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Soundtracking: "Big Little Lies"

It's Chris Feil's weekly series on music in the movies, this time on one of this year's television favorites...

Did you know that Emmy added a music supervision category this year? While this may seem a bit nebulous (Emmy sure does have a heck of a lot of categories!), at least we might get some great soundtracks and song choices recognized. Consider my soundtrack column this week an FYC (among others we've written) for what must be the inaugural front-runner Big Little Lies. Emmy: did you ever want it? Did you want it bad?

The musical landscape of Monterey is packed with soul tunes both new and old, weighted with a kind of timeless, cross-generational longing that ties together the various women of its ensemble. They way these songs ache deepen our understanding of each woman’s unique pain: the angry defiance of Jane running to “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole”, Madeline’s romantic respite in “River”, and a lyrically literal reflection of Celeste’s sexual confusion with “Victim of Love”. For the audience, music helps us draw the connections between their shared pain, what ultimately unites them all. Big Little Lies’s musical identity is as distinct as the series itself.

But the music choices aren’t fully omniscient, belonging at least in part to Lies’s most unsung female character: the sarcastic daughter Chloe. Chloe is a mastermind of this musical world, the music in her headphones giving her a language to understand the emotional complexity of her parents. She becomes the character most defined by song choice, precocious but not unbelievably enamored with hipness beyond her years - we don’t need to know she listens to Alabama Shakes to know she’s a pretty cool gal, but the specificity certainly paints her as a thoughtful one. Or maybe yours truly, a childhood devourer of grown-up music and playlist junkie, simply relates.

Some complaints had been lobbed at the series for how it omits Bonnie’s necessary declaration about how children always notice abuse and what is going on in the home, as she does in Liane Moriarty’s book. With the emphasis on Chloe’s playlists, you feel her eyes on the situation and her estimation of her parents’ marriage. It’s not explicit and it doesn’t speak to abuse specifically, but it is a creative way to include the theme of kids seeing and understanding the “real” home better than the grown-ups think they do.

Is it just that Chloe’s taste informs this much of the films musical backdrop, or does the series somewhat awkwardly use soul music to tell the story of a mostly white community? There is a lack of obviousness or cliche to the track listing that keeps this from being performative, but does draw a certain attention to itself. Even though the soundtrack compliments the emotional underpinnings of the series, it sometimes doesn’t ring true.

The series kind of answers that question with its Elvis karaoke conclusion, Elvis being the original thief of black music to tell his own story. Their party is a put on: Elvis’s music is as much of a costume as what they’re wearing, revealing a cultural divorcing of content and context. However, Ed’s performance of “The Wonder of You” is markedly more sincere (if all the more awkward by Adam Scott’s obvious lipsyncing) - it’s about feeling, not pastiche.

But it’s Bonnie’s performance of “Don’t” that is the most genuine, the most transcendent, the real showstopper. How do we get Zoë Kravitz cast in a rock musical immediately? She's utterly captivating in Bonnie's sly longing and emotional clarity, and there's a reason this performance was one of the series's many highlights:

The series musically bookends with want and need, answering its opening “did you ever want it” call with a moody Rolling Stones cover. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is maybe the series’s one sour musical note, a kind of bland thesis to conclude a series that delights in the unexpected. You can’t always get what you want, like a different version of this song. You can’t always get what you want, like a musical number for Nicole and Reese. You can’t always get what you want, like a second season - you shouldn’t even want that. You get what you need: one season.

Like that night of a million Elvises, Big Little Lies presents a singular musical identity that still has many points of entry for interpretation. This musical landscapes swoons in a healing red wine haze, brimming with the same suppressed emotionality of its glorious actress powerhouses. It’s already the soundtrack of the year both for how it is utilized in context and its standalone power. A bleeding, not-so-cold little heart of musical assemblage.

Previously on Soundtracking:
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Best Worst Thing...
Sister Act

American Honey

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Reader Comments (9)

YES to this! The soundtrack is perfection, just like every other part of the series.
Zoe Kravitz is SO talented and I still can't believe she actually sing that song.
Total NO to second season though. Leave it be and let Nicole Kidman win her Emmy in Miniseries Lead Actress.

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

That PJ Harvey song that closed out the first ep was so sexy, and I loved "September Song" popping up again and again.

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBia

I can't wait for the soundtrack to come out!

Nicole Kidman was flat out brilliant on the show and definitely deserves the Emmy nod, but I can't help feeling that Reese Witherspoon deserves the actual award. Kidman has been great time and time again recently, but Witherspoon hasn't been this extraordinary in a while.

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBhuray

Bia--I am a huge PJ Harvey fan! The song of hers they used, "The Wind," is from Is This Desire?, which is one of my favorite albums of all time. I did find it a LITTLE hard to believe that a first-grader would be gravitating towards that song. Her musical tastes on the show made me think of a first-grader being obsessed with the Criterion Collection, or something to that effect. Possible, sure .., but kind of a stretch.

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

Bhuray - I believe it'll be a digital only release, but you can buy it now

June 21, 2017 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

I was hooked on the series as soon as PJ Harvey started playing. (Is This Desire? is her best album, in my opinion, and I'm a super fan).

Chloe Mackenzie's favourite film of 2016 was Aquarius. She thinks Isabelle Huppert was robbed of the Best Actress Oscar this year, though she prefers her work in The Piano Teacher. Her favourite Radiohead album is Amnesiac, though she listens to The Bends most often. And her favourite painter is Lucien Freud, bar none.

Team Nicole Emmy

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

I swear to god is Jessica Lange wins yet another Emmy over Reese or Nicole, or even Susan, I'm gonna lose it.

I'm still annoyed that she beat Drew for Grey Gardens.

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

I, too, was irked that Lange beat Barrymore considering Grey Gardens is Barrymore's best performance, and Lange was serviceable at best.

Team Nicole Emmy

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Love this! The music is such a huge part of the glue that holds the series together. Got the soundtrack off iTunes a couple of months ago and it's been in regular rotation ever since. It's not complete, alas, but it's still fantastic.

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

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