Soundtracking: "Lady Bird"
Wednesday, November 22, 2017 at 12:21PM
Chris Feil in Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird, Soundtracking

Chris talks the nostalgia and nuance of Lady Bird's soundtrack...

“I mean, what can I say? You’re Justin Timberlake.” Have you seen Greta Gerwig’s personal letters asking for song rights for Lady Bird? As if we needed these requests to Timberlake and Dave Matthews to prove that even Lady Bird’s music comes straight from the heart.

The film presents an incredibly specific pre-adulthood existence: Catholic high school in “the midwest of California”, and economic depression in the immediate psychological fallout of 9/11. Gerwig’s music choices are just as layered, presenting a nostalgia familiar especially to those who grew up during the era. Musically, Lady Bird lives in a time when school dances played childhood hits like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads” and even your dad had Alanis Morissette references. Every horned up party was backed by Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River,” the kind of song built to instigate sexy revenge-plot daydreams with the person you are currently making out with.

If their inclusion in the film don’t spark you as razor sharp, you probably didn’t grow up in that time. But I’d like to think this is just one of the ways that Gerwig makes Lady Bird’s experience come alive.

And it shouldn’t be diminished that the film really gets a certain kind of high school musical theatre experience. In one audition sequence, students audition with numbers from the Stephen Sondheim songbook. Lucas Hedges is the chosen one that gets all the leads despite unadventurous taste (though his “Giants in the Sky” is a treat). There is the talented but timid girl, and the kid too unprepared to learn anything but the title track. How does Lady Bird only land in the chorus after brilliantly tearing through “Everybody Says Don’t”?

The sequence comes from Gerwig’s evident love for the composer, but this feels like more of a fantasy than the rest of the movie’s complex reality. While Merrily We Roll Along is a choice in sync with the film’s themes on the ignorance of youth, viewers familiar with the material will get that it’s a punchline that it’s the school musical. What high school is putting on such a niche show, one that’s a cult musical by even Sondheim standards? The high school this era’s of theatre kid’s dreams.

But none of these are the film’s musical peak. If anyone tries to lie to you that Lady Bird is itself too cool for school, just take a look at how lovingly it handles a cultural punching bag like “Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band. The film is set after the once uberpopular band’s regard soured to those who began to roll their eyes at its sincerity. That shift reeks of the kind of playground embarrassment over prior convictions turning into hip snubbing - performative snideness guised as maturity. Naturally the song itself becomes a turning point for Lady Bird, a reminder of where her heart truly lies when a song so personal is cruelly dismissed. "I love it" she says, and we do too.

In her letter to Matthews, Gerwig called it “the most romantic song” and she captures it as such. It’s a song shared with sobbing besties, giggled over its innuendo, and for dreaming of true love yet to come. There really is so much power in the current of the song that it almost demands you get lost in it. But the romance Gerwig creates with its soul-invading melody is the embrace of a best friend, of being young and hopeful, of getting lost in a feeling after trying so hard to not feel at all.

Certainly we all have our “Crash Into Me”s, songs we defend to the death because of how they frame our cherished memories. Gerwig structures Lady Bird like how we recall the past, and for its heroine DMB is definitive.

Previous Soundtracking Favorites:
Frances Ha
Meet Me In St. Louis
Mistress America
Big Mouth
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened
...all installments can be found here!

Article originally appeared on The Film Experience (
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