Booksmart and the thrill of great music supervision

Photo: Annapurna

Booksmart is a sharp comedy that follows the exploits of two high-school friends, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), on the night before their graduation. The chemistry of these two characters propels this coming-of-age story skyward, and makes for an exceptional directorial debut for Olivia Wilde.

From the very start, it’s hard to ignore this film’s music direction. Scenes are often punctuated by licensed songs that perfectly capture a character and their mindset, or backed by a light, sauntering score from Dan the Automator. Bryan Ling, who previously worked with Wilde on an Edward Sharpe music video, takes the helm supervising the music for the film. He plucks striking songs from genres ranging from pop to hip-hop and deploys them in scenes confidently. Consequently, we encounter pairings of scene and song that satisfyingly click, and result in some of the film’s best moments.

Let’s look at the pool scene at Nick’s party, set against the backdrop of Perfume Genius’ song ‘Slip Away’. This scene marks an empowering moment for Amy as she lets herself plunge into the water; allowing herself to pursue romance and, as the song puts it, break free of her safe and careful ways. The crashing drums as she breaks the surface, the twang of guitar as she slips past anonymous bodies. It’s a beautiful marriage of imagery and sound, elevated by a clever choice of soundtrack. I’m still thinking about it, having left the cinema days ago; so rare to see something this remarkable in a comedy.

Other selections in the film may be less affecting but by all means still pack a punch. Leikeli47’s ‘Attitude’ plays full blast as the girls strut into the college library late at night to do some “motherf***ing homework”, one of the many subtle ways the film flips the script on nerd culture. When we first see Amy lay eyes on her crush Ryan, Discovery’s ‘Can You Discover?’ plays; its blaring bass and cries of desire creating a dreamlike vignette that parallels Ryan’s cool vibe. It’s a small musical moment that puts us in the character’s shoes figuratively as opposed to literally, which scenes like this often try to do with POV camerawork and corny visual effects.

Molly walks home alone after a fight and the sober synths of LCD Soundsystem’s ‘oh baby’ play. It’s a break-up song that sounds like a slow-dance in a nightclub; the perfect comedown from the emotional rollercoaster the characters ride in the scenes prior. When I first heard it as the opener of LCD’s last record American Dream two years ago, it was stunning. But in this context, it takes on new meaning; this is the fallout of friendship, not of lovers, and the sting feels palpable.

There’s no shortage in the past decade of snappy high-school comedies generously using licensed music to inject life into its shenanigans, but here we have something special. Wilde clearly worked closely with Ling on this project and it shows, raising the bar with a considered approach to the soundtrack that nevertheless has the vivacity and personality required for its genre. Combined with the superb performances of its two leads, a razor-sharp script and refreshing direction from Wilde, and you’re handed one of the best and brightest comedies in years. Booksmart did its homework.

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