[Editor’s Note: I’m excited and honored to welcome my good friend Brian Gorman back to the blog. Gormie works for an accounting firm, but he’s also one of my favorite writers on the entire planet (his letters to customer service are the stuff of legend). If you’ve been reading for a while, you might have caught his touching piece about listening to B.B. King while getting an MRI. If you didn’t, be sure to check it out here.]
By BRIAN GORMAN
If YHT fans were going to the movies at all back in 1994, they will probably remember a certain iconic film with a floating feather and a moral lesson about a box of chocolates. And if you were like me, you may have been too busy watching your favorite shrimp boat captain bounce his way through the decades with his heart-warming mix of dopey antics and life-affirming optimism to realize that you were also simultaneously listening to one of the great compilation soundtracks of the 1990’s. Think about it, that flick had everything: Elvis, Hank Williams, twang master Duane Eddy — then Forrest grows up and he’s jamming out to Creedence and Jefferson Airplane. But it was more than just a “Greatest Hits” collection for nostalgic Baby Boomers and aging hippies. The music gave that flick a sense of time flow and defined whole periods and settings of American civilization as they passed by. Add to that The Supremes, a very healthy dose of The Doors, and as a final topping, the very memorable original score by composer Alan Silvestri. Memorable is the right word. For the rest of your life you will never see a feather glide to and fro upon the breeze without hearing the title theme come streaming into your head via an invisible piano. All in all, Forrest Gump was almost as good for the ears as it was for the heart.
Almost 20 years later (I know! can you believe it’s been that long?), Silvestri and filmmaker Robert Zemeckis have teamed up again on another great compilation soundtrack.
Flight (available this week on Netflix) is a different sort of movie with a very different sort of protagonist. Instead of a lovable simpleton, Denzel Washington’s character is a combination pilot and hardcore alcoholic who only manages to stumble his way from flight to flight by snorting a certain white powder that the Sigma Chis back in college used to call “breakfast.” He only makes it as a pilot, we soon learn, because he’s so damn good he can do it by instinct while his other hand mixes a screwdriver. I don’t think I’m dropping too many spoilers by mentioning that he does the whole heroic CGI plane flip thing in the first 20 minutes (Gormie got a B- in high school physics and doesn’t really grasp how flipping a plane upside-down stops it from plummeting to the ground, but ok…) and then he spends the next hour and a half or so playing a kind of listless existential waiting game to see what will happen to him and what role he will play in it. It’s a rough ninety minutes. Being grounded and having to face up to what his lifestyle really is is hard on our pilot friend — as it turns out, flying planes is not just the only thing he knows, it’s the only thing he knows about himself. Yep, it’s one of those movies.
So there are two main lessons to this film: 1) no matter how many cool upside-down plane tricks you can do or how many lives you save, if you give up your integrity, you’re going to act and feel like a loser, and 2) no matter how bad the hangover it can always be cured with a line of fresh cut Colombian snow. But in all seriousness, what this movie says about addiction rings very true. His drinking problem doesn’t take away his ability to function (at least not all the way — the flight attendants still love ‘im), but it forces him to have an inauthentic, deceptive life. If Jean-Paul Sartre was still around and able to rent this on Netflix, he would have a lot to say about this guy. There’s so much existential angst going on, he’s like Hamlet with a pilot’s cap. And a coke problem. Cue the music!
Just as in Forrest Gump, this soundtrack is anything but subtle. In fact, it’s kind of like Robert Zemeckis is continuously playing a minute of a track from his iPod and then smacking the viewer over the head with it asking, “Hey did you hear that? Didn’t you like that song? Wasn’t it cool that I just played that cool song right there?” Also, you may recall that Gump had an endearing but very cheesy way of playing a track wherein the lyrics related directly to what was playing on the screen (e.g. “California Dreamin” by the Mamas and the Papas plays while ladyfriend Jenny is dreaming of going to California, Bob Seger’s “Against The Wind” plays while Forrest is running against the wind, etc.). Get ready for more of the same. In the opening scene where our boy Denzel rises from a drunken stupor surrounded by empty liquor bottles, the soundtrack gets rolling with a Gormie favorite — “Alcohol” by Barenaked Ladies. Next, after he takes his first “bump” of cocaine, he puts on a pair of aviator sunglasses and takes a stroll through the airport to “Feeling Alright” by Joe Cocker. See what I mean? But bear with me — what it lacks in subtlety and originality, it makes up for in coolness.
Not much later, when his female protagonist/addict sidekick preps a fresh dose of heroin, we are treated to The Red Hot Chili Peppers and “Under The Bridge,” one of the most iconic songs out there about drug addiction. Feeling better yet? Well keep that vein tapped, because as she actually shoots up and rides the H, there’s a cover of Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” I have no idea if this song is about drug use or not and Wikipedia won’t say, but wow it sure sounds like it could be. Meanwhile, the film’s drug dealer (John Goodman) has his own theme music that he blasts through his headphones every time he makes an entrance — it just happens to be “Sympathy For The Devil” by The Rolling Stones.
Ultra-cool, but my favorite moment is probably when Denzel (his character’s name is “Whip” by the way — how’s that for a pilot’s name?) puts on an old record of “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers at his family’s broken down farmhouse and attempts to dump out all the booze left sitting around the place. It’s a very sad and lonely song that seems appropriate for an equally depressing scene (in part because the viewer knows enough about Whip by now to realize this is a doomed effort). It’s basically a series of shots that gives a sense for how deep his addiction really is as he combs across all the places his alcohol has been hidden and dumps it out while Mr. Withers mourns his woman leaving him in the background. Great choice.
Finally, one of the last songs on the soundtrack is a tinny version of the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” that plays in an elevator at a key moment when Whip is indeed being “helped”/enabled by his friends. How much did THAT 30 seconds cost, Mr. Zemeckis? I swear he’ll have to make three more Back to The Future sequels to pay for the rights to some of this stuff! But worth every dime. And yes, by my count, Flight is also the 754th movie to feature the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” (good grief, it’s even featured in the preview…), but raise your hand if you want to lodge a complaint. Anyone? OK whatever, put your hands down. That song rules!
In the end, what makes it all work maybe is that in between the “highs” of these iconic rock songs, Alan Silvestri’s haunting original score is a brilliant contrast, reminding the listener of the depressing “lows” and the crushing loneliness of someone hiding this kind of addiction. It’s some of the darkest music I’ve ever heard. Listen to it here. It sounds so much like another great score from The Social Network that I looked it up to see if he wrote that one too. He didn’t, but I did learn that Alan Silvestri owns his own vineyard. Sheesh, does anyone in California NOT have their own winery?
If you are looking for a more unique soundtrack where they do things like cover David Bowie songs in Portuguese, I recommend you go rent Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic. (Actually, I recommend you go rent that film anyways because it’s freaking fantastic.) And in terms of celebrating classic rock songs, this collection is not to be compared with, for example, the soundtrack of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, where the entire movie is essentially a handwritten love song to rock and roll itself.
Overall, it’s well worth your time, and there are some truly great scenes, but Flight also has some flaws — it’s a movie with just a little too much existential conflict and not enough movie. Also not enough John Goodman. But what it sets out to do it does very, very well, and that’s to take the moviegoer on a turbulent ride with this pilot fellow’s ethos and then crash land everyone in a place where the conflict has been resolved in the right way. If you haven’t seen this flick yet, or you happen to catch it again when it makes its rounds on basic cable, be sure to tell everyone else in the room to stop chattering and shut up when the good dialogue and quality music comes on. Which is the whole two hours. Enjoy!