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My 2007 Soundtrack of the Year: Knocked Up

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Following articles on my choices for hip hop album of the year (the Wu-Tang Clan’s 8 Diagrams), and overall album of the year (by The National), I’ve decided to round things out with my 2007 Soundtrack of the Year: Knocked Up.

The irony here is that there is not, in fact, a soundtrack for this movie. Yes, there is a collection of Loudon Wainwright music composed for and “inspired by” the film (entitled Strange Weirdoes), but no composite album that combines those songs with the other previously recorded music used in the movie.

But that doesn’t concern me in the least, because in this day and age of digital access, one can create a soundtrack with a few mouse clicks and drags. (If you are wondering how to put this whole thing together, go here for a list of all the songs used in the movie.)

Besides, when I anoint a collection of music the “Soundtrack of the Year,” I’m thinking less about the album and more about the movie. After all, the music was used to further the film – what you put on a CD and play in your car is merely the result of that. If it turns out to be a nice playlist, so be it. However, the true test of a soundtrack is whether it expands the power of the story, furthers character development, rounds out scenes, creates atmosphere, and so on. Simply put, the music should make the movie better.

Martin Scorsese has always been one of my favorite directors when it comes to creating soundtracks that enhance his narratives. Goodfellas is a prime example of this, and who can easily forget the awesome use of “I’m Shipping Off To Boston” by The Dropkick Murphys in Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film, The Departed? (“I’m a sailor’s PEG!/And I’ve lost my LEG!”) And if Scorsese was the first “genius” filmmaker to incorporate popular period music and modern hits into the scores of his films, Quentin Tarantino certainly took the art to another level. One could argue that the only thing better than Pulp Fiction was the soundtrack to the movie.

Now, it seems we have a new maestro when it comes to heightening carefully crafted film with carefully selected music. This time, however, it is the new king of comedy, Judd Apatow. All of Apatow’s films use music deftly and perfectly to enhance his stories. Much has been made of the yards of film he goes through, the freedom he gives his actors, and his ear for “real” dialogue. You can’t read an article about Apatow without encountering gushing praise for his ability to meld raunchy comedy and heartfelt stories into a single package.

He’s the guy who gives R-rated comedies an emotional center. All of that is true, but it overlooks the element of sound and his ear for music. Right now, he’s the best at accenting, augmenting, and, indeed, improving his films through the music selections he makes. In my opinion, no movie in 2007 benefited as much as Knocked Up did from its soundtrack. (This would be a good time to note that I didn’t forget about Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, it’s just that that movie is about Bob Dylan, for crying out loud. Hardly fair.)

The use of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” right off the top is absolutely perfect. Guys being guys, doing stupid stuff to the sounds of Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Awesome. I can’t help but wonder why they changed from the song used in the previews, where Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) raps along to a song that I can’t even refer to by name (without the use of asterisks and other symbols) from the first Wu-Tang album, but either track works in this spot.

The shift from Ben and his gang of merry mad men over to Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) and her world, where she lives with her sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann), and brother-in-law, Pete (Paul Rudd), is punctuated musically. The dichotomy between the two lead characters is obvious, but in case there was any doubt, Apatow made sure we got the point by swapping out the pulsating piano strings of the RZA-produced “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” in favor of a very delicate instrumental from Loudon Wainwright. The song is recognizable as “Grey in L.A.,” which can later be heard in full form playing over the back end of the closing credits.

Staying within the first six minutes of the movie, the scene shifts back to Ben, Martin (Martin Starr), Jonah (Jonah Hill), Jason (Jason Segal), and Jay (Baruchel), where they launch the “dirty man competition” involving Martin’s beard (initiating the best running joke in the movie) and engage in discussions regarding their “business” (finding nude scenes from movies and putting them online). The song used in the background? “Santeria” by Sublime. You could not possibly come up with a more appropriate song for a bunch of slackers who likely were freshmen in high school in 1998.

The songs selected for the club scene where Allison and Seth first meet aren’t quite as pitch perfect, but I like the eclectic mix of Damien Marley (“All Night”) and the hip British song de jour (Lily Allen’s “Smile”) for background noise layered under key conversations (the best line came courtesy of Segal: “It’s not herpes if it’s everywhere”), and the switch to “Swing,” by Savage for the dance floor action, where Ben hopelessly uses his one move (the “dice thing”) time and time again. I’d never heard this song and it isn’t one that I would ever play in my car or on my iPod, but it was ideal for the scene.

According to my scorecard, that’s already four flawless song choices (I’m not counting the fairly innocuous Marley or Allen tracks) in the first 15 minutes of the movie. They all work as set pieces for the individual scenes and create perfect tones for the first act, which is hugely important. Apatow got this movie off on the right foot with his typically sharp dialogue, yes, but also with his song selections.

This trend continues throughout the movie, with no missteps.

For the drunk hookup, he dropped in B-52’s “Rock Lobster,” which was kind of thrilling, because last year I was way too into Pitbull’s “Hey You Girl,” a rollicking dance rap cut that improbably put “Rock Lobster” to use as a sample. I never bothered to track down the original, but there was no way I could miss that rapid bass line once it kicked in while Ben and Alison raced across the front lawn. Another great choice.

The Wainwright score is spot-on throughout, filling little gaps like when people walk across lawns and sit in waiting rooms. The Wainwright element of the movie kills me, because of the fact that we’ve got this prolific folk hero of yesteryear and father to music demigod Rufus Wainwright both scoring a comedy beautifully and also playing his usual cheery man role in that same movie.

Wainwright played this part to perfection on the short-lived Apatow series “Undeclared,” where he was the classically awkward father of a freshman student (played by Baruchel). I just love the fact that he’s in this movie as the gynecologist of choice (who ultimately lets them down), while he’s also threading together this wonderful soundtrack. It is this type of cohesion and attention to detail that defines the Apatow Experience.

For the frantic scene where Alison and Debbie race around the grocery store buying pregnancy tests and then taking dozens of them, Apatow used “Police On My Back” by the Clash, which was nothing short of brilliant.

The implementation of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” while Ben and Pete are driving to Vegas is great use of irony and satire without being overly clever about it (a fine line to navigate).

For the obligatory montage scene, the selection of Bright Eyes’ “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now,” made the segment extremely touching and rich.

The closing credits, featuring the original track “Daughter” by Wainwright brought the movie full circle by tapping into the emotional core that made it so appealing to such a wide cross-section of people. For such a crude movie, it was the heartfelt touches that took it above the fray of typical R-rated comedies. This final song, coupled with a passing-of-time montage, gave the movie the gravitas that made people walk out of the theatre feeling touched by a movie that was as steeped in gross-out humor as they come.

The crown jewel of the soundtrack is the use of the instrumental track “Tropicana” by Ratatat. I’ve always imagined this song being something that would play in the background of a film scene featuring some sort of an amnesiac drug addict wandering around in a train station. But then here it is, servicing Apatow’s genius act breaks, the throbbing beat playing while cells generate on screen and then later as the image of the fetus pulsates on the ultrasound. Now I can’t hear the song and not think about cells generating and baby’s growing. It’s like the song was created for this very purpose.

Apatow is on the top of the mountain right now when it comes to comedy. He is extremely funny as a writer and patient as a director and always seems to have his finger on the pulse. These are reasons why his movies are so good – why Knocked Up was so good. However, don’t forget the music. The music is what made this movie.

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