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Indie musicians help movie soundtracks hit right emotional note

Movie soundtracks with emotion-laden tunes by little-known artists have been a godsend for the musicians
Moviemakers, moviegoers and musicians all benefit from indie artists catching the right emotion on soundtracks

"You've gotta hear this one song," she says. "It'll change your life. I swear."

She places her bulky headphones over his ears, waiting expectantly for his reaction as he listens to the first chords of the Shins' "New Slang." He smiles at her, and she smiles back. They might be in love.

So goes the scene between Natalie Portman and Zach Braff in his 2004 film "Garden State" that — while perhaps not life changing — marked a major shift for music in film. Anchored by "New Slang," the movie's soundtrack went platinum and won a Grammy, even though it was populated by somewhat obscure musicians without major record deals. Suddenly, indie music was in the cinema zeitgeist.

A decade later, Braff is returning to the trend he helped start with an eclectic soundtrack for his sophomore directorial effort, "Wish I Was Here," which opens July 18 and has been getting mixed reviews. The compilation includes music by folk-flavored favorites Bon Iver and the Weepies as well as — who else? — the Shins.

It's the second highly anticipated soundtrack to be released this month after the debut of "Begin Again," a music-filled love story about songwriters from "Once" filmmaker John Carney. Like the 2006 film — which catapulted Irish performer Glen Hansard onto an international stage and spawned a Broadway musical — the music in Carney's new movie is the quiet kind of bittersweet stuff primed to stir emotion.

Indie music is popping up frequently in trailers too, like recent critical darling "Boyhood," whose preview features the haunting song "Hero" from little-known L.A. band Family of the Year. Sure, using a moody track to sell a Richard Linklater picture aimed at an art house crowd isn't exactly a shocker. But bigger-budget movies are using less-conventional music too, such as Ben Stiller's $100-million holiday release "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," whose trailer piqued moviegoer interest by featuring an Of Monsters and Men song in lieu of dialogue.

In fact, the second-bestselling soundtrack of 2014 behind "Frozen" — the animated Disney juggernaut — is "The Fault in Our Stars." Based on the tearjerker bestseller, the teen love story has grossed nearly $240 million worldwide and includes music from British teen sensation Birdy, Swedish mainstays the Radio Dept. and L.A.'s own ascendant Grouplove. Given the melancholy nature‎ of the film's subject matter, the intimate songs were natural complements, attempting to enhance the feelings that characters were experiencing on screen.

It's the kind of music that gives you a lump in your throat after a few notes — songs you might turn to after a bad breakup, save for their swelling, hopeful crescendos. There's nothing fancy going on here, either: The emphasis is usually placed on a voice echoing out with a plucky guitar and little other instrumental accompaniment.

The lyrics in most evoke a gooey kind of nostalgia or a wistful prayer for a better tomorrow, like in the title track off of "Begin Again." The song — a love letter called "Lost Stars" that Keira Knightley's character pens for Adam Levine's as a Christmas present — she urges him: "Take my hand / let's see where we wake up tomorrow / Best laid plans / sometimes are just a one-night stand."

For the musicians, the exposure has been a godsend. The chance to be heard by tens of thousands of moviegoers — and in a context in which those listeners already are forming emotional attachments — provides precious exposure at a social-media moment when it may be easier than ever for a band to serve its audience but harder than ever to find one in ‎the first place‎.

But what role does the music have on the moviegoing experience? Are we more inclined to believe the relationship between the young lovers in "The Fault in Our Stars" because a uniquely moving ‎Birdy song is playing over their romance?

"You want the music to be supporting the story and helping to tell it — not forcing you into a feeling," said Season Kent, who served as the music supervisor on "The Fault in Our Stars." Oftentimes, she said, she'd try up to 50 songs in a scene before the tone felt right — but she was also concerned that the music come from a fresh batch of artists.

"Part of our job is finding who the next big thing is — that great song that might otherwise never be discovered," she said. "You don't want a song that's been used in a trailer 20 times."

Of course, there are major financial benefits to using indie musicians on your soundtrack as well: It's way cheaper to license a song that's never been heard before than one by the Beatles or Beyonce.

"But we also offer up indie artists because they're surprising," said Bill Neil, a producer at the trailer company Buddha Jones, where he helps select the music used in film trailers. "If the client is surprised by some cool piece of indie music, the audience might be too — and the audience interested in a Zach Braff film tends to be one more interested in discovery."

TV opportunities

Even for Braff, returning to the well proved daunting. Just as "Garden State" was hitting theaters 10 years ago, indie artists began finding a showcase on television programs like the teen drama "The O.C.," Shonda Rhimes' "Grey's Anatomy" and Braff's own "Scrubs," where creator Bill Lawrence often turned over the ‎musical keys to him. The songs would generally appear at emotionally critical moments late in an episode‎, when characters were facing a particular crucible.

"TV has almost exhausted the supply of songs," Braff said. "We'd find something we like [for 'Wish I Was Here'] and then go on Wikipedia and realize it had been on 40 shows."

And yet he also had more credibility when approaching musicians. Everyone had seen what an integral role "Garden State" had in shaping certain performers' careers, like Cary Brothers, Braff's college buddy from Northwestern University. Brothers only just built up a local following in Los Angeles at the Hotel Cafe before his song "Blue Eyes" was included in Braff's first film.

"But when that soundtrack came out," he said, "it changed the way I could tour. Suddenly, I was in a position to make a living. And I started getting a lot of requests to have my songs be part of 'Garden State-like' soundtracks. I was like, 'Guys, that's not gonna work.' Corporate entities trying to put together personal soundtracks — that never turns out well."

Indeed, few soundtracks have managed to attain the commercial success that "Garden State" did. The album sold 1.5 million copies in the U.S, according to Nielsen Soundscan. Compare that to the 166,000 units the "The Fault in Our Stars" compilation has moved this year — and it's the second-highest-selling soundtrack of 2014.

"Because the world has transitioned to being a singles marketplace, most folks aren't interested in a full soundtrack," said Keith Caulfield, associate director of charts and sales at Billboard. "The only soundtracks that really resonate in terms of full consumption are the ones where there's been cautious, careful thought put into the compilation."

Braff labored over the soundtrack for "Wish I Was Here." Rather than take a track and try to match it to a moment in the movie, he had bands he liked watch the entire film, then write a piece of music based on how they felt afterward.

This resulted in new tracks from acts such as Bon Iver and the Shins that, he hopes, are more organic to the film than they might otherwise be. To shake things up, Braff also tried to find new ways into previously recorded music. He asked, for instance, New Jersey artist Allie Moss to cover the Imogen Heap song "Wait It Out" — on the ukulele.

While Braff was in search of the enigmatic, with "Begin Again," Carney was battling the perception that he'd gone too far in the opposite direction. With "Once," the filmmaker pointed a spotlight on two songwriters barely anyone had ever heard of in Hansard and Marketa Irglova. With "Begin Again" — about two musicians trying to balance their careers and their relationship — his stars were far more well known: Maroon 5 heartthrob Levine and Knightley, who had never before sung on screen.

"I don't want to be making films with unknown actors all the time. I want to be able to work with bigger names too," Carney said. Having a pop star and an A-list actress at the center of his movie instead of a street busker, however, did change the songwriting process. Unlike with "Once," where Hansard wrote the music as the story developed, Carney hired the New Radicals' Gregg Alexander to craft the music for "Begin Again" after the script was completed.

He wanted the music to be "gentle enough" to allow for its lyrics to be heard but encouraged heightened emotion. After all, unlike in Braff's film, the actors in "Begin Again" were playing songwriters — meaning Carney didn't have to worry about juggling dialogue with the perfect tune.

"I would never put a song in to try to emphasize a moment," he said, "because the song is the moment."

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