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Deep Dive - Music in Movies & Television: Garden State

In the early 2000s the Indie music scene was starting to heat up in a way like never before. Propelled by new technology and the surging marketing value of the internet, music that previously may have gone unheard was beginning to be used in media in new and exciting ways.

With the explosion of the indie genre, came this idea of hipsterism — developing a taste in music that was increasingly more “underground” than your peers and the idea of undiscovered talent being more authentic in its artistry. The idea of authenticity and a unique sense of self is woven throughout “Garden State”. This was a powerful concept and one that paired so perfectly with the idea of a quarter-life crisis and feeling displaced in your late 20s, feeling nostalgic for things that you never experienced in the first place. Maybe it was this sense of shared trauma, brought about in a post-9/11 world combined with the usual grappling to find purpose and meaning for millennials at the time or maybe it was this romanticization of “finding ones self” that was brought about in media with shows like The O.C. that glamorized angst and young yearning. Either way, there was something about Zach Braff’s “Garden State” that captivated a generation upon its release and it is my belief that most of its magic is found in the pairing of the film’s story with a superb soundtrack.

When going back to re-watch this one, I was hit by how brief the use of many of these songs were in the actual film. Growing up and listening to the soundtrack on repeat (and being accustomed to the full-length tracks) many of them felt too brief, but it’s no doubt that their presence in the film was deliberate and calculated.

As a whole, so many of the uses of these songs are just transitionary and leading us from scene to scene. “Caring is Creepy” by The Shins is introduced right after Andrew visits with his father for the first time upon his arrival home. It’s merely seconds later that the song is cut short by the sirens of being pulled over in the next scene. In some cases, we don’t even get 10 seconds of the song (I’m looking at you, “Orange Sky” — which surprised me, as it’s one of the few songs in the film that did not make the official soundtrack), but it still develops the emotional structure that is needed to support the movie. The story is a small-scale nondescript few days around the death of Andrew’s mom, but the soundtrack truly lands the writing and creates the grounding in a relatable coming-of-age arc. Yet, how did such brief uses of songs actually fuel one of the most iconic soundtracks in modern film? I have a theory.

Okay, so this is one of those thoughts that came to me during my last rewatch that is likely over analytical and a bit pedantic, but I think it holds weight, so please just hear me out. So Garden State doesn’t shy away about its statements on overmedicating and starting kids and teens on antidepressants. Andrew’s character arc is one of realizing that he’s been numb for so long due to being medicated from such a young age, that he’s not sure if he truly ever needed to be medicated in the first place. So how does this tie into the music?

Well, we only get four uses of what I’ll call long-play songs (or songs that play more than just a few seconds in the actual film) outside of “Don’t Panic” by Coldplay, which is used in as the opening to the film. Those songs are “In the Waiting Line” by Zero 7, “New Slang” by The Shins, “The Only Living Boy in New York City” by Simon & Garfunkel, and “Let Go” by Frou Frou. I would argue that these songs represent the only times in the movie where Andrew is actually feeling things — or at least letting the emotion/moment impact him, unimpeded by antidepressants or anxieties. Breakdown incoming:

“In the Waiting Line” - Zero 7: This is the song that plays while Andrew’s at the party. It kicks in right as he takes the ecstasy and the use of recreational drugs is what unlocks his ability to feel and experience the moment as it comes. Andrew’s on the couch and In the Waiting Line swells as the events of the night blur past Andrew. It’s the first time in the movie where he’s feeling something. It’s sped up and moving at light speed around him, but it’s SOMETHING that he’s feeling, as brought about from the drugs.

“New Slang” - The Shins: This is THE song from this movie. It’s the one that Sam (Natalie Portman) tells Andrew will change his life. It’s the first time that she and Andrew meet and it’s their connection. In light of my theory, the fact that this song plays, then fades out, and then returns on the next time Sam and Andrew see each other (after the testing at the Dr’s Office) solidifies the idea that there’s a spark — a connection— with these two and that there’s something that Andrew’s experiencing here that is powerful and unique.

“The Only Living Boy In New York City” - Simon & Garfunkel: It locks in the meaning to what Albert just told them of how his life’s meaning and purpose is really about sharing it with those he loves. This song plays over the top of Sam, Andrew, and Mark all screaming into the infinite abyss from the top of some construction equipment (easily one of the most iconic moments of the film). The song plays longer than most of the other songs in the movie and it frames this moment so perfectly. It’s the epiphany soundtrack for Andrew realizing that he is happy or content or okay with the moments that life has brought him at this point in his life. It’s even more meaning fun when you realize that it wasn’t medication that brought this point to Andrew, as his father’s actions had pushed.

There’s a moment though, after all three of these, where “Such Great Heights” by Iron & Wine plays and this seems like a moment that would have this long-play soundtrack, but there’s unfinished business that Andrew has that he needs to settle with his dad. He was conflicted and that conflict interfered with his ability to be in the moment. The entire film wasn’t leading up to Andrew sharing the moment with Sam — the film was actually leading towards the closure that Andrew needed from confronting his father. But romantics, be not alarmed! The film finishes with a long-play romantic moment as “Let Go” by Frou Frou plays as Andrew is able to feel and process his recently reconciled trauma with the emotions he has for Sam in a full way.

Regardless of if you buy into this theory, the framing of small and strange moments that the film presents with simple, emotional, and authentic songs is nearly perfect. The cult-following that this film has is not owed entirely to the soundtrack — Braff and Portman absolutely nail the roles they were given and execute the weirdness well. The second half of the movie (starting with the scene in front of the fireplace) exemplifies exactly how those moments pay off, which cements this movie into its spot in cinematic history.


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