Soundtracked is a regular column that focuses on the times where the perfect song was chosen to back the perfect scene, creating the perfect film moment. We will take a close look at the song itself, the context in which the filmmakers have decided to place it, and what the choice might mean for the film as a whole, or even the song outside of the world of the film. The moment a song and film synthesize in this way creates a singularly moving experience that in many ways exceeds either song or film as individual elements. Quite simply, it's the way that the sounds and images combine that we'll remember forever, and this column is meant to celebrate those magical moments.
Sam and Andrew's story begins with a song. In what has become an iconic moment in Zach Braff's directorial debut Garden State, the two are sitting in the otherwise empty waiting room of a neurologist. They are separated and flanked by rows of ambiguously blue chairs — the type of chair that can only hope the seated doesn't remain so long enough to spinally notice just how little the feeble cushion is doing, comfort-wise — and they exchange a quick glance at one another. Sam, played by Natalie Portman, is beheadphoned and aloof, Andrew (Braff) folded in on himself as he fills out the mandatory information sheet attached to a clipboard. After a bizarre conversation in which Sam is uncomfortably forward in her questioning, he asks simply, "What are you listening to?" and his and Sam's story truly begins. After taking off her over-ear headphones and explaining she's listening to the Shins, she grins and says, "You've got to hear this song. It'll change your life, I swear." It's a moment that's relatable in sentiment, if not in practice. We can all think of times when intrigue might have pushed us to ask what song was bobbing the guy's head next to us on the train or, in a sea of dead-eyed commuters on the way to work, what radio station was compelling the woman who just passed on the freeway to sing joyfully — on a Monday, of all days. We let those moments pass by because they likely won't change our lives, but for Andrew, Sam was right. It did.
Garden State's inclusion was fateful for many reasons. The film finds Andrew at his psychological nadir, lithium-dependent and begrudgingly returning home for his just-passed mother's funeral. He was visiting the neurologist to get to the root of the headaches he had been having of late, the cause of which likely his recently having gone off of the medications he had been on for the majority of his life. He is presented as a detached and almost ghostly presence in the world around him, and the chance encounter with Sam snaps him back into the physical world from the second the slow acoustic crawl of the Shins' "New Slang" begins to bleed over the diegesis of the clinic as first one headphone slips over an ear, and then another. Braff's choice to place the song firmly in the forefront of the scene ultimately places great emphasis on the audience finding a forced connection with Andrew's psyche; the only stimuli the viewer receives in this brief moment are what Andrew himself receives: the sounds of the song, the sharp, focused gaze at Sam, centered in the frame. The juxtaposition of the song and Sam's face is perhaps the scene's strongest appeal; Portman plays the moment perfectly, wearing the grin of a person who hears the ghost strains of her favorite song in her head and tries to imagine them through new ears. Having the viewer quite literally go inside Andrew's head succeeds in placing greater emphasis on the moment as the catalyst for his and Sam's blossoming relationship, and, in turn, the film's events to come. It's an amplified experience using song that doesn't happen often in film to such profound effect, and as the song fades back into the background, continuing to lightly play from the headphones when he removes them from his ears and rests them around his neck, the viewer, as well as seemingly Andrew and Sam themselves, are aware that there has been a shift in the air.
When I was going through the list of candidates to start off this series of articles, many great choices came to my mind — and those will likely be selections going forward. The purpose of this column is to examine the ways that the film and the song work together to create a heightened experience or greater meaning both in- and outside of the world of the film, and there are myriad examples of this over the years. However, none made as much sense as the first selection than the Shins' "New Slang." It's certainly poignant and moving within the film itself, a representation of the lithium and detachment cloud clearing from Andrew's head, but outside of the film, it's just as important. There are few films as synonymously linked to their soundtracks than Garden State. It served as Braff's mixtape to the world and the world ate it up in droves. The album itself, the artists and songs within, practically became college freshperson listening primer after the disc's release; minivans everywhere encased parents rediscovering their love for "The Only Living Boy in New York;" it was in the CD rotation at pretty much every Borders in the world for a summer. The soundtrack won a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for Motion Pictures, Television, or Other Visual Media. It went platinum. Platinum. In 2004.
Moreover, the scene did more than change Andrew's life. It changed the lives of the Shins forever as well. The band went from relatively unknown indie darlings to luminaries of the genre, a household name in households that they never imagine infiltrating. Braff's savvy soundtrack curation "changed everything" for the Albuquerque band and bands like them going forward; Garden State practically became a genre all on its own. It's a beautiful moment for the film itself as well as the music itself, making it a perfect first inclusion to the Soundtracked series. It's a bold claim to make, that a song could change a life, but we see here that it's entirely plausible given the right moment.