The French composer and film theorist Michel Chion has written that one of the most significant impacts of the arrival of film sound was its effect on cinematic time. Suddenly, moving images had an audible logic, and that logic had a temporal dimension. A screech during a car chase must be heard at the sharp turn, a gunshot at the flash of the barrel; if off by even a second, the reality is shattered. According to Chion, sound “made cinema an art of time,” and moviemaking was now beholden to an almighty clock that had previously existed only vaguely. In the 88 years since audiences flocked to hear Al Jolson tell them that they “ain’t heard nothing yet,” our sense of watching time unfold on film has been deeply entwined with listening.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a film about time unlike any we’ve really ever seen. As everyone knows by now, Boyhood was shot in pieces over the course of 12 years, tracing the path to adulthood of a boy named Mason, and its great achievement is the skill with which it renders that progression so fluidly. After seeing the film, New York magazine’s David Edelstein wrote, “I know movies can do something that just last week I didn’t. They can make time visible.”
And, I would add, audible. Boyhood isn’t up for any sound Oscars on Sunday, though its primary competition in the Best Picture race, Birdman, is up for awards in the sound editing and sound mixing categories. Birdman is a busier and noisier film than Boyhood, marked by a showy reflexivity that I found both vain and thin-skinned, Antonio Sánchez’s dazzling (though Oscar-disqualified) percussion score drowned out by a movie that felt like the cinematic equivalent of a kid banging on pots and pans. But as Mark Harris recently noted, Birdman fits into Hollywood’s recent appetite for movies about movies and people who make them, a film—in Harris’ perfect summation—“about someone who hopes to create something as good as Boyhood.”
Linklater’s creation is one of sound as much as sight; Academy recognition aside, Boyhood offered perhaps the most unique and richly textured aural experience to be had at the movies last year. Sound and music structure the film’s world, its interiors and exteriors, the awakenings and epiphanies of its characters. We hear voices change, aging into new stages of youth, or new stages of adulthood. A preteen girl belts Britney Spears’ “Oops! … I Did It Again” at her tormented younger brother, mimicking its words more than understanding them; a classroom of Texas elementary-schoolers mumbles through the state pledge of allegiance, again, mimicking its words more than understanding them. The excitable whines of kids give way to the sulking mumbles of teens while the parental dialectic of indulgence and exasperation grows into middle age.
Beneath much of all this music plays, nearly constantly. Boyhood’s soundtrack has been lauded for its period specificity, the way songs trace the film’s chronology, from the early-aughts sheen of Coldplay’s “Yellow” in its opening frames to Jeff Tweedy’s 2014 “Summer Noon” in its closing credits. And yet the film’s sonic world is more than a rambling, multidecade mixtape; Boyhood’s sound design cleverly tweaks the divide between diegetic and nondiegetic, between music that occurs in the world of the film—a character listening to a live band or popping in a CD—and music that occurs beyond the frame of the camera, the way a conventional score functions.
If Boyhood unfolds through Mason’s ears, it’s his father, Mason Sr., played by Ethan Hawke, who is the film’s musical spirit guide. Mason’s father is a frustrated musician with a critic’s ear, a man who writes songs for his kids to compensate for his flakiness in their lives. His love of music is visceral, equal parts foolish and beautiful, and ultimately nontransferable. At one point he desperately tries to explain the greatness of Wilco’s “Hate It Here” to his son, who doesn’t seem to entirely understand, or really care. After all, kids aren’t supposed to inherit their parents’ tastes—what a boring world that would be.
And yet in one of the film’s most affecting scenes, Mason Sr. bequeaths to his son a homemade collection of post–Fab Four solo cuts that he dubs the “Beatles’ Black Album,” on a road trip for his 15th birthday. As the minivan rolls along, the opening of Wings’ “Band on the Run” pours forth and seems to exceed the bounds of the minivan stereo it’s ostensibly being played on. It happens both within and without the world of the film simultaneously, blurring the boundary of sound and score, and in doing so creates a remarkable moment of discovery, of connection, between the people in the film and the audience watching it. It’s a moment worthy of its object of reverence, one of the most intoxicating pop recordings ever made.
Boyhood toggles between the duality of popular music as a form that is both vanishing and ever-present, ephemeral and timeless, while offering a powerful and profound statement on how music functions in our day-to-day existence. Discussing his film’s musical choices last summer, Linklater told an interviewer, “It had to be songs of the time. Music is obviously such an evocative nostalgia and memory trigger.” And yet one of the most interesting aspects of Boyhood’s soundtrack is the particular sort of remembering it triggers. The Travis Barker remix of Soulja Boy’s “Crank That,” Blink-182’s “Anthem Part Two,” Cobra Starship’s “Good Girls Go Bad” might produce memories but to my ears they certainly don’t produce nostalgia, and yet this is what makes their inclusion so compelling: They reflect the tastes of the people who inhabit the film, rather than the people who made it (or those who are watching it).
One of the worst and best things about pop music is that it enters your life even when you don’t want it to, in a way that’s different than most other art. If you don’t like Mad Men or superhero movies or Cormac McCarthy novels, you can pretty much avoid them; if you don’t like Beyoncé or U2 or the Beatles, you’re going to have a tougher time. Our consumption of music is both willing and unwilling, and to be a human being is to spend a lot of time listening to music you don’t particularly like.
And of course, to be a young human being is to spend a lot of time listening to music you like now but won’t particularly like in a year, or 10, or 20. The soundtracks to our lives are beautiful and irritating, ennobling and embarrassing, and none without the others. Movies rarely, if ever, reflect this, which is fine; it’s certainly affecting to see two people share a stolen moment in a tent with a mysteriously resequenced vinyl copy of the American version of Between the Buttons. But it’s affecting precisely because it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen. Music in movies can be glorious escapism, but it can also be something more.
If there’s a song that has come to define Boyhood, it’s Family of the Year’s 2012 track “Hero,” which is featured in the film’s trailer and which appears late in the movie, in another automotive moment that works similarly to the “Band on the Run” scene. It’s a moving sequence, and the song—a jangling, billowing confection of radio-friendly indie rock—fits it perfectly. After seeing the film for the first time I went home and listened to it, and was surprised to find I suddenly didn’t like it all that much; it felt simple, affected, a little too infatuated by its own appeal. It felt like being 17, and I’d outgrown it, just like I was supposed to.