A needle drop is more than just the use of a popular song in a film—it’s an affecting moment that ignites our senses, bringing the visual medium to artistic heights. “Needle Drop” is a monthly column that will explore such moments, looking at how a variety of films across genres use pre-existing songs to colour a scene.
500 Days of Summer has one of the best uses of soundtrack in contemporary film. Director Marc Webb, former music video director for Green Day and Avril Lavigne, brings an eccentric, postmodernist sensibility to his anti-romantic comedy with his creative employment of pop music. Pop culture is a significant signpost for his main characters, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel), as they experience the highs and lows of their relationship and subsequent breakup. Music helps them interpret their romantic feelings and troubled emotions. The entire film itself feels like a pop song come to life. There are so many soundtrack sequences to choose from, such as the peppy “You’re Making My Dreams Come True” or the dreamy “Sweet Disposition,” but I’m going to focus on the hauntingly beautiful “Hero.”
The sequence occurs after Tom and Summer are already broken up, when Tom attends a party that Summer is throwing at her apartment with the secret hope that they will get back together. “He never, ever saw it coming at all,” Regina Spektor’s wispy voice begins the scene, foreshadowing the heartbreaking surprise that Tom is about to experience. Tom walks into the hall of Summer’s apartment, with the belief, as the narrator explains, that his expectations will finally meet his reality. Webb cleverly expresses this idea with the visual motif of a split screen divided into the halves of “Expectations” and “Reality.” The expectations side is romantically cinematic, where Tom magically climbs one set of stairs and appears quickly at Summer’s door. In reality, Tom has to laboriously climb many flights, his anticipation for the evening’s possibilities growing stronger.
The song begins with a hushed optimism. In his expectations, Summer is flirtatious, stares at him longingly, and laughs with a wide smile. In reality, she is cordial but distant. Tom imagines them cozying up against each other, just another happy couple in a sea of happy couples. This differs from Summer’s actual party, where Tom is alone and cracks self-deprecating jokes. Spektor’s aching voice portends the dashed dreams that unravel by the end of the sequence. As Tom swigs beer by himself, Spektor seems to be soothing him, affectionately singing, “It’s all right, it’s all right. . . “ The resonant, pounding piano sounds like Tom’s heart crushing as he realizes that they will not get together. His expectations give way to the harsh reality that his evening will not end in them kissing passionately and reuniting, because Summer has moved on. Spektor reflects his heartbroken rage in the dark lyrics of rape, loneliness, and infidelity and the cavernous-sounding piano.
There is a brief pause in the music just as Tom notices she has an engagement ring, and it resumes in a dizzying crescendo as he runs down the stairs of her apartment building and away from his pain and disappointment. “I’m the hero of this story, don’t need to be saved,” Spektor sings. Since Webb’s film is a meta-commentary on romantic comedies, here Tom self-referentially constructs himself as the hero of this breakup story; within these lyrics, Tom is reassuring us (the audience) that he does not need to be rescued, that he will be okay and he can get over Summer. But we know that Tom is not going to get over Summer so easily, and that he does view Summer as his dream girl, someone who can save him from the loneliness of singledom.
“It’s all right, it’s all right. . .” Spektor softly soothes him again as he hurriedly exits the building. But it is not all right. The world around him transforms into a dark, dismal charcoal drawing before erasing the structures around him, just as his happily ever after has been taken from him. Then, his shadowed figure is also erased, expressing his hollow sadness. Without Summer, he can find no joy and sees no color in the world. Tom does not have it all, only a job he hates and no girlfriend.
“Hero” by Regina Spektor has a soft, mournful quality that really captures the hopefulness and the melancholy of this sequence. The entire song beautifully underpins all of the emotions Tom experiences—eagerness, sorrow, indignation. Regina Spektor’s ballad expresses the heartbreaking universality of this scene; everyone has been in Tom’s shoes, imagining idealized circumstances and helplessly watching them fade away. We all imagine ourselves to be the heroes of our own stories, perfect stories where everything works out and we end up with the ones we love. 500 Days of Summer helps us realize that we may not always get the happy ending we want, but we do get the one we deserve. In the pop song of our lives, there’s always another track.
by Caroline Madden
Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Baby It’s You, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Assistant Editor of Video Librarian and does social media for Passion River Films. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss.
Categories: Needle Drop