In director Marc Webb's breakout indie hit "(500) Days of Summer," the words "you have good taste in music" are as meaningful as "I love you." Characters in the twentysomething modern love story, set in downtown Los Angeles, connect over a mutual appreciation of gloomy '80s-rock romantics the Smiths, and emotions including adulation and heartache are all broadcast via drunken karaoke.
Music has been a key selling point to "(500) Days of Summer," helped in part by one of the film's leads, Zooey Deschanel (when not acting, she's one half of She & Him, a vintage-spiked indie pop group). Indeed, the growing sleeper success of the Fox Searchlight flick isn't limited to the film world, as its soundtrack is proving to be a steady seller as well. Largely in limited release since July 17, the well-reviewed film, made for less than $10 million, has earned close to $20 million.
"It's a reflection of a very personal time in someone's life, and it's not wrapped in a high concept," Webb said of the movie. "It bares its soul, and I think people are really appreciating that."
The ill-fated love affair between Deschanel's elusive Summer and Joseph Gordon- Levitt's sensitive everyman Tom, told in an inventive non-sequential narrative that hopscotches over the 500 days of their relationship, is documented with a left-of-center score. Regina Spektor's piano-based fairy tale "Us" sets the tone, while Hall & Oates represent the emotional peak, and Simon & Garfunkel the low. The Sire/Warner Bros. soundtrack has posted sales increases each of the last three weeks. Since its early July release, it has sold 42,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.
That may seem a modest number, especially when the Atlantic Records soundtrack to "Twilight" has sold more than 2 million copies. Yet soundtracks aren't mainstays on the U.S. pop chart these days. The Reprise soundtrack to "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," featuring a hyped new tune from Linkin Park, has sold only 23,000 copies.
"We always felt that every relationship has a soundtrack," said Scott Neustadter, who co-wrote the film with Michael H. Weber. "Music plays a role in any kind of relationship, and it would not have been as real-feeling if we didn't acknowledge that."
The filmmakers didn't get every song on their wish list. A karaoke scene is missing Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" because Webb's request for clearance was denied. The director shot alternative takes of some scenes, sans music cues, in case clearances were denied.
Yet music doesn't always have to be heard to play a role. The audience learns about Summer through her musical taste -- she championed indie band Belle & Sebastian in high school, and her favorite Beatle is Ringo. The script is full of musical nods -- or warnings.
"If you bond over the Smiths, for example, that's not good," Neustadter said. "That's a recipe for disaster."