Various Artists

Little Miss Sunshine OST

(Lakeshore; 2006)

By Craig Eley | 23 July 2006

One of the responsibilities of good critics is to put things into context. This can be as simple as defining an album alongside its peers within a genre and the history of the band, but more often the critic tries to look at broader cultural themes, relevant examples from outside of music, even (gasp!) the work of scholars on that subject or philosophers. But the soundtrack offers an interesting problem for the critic, because by definition it is anti-contextual. It has been violently divorced from its original (and perhaps intended) meaning. Those guillotine-swing strings from Requiem for a Dream sound alright on their own, in other words, but their very point lies in the film’s accompanying lightning-quick editing.

There are many ways to adequately deal with this problem. For one, I could talk about the history of soundtracks, which might be, you know, sort of interesting. Or perhaps I could talk about my favorite soundtrack (Reality Bites, natch), which might be less so. But a soundtrack done with as much care and art as Little Miss Sunshine, and one which is hopelessly disjointed and fails so dramatically as an “album,” requires some consideration of the relationship between soundtracks, their films, and the entertainment industry.

First of all, I haven’t seen Little Miss Sunshine because it hasn’t been released yet. So there’s that problem. This is a common marketing ploy: releasing the soundtrack before a film comes out is a bit like an audio-only teaser. Featuring one big indie name (Sufjan!) and one man-I-hope-these-guys-get-big indie name (DeVotchKa), this soundtrack is, at the very least, a gentle reminder that Cool People have put together some Cool music for this Film. Add that to the fact that Cool People like you might also know that the directors have done some big name music videos, and you’ve got Officially Generated Buzz™. Bloggers, get on it.

Furthermore, Little Miss Sunshine was allegedly bought by Fox Searchlight for some $10.5 million, making it the biggest deal that has ever been done at the Sundance Film Festival. This, in and of itself, doesn’t mean much to me, except for the startling difference between the two trailers for the film, indicative of the ramped-up marketing machine as the release date approaches. The first is a bit darker, using a dinner scene to focus on the depression and sadness that seems to undergird the film’s family. This features music from the score developed in collaboration with DeVotchKa and Mychael Danna. The second trailer, however, ditches the depression of dinner for the glee of the road trip, and leaves in the dust these superior atmospheric pieces for Big Indie Pop songs, including The Flaming Lips’ dreadful “Ya-Ya Song” (which doesn’t even appear on the soundtrack), and the now-ubiquitous (though still great) “Chicago” by Mr. Stevens. Thank you, demographic research.

These two trailers are the perfect examples of the tension within the soundtrack itself, as Mychael Danna has composed interesting and moving pieces based on the music of DeVotchKa that they, in turn, performed. Some of DeVotchKa’s own songs also appear, and together these two elements work adequately well alongside Sufjan’s two contributions, the aforementioned “Chicago” and “No Man’s Land.” But as the soundtrack builds, emotionally and musically, through the first 10 tracks, it reaches a horrific anti-climax with Tony Tisdale’s “Catwalkin” (published by Fox Music Corp.) and Sebastian Arocha’s remix of “Superfreak.” The trailer leads me to believe that there is a terrific, hilarious, and terrifying Little Miss Sunshine pageant in which these songs probably make perfect sense, but outside of that context they are album-killers. The concluding two DeVotchKa pieces then feel slapped on, a Band-Aid on a broken arm, instead of the powerful denoument that they should be.

Part of my complaint here could be easily solved by resequencing the album, but nevertheless we return to the larger question: does it even make sense, then, to discuss a soundtrack outside of its role within the theatre? Luckily, talking about Little Miss Sunshine as an “album” is something that I got the chance to do with film’s composer, Mychael Danna, recently. He told me that, yes, he hopes that his work will stand up alone, be fun to listen to, and also evoke images of the film for the people who have seen it. And, for his part, he does a stunning job. Working with DeVotchKa songs, Danna teases out some of their finer moments and expands them into beautiful, if sometimes sterile, filmic score. The collaboration translates to the record, as the first third of the album is beautifully drowned in atmosphere. From the shore, the ebb and flow of composer and performer in direct dialogue with each other is apparent in a way that I’ve never seen before, and is even occasionally playful. You got that? Nice, well, how about this?

Danna’s composition is certainly the stand-out element here, and as a result of his history using folk music in scores, he often focuses on the more “unique” parts of DeVotchKa’s sound: accordian, tuba, and whistling. Yet even this could get tiresome for devoted fans of DeVotchKa, since the recurring theme of “How It Ends” is certainly starting to wear out its welcome as we wait, seemingly endlessly, for great original material to surface from the mini-projects that have marked their last few years. Even their original material is strangely compromised here, “remixed” (read: edited) by Brad Haehnel (a recording engineer?!), thus robbing it of some its original potency.

Forcing the soundtrack out into the world on a compact disc ultimately challenges the experience of both the cinema and the soundtrack. It neuters them, undercutting their power as not only entertaining but also representational forms. It forces us to examine the nooks and crannies (in this case the business practices) that are so often left behind when the lights go down, or the headphones go on. Almost certainly I’m being naïve, but listening to DeVotchKa and Danna on this disc is like listening to the curious and flawed process of scoring a film; listening to a tired Sufjan track is like listening in on a marketing meeting. Hopefully the film itself will suspend my disbelief enough to make me forget that hopeless interaction for at least two hours.