‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ soundtrack: Good taste as love letter
Stephen Chbosky's own screen adaptation moves beyond teen romance
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Youth commands that all must endure a Smiths phase. If it was not you yourself who, at one point, attended the church of Morrissey, then at least a family member or someone close to you did. Stephen Chbosky, author of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” recognizes this post-1982 rite and fully integrated in to his own screen adaptation, with the story’s principals fledgling through high school and exchanging mixtapes in the meanwhile.
Starring Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller and Emma Watson as an island on the island of “misfit toys” in the early ‘90s, “Wallflower” is an achingly real peer back into the awkward and frequently painful growth of those years. Lerman’s mentally troubled lead Charlie’s most poignant moments revolved around the passage of holidays (every school kid looks forward to the breaks), and by his major musical moments. His first standout is “Asleep,” by the Smiths. It’s fitting, as the viewer gets to know Charlie. It’s also a bummer.
Other standouts are Charlie’s first feeling of “infinite,” during David Bowie’s “Heroes.” He hits the dance floor for the first time when the two-person clique of Watson’s Sam and her misanthropic stepbrother Patrick (Miller) peel themselves from the wall: “Finally, they’re playing good music,” Patrick says over the start of “Come on Eileen.” Charlie makes his first cassette for Sam, which includes Nick Drake. It’s first spin at a party is then rejected by Sam’s lame love interest Craig (“I don’t write poetry… poetry writes me”) in favor of hit “Bust a Move” by Young MC, which appropriately sports the line “A chick walks by you wish you could sex her / But you're standing on the wall like you was Poindexter.”
Behind the songlist of “Perks” is Alexandra Patsavas, who – aside from tracking all your favorite DVR’ed dramas – is no stranger to soundtracking teenaged drama: that is, the “Twilight Saga.” All of it. The screen material aside, she’s succeeded in commissioning new tracks from bands that have since busted wide open.
Here, on “Perks,” Patsavas revisits an era with which she’s deeply familiar, and spins it as a teen would see it. There’s the tensions between The Ultimate Slow Dance (Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”) and the jagged grunge of all-female L7’s “Pretend That We’re Dead.” Sam has a personal epiphany describing the moment she heard a Cocteau Twins song while Charlie slips into a 900 ft. Jesus track as he’s stoned off his gourd.
Essential to plot, too, is the prominence of “Rocky Horror Picture Show LIVE,” the a little circus of loving, tight-knit freaks that grew loud and strong in the post-Reagan years. Charlie’s debut in the show itself was reminiscent of the “Under Pressure” scene from “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” another movie with a spin on teen mental illness.
What struck me most about the music from “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is that it presents good taste as a love letter. In those tough teenaged years of self-discovery, the formation of refined and personal tastes is almost essential to survival. Just as John Cusack’s Rob in “High Fidelity” exposed girls he liked to his Top 5s, so does each distinct misfit toy in “Wallflower.” Mae Whitman’s character Mary Elizabeth wants to highten Charlie’s knowledge base with “Billie Holiday and foreign films.” Charlie’s teacher (Paul Rudd) is his fount of indispensible literature. Despite its perceived un-coolness, Charlie rocks a fitted suit to class. And to express love to one another, Charlie and Sam exchange mixtapes, in the hope of turning each other onto something new or simply to endear.
It’s smart that during one of Charlie’s mental “breaks,” there’s only silence. For theater-goers, it will be just as jolting, as we spend our days filling up with Top 5s, instant queues, Smiths songs and other love letters.