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Five for Friday: Modern Rock Musicals

Two movie musicals arrive in U.S. theaters this weekend: Disney's live-action take on Beauty & the Beast and the sequel to Trainspotting. One is rather traditional, with characters breaking into song, grand costumes, and a little CGI magic. The other, however, uses rock n' roll as a set piece – as a way to heighten a scene or reflect a character's a particular emotion. While the movie musical appears to be enjoying an obvious rebound, rock-driven flicks are showing a bit of life as well. In additional to T2 Trainspotting, Edgar Wright later this year will release Baby Driver, a heist film in which rock becomes a central character. In that spirit, here are five of our favorite modern rock n' roll musicals, works where characters may not break into song but where pop remains a central tenant.

Trainspotting
The opening scene of Trainspotting endures as an electrifying kiss-off to conformity – at least until it's revealed that not playing by the rules equates to heroin addiction. Nevertheless, the viewer is hooked, wanting to know how the characters got into their predicament. It's all accomplished with the help of Iggy Pop's booming, thunderous "Lust for Life," which puts an optimistic spin on being a misfit. Whether accompanying the rush of a race through city streets, or the adrenaline boost of a sporting match, Pop's song has us running in place with the characters. Music, much of it British rock from the mid-90s, continues to propel the film forward. Underworld tracks, specifically "Born Slippery," capture the sound of a hypnotic, heart-racing trance, while choice cuts from Elastica, Pulp, and Blur deal with coming-of-age anxieties. A well-placed rendition of Lou Reed's languid "Perfect Day," however, reminds us real heartbreak is happening.

High Fidelity
The 13th Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me" launches High Fidelity with a screech and a howl – the song's weirdly aggressive guitar tones channeling mixed, post-break-up emotions. Anger-fueled loneliness steers the tune, but there's also an underlying sense of revenge, which essentially sets the plot of the relationship-obsessed rom-com into motion. Payback, not introspection, motivates John Cusack's character in the early going, and the film smartly uses to pop to illustrate how music can instantly stand in for surface-level emotions – whether it's the momentary excitement conveyed by Katrina & the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine," a cut not on the official soundtrack release, or the comforting, dusty electronics of the Beta Band's "Dry the Rain." Life lessons abound, and by the time Stevie Wonder's "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)" rolls around, the tune's glistening, twinkling earnestness deflects any potential irony.

The World's End
Edgar Wright's off-the-wall film confronts hard truths about nostalgia and endless adolescence, doing so with sci-fi, action-heavy twists. In a work where the main protagonist, played by Simon Pegg, refuses to grow up, Wright heavily relies on music from the character's mid-90s glory days. The Soup Dragons' silly and joyful "I'm Free" and Blur's "There's No Other Way" dial into the stubbornness of what it means to be afflicted with near-permanent Peter Pan syndrome. When there's romance, there's no swooning, but instead lustful teenage recklessness (Pulp's "Do You Remember the First Time?"). Such haste leads to disaster. Not to say the film is all about absent-mindedly graduating into adulthood. Club fare, courtesy of Kylie Minogue, places the film's stars in another world, one that long passed them by, only to gradually reveal the dangers of sticking steadfastly to long-held ideals.

Singles
A love-letter to an era and a sound, and arguably the greatest alt-rock mix tape ever recorded, Cameron Crowe's Singles persists as a cinematic tale of surviving your 20s. While the 1992 film hit months before the debut of the popular sitcom "Friends," think of it as a look at a Gen-X lifestyle without the laugh track. While the film romanticizes a certain generational ennui, it does so without the constant need for a punch line. In fact, it remains rather human in its depiction of dating and career anxieties. And the music, by and large, captures the bubbling-under frustration of trying to figure out a direction – or survive a rejection. Paul Westerberg's "Waiting for Somebody" and "Dyslexic Heart" represent rough-and-tumble slacker melodicism, while Pearl Jam's "Breath" and Alice in Chains' "Would?" create more of a cloud. With a snaking, foreboding rhythm, the latter tune ramps up the tension before the chorus' big release. While the tone of the film sometimes feels silly, the soundtrack is loud – and occasionally dark – as it zeroes in on post-college unease.

We Are the Best!
This 2013 Swedish film about life in the early 80s is one of the more honest depictions of a life touched – and saved – by rock n' roll. And you're going to have to check out the film. A proper soundtrack isn't available. No matter. The music is so intertwined in what happens onscreen that the two likely wouldn't work divorced from one another. Following a group of young teenaged women who idolize rock, We Are the Best! works in part because so much of the music is, well, amateur. When Bobo and her pals scream "Hate the Sport!," they're celebrating their own perceived weirdness while building a wall in front of mainstream culture. The song is a mess of bass, guitar, and drum notes. What the film understands is that it's not the tune that matters, but the sense of community it provides.

March 17, 2017

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