Richard Linklater once said that all films are about time. As a visual art, film suspends and edits time to showcase an alternative to the constant flow of reality, playing with memory and sense of place as a gateway to tell stories. It moves into the future and it goes way back, too. We know actual time cannot be erased or reclaimed, but films inhabit a world where anything seems possible. Boyhood, Linklater’s 2014 coming-of-age drama, showcases incremental — often mundane — slivers of life over a relatively vast time scale, filming the same cast members over several days a year each year between 2002 and 2014.
With little to no plot to sell to audiences, Linklater’s character-driven film functions instead as a diary time capsule for modern life, a contemporary Bildungsroman chronicling the childhood of Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) as well as an ode to tired clichés that have come to characterise the suburban American experience.
Boyhood is fascinating for how it shows actors slowly ageing across its nearly three-hour run time, but it’s also equally compelling to see how crudely it bridges the gaps between key life events. Certain characters appear with no introduction and often vanish without explanation. In some scenes it’s clear that whole years have elapsed, leaving the viewer to piece together interstices that may have been left on the cutting room floor. Its greatest strength might lie in how it progresses with a steady gait from start to finish, documenting the passing of time with a fluidity that suggests we’re all part of a much bigger network.
Production techniques aside, Boyhood endlessly questions our presumed roles and responsibilities in society — as students, siblings, parents, husbands, wives, colleagues — and it does it all to the sounds of the times.
If there’s one element of film that can catalyse life’s basic burning questions it’s music, and Boyhood utilises sound in a way that seeks to relate its ideas to the audience through nostalgia and memory by drawing them in through a shared culture. Linklater explained that a purpose-built score could never quite convey the idea of the film being a product of time and place, so he sought out existing songs that were released over the twelve years of filming to anchor scenes to a specific mood.
Lady Gaga exploded onto the world stage in 2009 and there are two scenes in Boyhood where her music is referenced. In one, Mason Jr’s sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) watches the beginning of Gaga’s music video to Telephone on her iPhone during a car ride with her father and stepmom. This simple act dates the film to 2010 — perhaps wryly commenting on the cultural phenomenon that the video spawned at the time — but more importantly it reflects a form of entertainment that wasn’t even technologically viable at the start of the film. Even the sight of an iPhone 3G now is enough to warrant a trip down memory lane.
Whilst we increasingly stared at our screens in the summer of 2010, Arcade Fire released their third album The Suburbs. Expanding on the band’s trademark themes of life and death, it explored memory and nostalgia in a way that triggered a connection between artist and audience rarely seen in popular music. Just two days ago its tenth anniversary was celebrated online, which is just shy of the total time that Linklater’s cast and crew spent filming Boyhood.
In an alternative version of events, Boyhood could be soundtracked exclusively by The Suburbs. Although released four years apart and in no way directly inspired by one another, they incorporate themes of nostalgia and growing pains in ways that are remarkably alike. The album portrays the suburban experience with discerning criticism whilst Boyhood feels entrenched in the studies of personal growth that the album depicts, literally documenting a vast chunk of its characters’ lives in ways that echo the anecdotal snapshots that come to form elements of storytelling in The Suburbs.
Much of the music in Boyhood plays out through vehicles and for many children their early lives are spent growing up in cars. The act of driving is perhaps the film’s biggest metaphor for change, one that permits freedom of movement and allows us to leave the past behind whilst journeying towards a new, perhaps unknown, future. The Suburbs’ artwork shows an empty parked car in the foreground, arguably the most iconic representation of suburbia, amongst a texturised projection of a quintessential suburban house and garden.
As though to make the similarities even more indisputable, two songs from the album are used in the film. It turns out Linklater begged Arcade Fire’s frontman Win Butler to use music from the album because of his own appreciation of it during filming. Knowledge of this somehow confirms that both the film and the album are very much two sides of the same coin concerned with the personal ramifications of growing up in America. Arcade Fire actually teamed up with director Spike Jonze in 2011 to make the short film Scenes from the Suburbs, which chronicles suburban teenagers during summer at a time when “military control of their town makes the lazy days more aimless than ever.”
If Boyhood lacks the richness we might usually associate with a film score, it nevertheless revels in its own miscellany by cherry-picking popular music from the last sixty years and weaving it into the cultural fabric of its narrative.
It achieves this in two ways.
Firstly, it uses music that is diegetic: popular hits that serve as reference points played out in public — through car stereos, at parties, at diners. Music is always playing in shared spaces. Their presence is felt culturally in the sense that the characters may be familiar with the song just as much as the viewer.
Sheryl Crow’s Soak Up The Sun plays in the car of the mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette); Samantha annoys her brother with a spirited dance to Britney Spears’ Oops!…I Did It Again; Aaliyah’s Try Again plays out at a bowling alley; Wilco’s Hate It Here gets a critical appraisal by Mason’s father (Ethan Hawke) on a road trip (which is fitting as the album it appears on was criticised by Pitchfork as “dad rock”).
The second method is through its obvious counterpoint, non-diegetic music — that which the characters cannot hear. The first scene of the film is composed of a zoom shot of the young lead character as he lays on the grass and stares at the sky with Coldplay’s Yellow playing over the top.
Family of the Year’s Hero plays twelve years later as he drives to university for the first time, embarking on the next chapter of his life. Deep Blue (the second song from The Suburbs in the film) plays just as the film cuts to black and the credits roll.
Understanding the emotional impact of diegetic and non-diegetic music in Boyhood reflects the ways in which The Suburbs would go on to establish itself in the minds of its listeners as both a solitary and collective experience. That latter experience — the communal spirit of the band’s joie de vivre — makes itself explicitly abundant in a live setting.
At the end of Boyhood right before her son moves to college, Olivia chalks up her life as “a series of milestones” in an impassioned speech: getting married, having children, getting divorced, teaching her son how to ride his bike, getting her Masters degree, sending her kids off to college.
In many ways Olivia is a would-be character straight out of The Suburbs as much as she’s one in Boyhood. Like most of us she has no concrete plan. Life is just a series of moments and decisions that come together to shape who we are. Life trundles on, but the music that soundtracked those moments can bring us right back to a time and place we thought we’d lost.