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Dramatic Underscoring: The Virgin Suicides

On March 24, 2016

Dramatic Underscoring is our regular column by Marcella Hemmeter reviewing soundtrack albums from movies current and forgotten. This edition covers 1999’s Virgin Suicides. 

The Virgin Suicides (1999), the feature film debut of Sofia Coppola based on the debut novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, is told through the tinted lens of ‘70s nostalgia by a now grown-up narrator about the Lisbon sisters who, dealing with the suicide of the youngest sister, experience the joys of youth and burgeoning womanhood only to see it crushed by their strict and isolating parents. Good times. But the music. The story. Josh Hartnett’s wig. Did I mention the music? It was haunting. Even one of my friends said to me that if I ended up getting the soundtrack she wanted a copy.

You probably already know the dream-like score by Air, their second album, hired by Coppola after the critical acclaim of Moon Safari. Reissued last year, it’s full of daydreams and sunshine, giving us the sensation of watching the movie while sleepwalking, an appropriate feeling given the film is told mostly through the narrator’s memories and point of view. But I’m here to talk about the much less-discussed Music from the Motion Picture, which is equally amazing and is also the one that spoke to me the most. There are songs from the time period, from artists like Todd Rundgren, Al Green, 10cc, and The Hollies, as well as modern tunes from Sloan and Air. It plays like a mixtape you would make for your crush with a theme of love, yearning, and heartbreak… all the components of an album that’ll have me throwing the big bucks at every time.

The tracklist doesn’t go in the order of the music in the film but in a way this makes for a better album, starting with the seductive “Magic Man” heard with the introduction of high school hunk Trip (Hartnett).  It’s a terrific album opener about a girl being seduced by an older guy then it jumps to Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” which plays during my favorite sequence in the movie: the phone exchange between the girls and the neighborhood boys who fantasize about them, yet don’t really know how to approach them, communicating by playing records instead. It’s a bright spot in a bleak story. Many of the songs on this album just hit you in the gut, like “The Air That I Breathe” by The Hollies heard during the party the girls’ parents throw to cheer up their youngest, Cecilia, but while the singer croons over how all he needs is air she leaves and kills herself. There’s also Al Green’s “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” where Trip is pining over Lux (Kirsten Dunst) while his dad and his dad’s boyfriend try to give him advice. In the film it gets a laugh but in the album it’s a heartbreaker. And it only gets darker with “Alone Again (Naturally)” by Gilbert O’Sullivan, heard during the phone exchange; it is the girls’ first offering after the boys’ “Hello It’s Me.” At first it sounds upbeat but the lyrics are telling in that the song is about plans to commit suicide. The album doesn’t let up by following this with 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” which plays during the homecoming dance, where the Lisbon girls are allowed to attend with Trip and some other boys he lined up from the football team. The soft melody and obvious devotion from the singer pair well with this awkward and innocent scene where the girls have such a great time before it all comes crashing down around them. Ugh.

We get a bit of a respite with Todd Rundgren’s “A Dream Goes On Forever” and Heart’s rocking “Crazy On You” followed by the dreamy “Playground Love (Vibraphone Version)” by Air whose melody is part of the theme for the movie. After we’ve been slammed down by the weight of these heart-rending songs, and what we know happens to the Lisbon girls, it’s awesome they chose to end the soundtrack with “Come Sail Away” by Styx. It’s heard during the homecoming dance, reminding us of that great time the girls had and I dare anyone to not sing along and be uplifted by this closer.

Okay, yeah, The Virgin Suicides is sad. But I came away from that weepy girls night with a new favorite soundtrack which I still play on a regular basis. It’s perfect for those days when you’re up for indulging some nostalgia for your youth or a long ago love. If that sounds up your alley, get on it.

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