Scott Pilgrim vs the World is a mixtape disguised as an all-star punk compilation disguised as a movie soundtrack, and it has grabbed much attention. Part of it is the cast: With Beck, Broken Social Scene, Frank Black, The Black Lips and T. Rex being corralled by Nigel Godrich, there’s just too good a collection of talent to be taken for granted. Part of it is also the film’s aesthetic: Music is just as crucial to the film as are action-movie motifs, comic-book narrative, or video games.
The movie flopped at the box office mainly because of Michael Cera burnout. For all the goodwill Cera built up over Arrested Development, Superbad and Juno, he lost it with Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Paper Heart, movies that almost no one saw but a lot more people hated. Suffice to say, Kimya Dawson may have done more to damage Cera’s reputation than anyone.
Perhaps it’s a good thing, then, that the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack sounds less like a Michael Cera playlist and more like a playlist designed by Beck and Edgar Wright. Beck has a long reputation as an eclectic music nerd who loses none of his charm while playing his nerdiness for coolness (basically, what Cera does in acting), which leads to the Plumtrees and Metric fitting in so naturally with the Black Lips’ “Oh Katrina!” and the obligatory “I Heard Ramona Sing,” Frank Black’s ode to the Ramones and the namesake of the film’s primary love interest.
Edgar Wright, meanwhile, has established himself as a director with as sharp a sense of pop music as Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and Alex Cox before him. The Hot Fuzz soundtrack was practically a textbook of great British rock of the last half century, and Wright commissioned Jon Spencer, his favorite musician, to write that movie’s theme song. As Comic Con bootleggers know all too well, that keen sense of music led to licensing issues that delayed the release of Spaced DVDs for years.
The Sex Bob-Omb songs, all Beck compositions, are so crude that they can’t help but have a sense of humor, something Beck has never had problems showing off. For those who prefer their music on the raw end, the songs are great little numbers. But for those that prefer big, bold, sounding music, they work better in the context of the movie. The same goes for some pop songs on the soundtrack. Most notably, the Broken Social Scene song comes at a turning point in the film (and is one of the film’s several Canadian in-jokes), but it seems like a bizarre throwaway here. As a fan of the movie, I was disappointed that the songs by the GaGa-esque “Envy” didn’t make the cut. One of the more touching scenes in the movie showed that rock stars of this ilk aren’t really that far removed from the normal teenagers they were a few years ago.
But for me, the distance of Scott Pilgrim‘s soundtrack from the movie itself is what makes the soundtrack work. For all the insanity that takes place in the film, the fact that the music is so good and that Scott Pilgrim’s garage-punk band is a minor part of the fllm makes the soundtrack the film’s most accessible entry point. That’s vintage Wright: The things that seem utterly bizarre and horrifying to older generations seem relatively normal in his character’s hands. It’s the reactions of older generations that turn something as simple as liking rock music and being in a band into something so complicated (and ultimately hilarious).
Like a good mixtape, the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack works less as a primetime rock album and more as an entry point to some great work that those on the margin may have missed. And for what it’s worth, it’s the best soundtrack Cera has ever been associated with.