Released in the UK ten years ago, the cult film turned songs by Kimya Dawson and Sonic Youth into characters in their own right
If there’s one thing most iconic coming-of-age films have in common, it’s a killer soundtrack. Try, for a second, to imagine Stand By Me without Buddy Holly, “Great Balls of Fire”, or the 1960 Ben E. King classic after which it’s named. Mentally detach “Fake Plastic Trees” or “Rollin' With My Homies” from Clueless. Cut the “Tiny Dancer” scene from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. It’d be sacrilege.
No independent movie soundtrack in recent years has even come close to the joint critical and commercial success of Juno, the Oscar-nominated 2007 comedy-drama starring Ellen Page as Juno MacGuff, an offbeat 16-year-old navigating the pitfalls of unplanned teen pregnancy and romance. Early in its production, director Jason Reitman asked Page what band she thought the scripted characters would listen to. She recommended the Moldy Peaches, the NYC indie-folk duo of Adam Green and Kimya Dawson. It clicked, and Juno had its sound.
By the mid-2000s, home computing and iTunes had stunted the commercial appeal of traditional movie compilations, bar a few exceptions to the rule like Dreamgirls and High School Musical. Juno offered up a hip alternative. Steered by Kimya Dawson’s lo-fi indie-folk songs (most of which were penned especially for the film) and bolstered by an all-star cast including Sonic Youth, The Kinks, the Velvet Underground, and Cat Power, the music that defines Juno felt like a mixtape from an old friend who could tap into the psychic fuzz, growing pains, and absurdity that shadows the best of us into adulthood. That it topped the Billboard 200 in January 2008, and later received a Best Compilation Soundtrack Album Grammy nomination, still speaks volumes of how Dawson and co. hit home with a lot of people. 10 years after its release in the UK, we drop the needle on this quintessential indie classic.
THAT ALL-STAR INDIE ROCK CAST
From start to finish, the soundtrack to Juno sounds like the too-cool-for-you record collection of a character in the film. From Belle and Sebastian’s “Expectations” to Sonic Youth’s heart-stung rendition of The Carpenters’ “Superstar”, the humour and emotional nuance laced throughout Diablo Cody’s script greatly benefits from a back-and-forth between first-rate indie rock and Kimya Dawson’s lullaby-like gems. It’s tricky to imagine one without the other.
MUSIC DOESN’T SET THE SCENE, IT IS THE SCENE
From the second the Dylanesque twang of Barry Louis Polisar’s “If You Were a River” cues the credits, 16-year-old Juno McGruff is fast on her way to discovering that growing up sucks, and sucks hard. Played by Ellen Page, she barely has a chance to finish her jug of Sunny D before she steps out of Gareth Smith and Jenny Lee's animated version of her town and straight into cold, hard reality: as Rollo (played by Rainn Wilson) puts it, her eggo is preggo.
Bookending this scene along with Polisar’s harmonica-driven opening ditty, Kimya Dawson’s “Tire Swing” is a perfectly offbeat flipside to Juno’s pseudo-suicide attempt with a liquorice rope. Here, and throughout Juno, visual despair and musical irony are brilliantly overlapped. Less than ten minutes in, The Kinks’ “A Well Respected Man” pops up and no shred of doubt can remain that music doesn’t just set the scene here – it is the scene.
SONGS ARE LIKE SYMPATHETIC NARRATORS
Try to re-imagine Juno with a soft-spoken, good-natured narrator (say, Danny DeVito in Matilda). Feels credible, right? Unlike many indie films from the 2000s (looking at you, Wes Anderson), Kimya Dawson’s original songs directly reference Juno's unfolding predicament, linking scenes like a sympathetic narrator would. From Kimya Dawson's “Tree Hugger” cushioning the impact of Juno revealing to her admirer Paulie Bleeker (played by Michael Cera) that she thinks she loves him to “Sea of Love” by Cat Power imbuing Juno’s labour with a sense of pure melancholy, each non-instrumental song directly evokes a specific scene in the film. Music may not hold the answer to Juno’s problems, but it helps to remind the viewer that her worries (and everyone else’s) are only temporary.
FOUR WORDS: ALL THE YOUNG DUDES
Though it has cropped up in various films over the years (none more perfectly than Clueless) any movie boasting the inclusion of the “totally rad and hardcore”, David Bowie-penned “All The Young Dudes” by Mott the Hoople deserves at least a cursory watch. In the case of Juno, it accompanies a bumbling slow-dance between Mark and a heavily pregnant Juno. Sure, it’s awkward as hell, but this is Juno, after all.
On a more general “older rock actually rules” note, conversations about music are omnipresent, from debates whether 1977 or 1993 was the best year for music to Juno expressing how she finds everything a little bit tame post-Iggy (“When you’re used to listening to the raw power of The Stooges, everything else just sounds kind of precious in comparison”). Amen to that.
SIMPLE MUSIC SOUNDTRACKS DIFFICULT MOMENTS
A big thread running through the music on Juno is its unabashed simplicity. Songs like the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Sticking With You” and Buddy Holly’s “Dearest” contain two or three chords maximum and lyrics that could be read and understood by a young child. Though Jason Reitman originally planned to use a glam-heavy soundtrack, Ellen Page’s recommendation to opt for something more stripped-back proved vital to the tone of Juno as a film that shows that big, real-life problems deserve music whose depth resides in the simplest of words.
Though its backbone of cutesy indie-folk might seem a little inane to some, especially a decade later, it’s not hard to see how these songs convey a certain emotional nuance that older people don't really have access to. Kimya Dawson’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics not only mirror Juno’s uncertainty by striking a balance between sincere and wry, they’re knowingly unaffected tales reflecting the absurdity, awkwardness, and weirdness of what it means to find oneself in pre-adult limbo.
Nowhere is this more on show than the soundtrack’s pièce de résistance: Juno and Bleeker covering The Moldy Peaches’ “Anyone Else But You” before the closing credits roll. Unless an ill-advised sequel appears, we aren’t to know what lies ahead for the pair and their firstborn. The scene not only captures a heartfelt new chapter in their relationship, it distills the subtle, unknowable nature of transition.