted its drummer. And it was a great match for the shitty mood I was in from approximately mid-2003 through late 2006, a period in which I fancied myself a tragic romantic, one who had a lot of half-formed ideas about life and zero philosophy to back them up. There just wasn’t a good name for it, or the people who listened to it. “Indie rock” was the default term, a holdover from earlier decades that elided the fact that neither the artists making it nor the companies that distributed their wares were wholly independent from the major-record-label machinery. The same was increasingly true of the musicians’ counterparts in the realm of independent film.

For The Shins’ part, the band’s claims to independence were already muddied by the time “New Slang” served as the musical ice breaker in Garden State’s meet-cute. In 2002, the tender single soundtracked a television advertisement for McDonald’s, at a time when such a licensing deal still carried with it the stink of “selling out.” And though film and song became inseparable in the public imagination, Garden State wasn’t even the first Zach Braff vehicle to feature the song: That’d be “My Balancing Act” from the first season of the actor’s big sitcom break, Scrubs. But a fast-food commercial and network comedy just don’t project personal connection the way that a film-festival favorite does. Add that to the in-script endorsement, and Garden State ensured its ownership of “New Slang” in ways that would benefit and impair The Shins in ways their Gilmore Girls cameo from the same year did not.

Advertisement

Garden State came along at a time when rising advocacy for indie rock corresponded with an increased commercial viability for the music. Gilmore Girls had been at it for years—a Belle & Sebastian-related subplot here, an issue of Punk Planet there—and The O.C. was about to kick off its second season, in which the opening of The Bait Shop added a dash of live-in-concert urgency to the soundtrack-as-mixtape technique of music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas. It was a technique and a moment Garden State seized on with maximum sincerity—“Essentially, I made a mix CD with all of the music that I felt was scoring my life at the time I was writing the screenplay,” Braff said at the time of the the official soundtrack album’s release—selections that drew from the same talent pool as its cinematic forebears and banging the drum for friends and favorites from Braff’s starving-artist days.

In that respect, the compilation feels less like a tangible gift from a secret admirer, and more like the recommendation engines and curated digital playlists that would soon supplant the mixtape. Do you like Coldplay, which sets the scene of Large’s Los Angeles malaise with the pealing guitars and Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy-referencing reassurance of “Don’t Panic”? Then you’ll like the sound of Cary Brothers’ yearning “Blue Eyes.” Enjoy your first impressions of Nick Drake in that Volkswagen ad and The Royal Tenenbaums, and wonder what the late folk singer sounded like on an up day? Give “One Of These Things First” a listen. Even a know-it-all with a burned copy of Bryter Layter could appreciate the way Braff’s selections hung together, even if we were already familiar with the artists: The acoustic balladeering of Iron & Wine and Colin Hay; the electronic textures of Frou Frou, Zero 7, and Thievery Corporation; the foreshadowing of “New Slang” with the brittle rocker “Caring Is Creepy.”

Advertisement

In addition to the “mix CD” quote, the Garden State soundtrack arrived with a creation myth befitting the film’s scrappy passion-project status, about a man with a story to tell and a list of songs it couldn’t be told without.

“The sort of money that was originally quoted could have funded a few small independent pictures,” he explains. “I’m just thankful that after I showed them the sequences in which their songs were used, the artists or their estates were generous enough to work within our budgets.”

This pitch process speaks to Braff’s one indisputable skill as a filmmaker: He has a knack for pairing music and images. He might not have been the first to find these songs, but he found them the ideal context. For “In The Waiting Line” by Sia-associated electronic group Zero 7, that context was the townie party Large attends at the invitation of his gravedigging childhood friend, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard). It’s an act of matchmaking that favors the literal, a time-lapse party sequence in which Large appears stuck, anxious, and confused, while a song about feeling stuck, anxious, and confused takes over the audio mix. Sophie Barker sings “everyone’s saying different things to me / different things to me,” and indeed, everyone is saying different things to Large. “Everybody’s taking everything they can,” the song goes, and the extras snort, smoke, guzzle, and gulp anything they can get their hands on. It’s such an obvious choice, but the narcotic, space-age bachelor-pad music of “In The Waiting Line” fits the scene perfectly.

The same can be said for the soundtrack’s other flirtation with downtempo. A smoky number named for a type of hashish, “Lebanese Blonde” cues up just as Garden State starts its impression of a slick Steven Soderbergh heist flick, with a chain of trades and haggles—an effort to undo a bit of graverobbing perpetrated by Mark—leading to the hotel where a bellman played by Method Man runs an elaborate peephole operation. Suspend your disbelief about that many people fucking frequently enough in the same location to sustain a business model (what if the sex itself was arranged by Meth? What if some of the voyeurs just want to watch lodgers idly flip by CNBC a dozen times?) and witness the lone instance of Garden State putting on airs for its characters. As the sitars hit, Large, Sam, and Mark do a badass stride into the hotel lobby, “Lebanese Blonde” serving as their very own “Little Green Bag.” It’s a move Braff would pull again, with similarly world-music-biting accompaniment, in Wish I Was Here.

Advertisement

Braff could be (and has been) accused of leaning on his soundtrack selections as a crutch, achieving sentimental highs through music that his characters and dialogue couldn’t achieve on their own. But with the emotionally stunted Large at the film’s center, large swaths of Garden State would give off zero feelings without their musical accompaniment. The earnestness of its readymade-status-message epiphanies is tied up in these heart-on-sleeves songs, and vice versa.

But when those songs reached their crescendos, they really matched the big-screen scale and ambitions of Garden State. Take “The Only Living Boy In New York,” for instance. The song plays during the film’s most eminently mockable scene, immortalized on posters and the soundtrack cover: Large, Sam, and Mark screaming into the “infinite abyss” of an abandoned quarry, whose caretaker (Denis O’Hare, one of several future primetime fixtures on the film’s periphery) has purchased the jewelry swiped from Mrs. Largeman’s corpse. Like better-known Simon And Garfunkel cuts “The Boxer” and “America,” “The Only Living Boy In New York” begins quietly and blossoms into an anthem, urged on by massive Hal Blaine drum fills that echo the pre-chorus snare whacking in “Caring Is Creepy.” Paul Simon’s address to an absent Art Garfunkel is another example of Garden State’s literal streak, pairing cinematic showers with meteorological lyrics and filtering Large’s little-boy-lost demeanor through a songwriter missing his mismatched, harmonizing bookend. The content of the scene is ludicrous, a moment of cinematic catharsis that looks hollow upon further examination. But with an assist from Simon And Garfunkel, the execution is stirring.

“The Only Living Boy In New York” fills the CGI void sprawling out in front of the three leads, so enveloping a movie theater was an easy task. Doing the same with “Let Go” requires some creative editing. Imogen Heap’s breathy opening verse plays first over a montage of the Garden State ensemble, scattered to the winds and nowhere closer to fulfillment than they were at the beginning of the film. But the length of these check-ins and a callback to the film’s opening dream sequence require the song fold in on itself, lest the beat drop before Braff and Portman’s climactic clinch. The scene is Garden State’s relationship to its soundtrack in miniature: Writing and direction doing somersaults while the music pulls off moves of advanced aerial acrobatics. It’s a moment with the adrenaline rush of The Graduate’s “Ben and Elaine on the bus” finale, but only a hint of the bracing ambiguity.

The fate of Garden State seemed clear as 2004 turned to 2005. Braff was a filmmaker to watch; in a year-in-review article, Spin put sales of the soundtrack at 500,000 copies. But the years that followed were unkind. I recall receiving the film on DVD as a gift, watching it once, and being disappointed that it didn’t instill the same chills that it did in the movie theater. I couldn’t have been alone in this assessment, because a full-on Garden State backlash was in effect by the mid-’00s. It’s impossible to identify the starting point, but I’ll always remember the Human Giant sketch above, which ends with Aziz Ansari (as a clerk at the notoriously intimidating, now-shuttered record store Other Music) murdering Brian Huskey for the crime of seeking out the Garden State soundtrack. “That’s supposed to be indie-tastic,” Huskey says, before Ansari and Andy Blitz take the poor mope to the backroom and fire multiple bullets into his chest.

Advertisement

From there, the movie only gained more comedic currency as a shorthand for bandwagon hop-ons and dweebs with unfashionable preferences. Before Trey from Broad City donated all of his money to Zach Braff’s Kickstarter (a punchline that made Broad City fan Natalie Portman feel “insecure”), Braff himself played this type of dweeb on Saturday Night Live, as a high-schooler in Large’s hoodie and Sam’s headphones whose classmates shoot down his idea for a Garden State-themed prom. A decade on, even bands whose boats were conceivably lifted by the rising tides caused by the movie were getting in on the act: On Spoon’s “Outlier,” from 2014’s They Want My Soul, Britt Daniel deadpans, “I remember when you walked out of Garden State / ’cause you had taste, you had taste / You had no time to waste.”

The choice of words in that Human Giant sketch is telling: Garden State provided a snapshot of what could be considered “indie” at the time, but to the uninitiated, it was a panorama of the entire landscape. Here was a genre of vulnerable guys and gals with guitars, who felt an intense fidelity to melody and flirted with the occasional sampler or synthesizer. But a quick glance at the best-albums list published alongside Spin’s “Trend Of The Year: The Revival Of Indie Rock” spread shows how Garden State was only part of the story, with Garden State-adjacents like Rilo Kiley and Snow Patrol filed next to spiky, dance-oriented works from LCD Soundsystem and Le Tigre, the George W. Bush-era protests of TV On The Radio and Ted Leo, and comeback releases from cult heroes Loretta Lynn and Brian Wilson. Indie rock was always going to provide solace to sensitive souls, but as the decade wore on, it also became the type of space in which the psych-pop weirdos of Animal Collective could be the biggest thing going.

Advertisement

Because it was a popular movie with trendy artists on its soundtrack and a laundry list of film-student influences, I think a perception has formed that Garden State was trying to be hip. But rewatch the movie, revisit the songs it made famous, or reread the personal blog that drummed up support for it in the months between Sundance and wide release, and “hip” is not a word that leaps to mind. The Shins and Iron & Wine might’ve been bubbling up from the underground, but their sound wasn’t cutting-edge. Remy Zero and Coldplay were asking the question “But what if Radiohead wrote ‘Wonderwall’?” during Britpop’s last gasps; Cary Brothers and Bonnie Sommerville were earnest coffeehouse stuff. Colin Hay had two other platinum records (and one gold) under his belt as the frontman of Men At Work.

In truth, the secret was always out. The movie’s themes of loneliness and alienation resonated because lots of people feel lonely and alienated. Its songs spread far and wide because they had mass appeal, modest presentations aside. “New Slang” had sold fast food. Sam Beam’s take on “Such Great Heights” would sell M&Ms. The increasing ubiquity of the soundtrack album invalidated the idea that these songs belonged to any one genre, clique, or person. Such notions, like the sweeping statements about life and home and love in Braff’s script, are stories of assurance that young people tell themselves.

What I took for granted was that Garden State was a bridge between the used-records-and-thrift-store-sweater bubble and the rest of the world. Asked to play a song at our cousin’s wedding the summer after the movie came out, my brother and I whipped up a cover of the cover of “Such Great Heights.” I was surprised at the number of guests who recognized the song. Corny and contrived as it is, Garden State is about yearning for that type of connection, and its soundtrack is an act of passing the connection along. It represents the appeal of any art I’ve ever loved too much to keep to myself—as good as it feels to have found it before the masses. It’s achingly dorky, but there’s power in the film’s most infamous scene: The life-changing effect of telling someone else “You gotta hear this one song” travels both ways.

Advertisement