I waited ten years to see Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.
I’ve been an intense fan of Linklater’s work since college, when I saw Slacker and Dazed and Confused and, most importantly, the amazing Before Sunrise. Here was a filmmaker obsessed with capturing normal life as it unfolds – each of his first four movies takes place over 24 hours, with slow deliberation, and each is almost completely plotless, by traditional standards. Slacker is an experiment in narrative-less form, passing the point of view from one character to another until a portrait of a city emerges. Dazed chronicles the last day of school in a Texas town in 1976, watching normal life happen to a bunch of kids from every clique.
Before Sunrise, though, is a Richard Linklater mission statement. It starts with a fairly Hollywood premise – two people meet on a train heading to Vienna. They are going different directions from there, but the boy convinces the girl to spend one day with him in the city. From there, many filmmakers would spin out some kind of story, full of misunderstandings and conflict and pratfalls before the happy ending. But Linklater just watches as these two people walk around Vienna, talking and slowly falling for each other. That’s it. That’s the entire movie. And it’s engrossing like few things I have ever seen.
It’s even better in context with its two sequels, each released nine years after the last. Before Sunset depicts the pair meeting again after nine years and spending one afternoon with each other, unfolding in close to real time, while Before Midnight catches up with them nine years later, and finds them on a knife-edge of uncertainty about their relationship. All three of these films are astonishingly natural, clearly what comes next, and all three benefit from the real-life wisdom and age that comes to the actors with time. Each is a snapshot of what life looks like to the actors (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) and Linklater at that very moment in time.
Capturing the effects of time is a key theme of Linklater’s, and he has found no better vehicle for that theme than Boyhood, the recently released labor of love that I first read about in 2004. It’s a film about growing up, but one that captures the actual passage of time like none other. In 2002, Linklater cast 6-year-old Ellar Coltrane and 8-year-old Lorelai Linklater (his daughter) as the two kids (Mason and Samantha) in a broken-home family, with Hawke as their father and Patricia Arquette as their mother. He shot some scenes with the four of them, then waited a year, shot more scenes, waited a year, etc. And he did this for 12 years.
The effect is amazing. We watch Coltrane age, on screen, from six to 18, and watch him slowly become the young man shaped by the experiences of the film. Everyone else ages along with him – Lorelai Linklater, as his sister, grows from eight to 20, and Arquette and Hawke are visibly older by the end of the film. This seems like a simple thing, but the impact is indescribable. Boyhood is nearly three hours long, but by the end, you feel like you’ve spent a lifetime with these people. They’re heart-achingly real.
I wouldn’t trust this idea to anyone but Linklater, and he proved worthy of it. While some filmmakers would spend the intervening years writing a complex story for their actors, Linklater did what he normally does – captured life happening. Boyhood eschews all the usual coming-of-age landmarks, like Mason’s first kiss, his first beer, losing his virginity, even his high school graduation. We see none of that. What we do see reminds me of the way I remember my own life – snatches of seemingly insignificant events, built up in my mind as the story of me. For Mason, those events include finding a dead bird in the back yard and riding in cars with his father. Little things that make up a life.
You can see Linklater evolve as you watch Boyhood as well. An early scene with his mother’s new husband threatens to become a full-blown plot, but thankfully, it never really does. As the film goes along, Linklater becomes more confident, and more content just to let it all breathe naturally. The final scenes, with an 18-year-old Mason leaving home for the first time, are powerful in a way they would not have been had the film been more eventful. They left me with an inescapable sadness – Mason, Samantha and their parents became real people to me, and leaving them was difficult. But the film ends on a note of wonder, which definitely leavened the heartbreak for me.
No film has ever made me feel the way I did at the end of Boyhood. I can’t point to any one moment, of course, since this is not a film of moments. But its cumulative effect is astonishing. It’s an entirely new way to tell a story like this, one that pays off in emotional impact, even though the film itself underplays virtually everything. I feel like I grew up alongside Mason and Samantha, their parents and friends, and I’ve rarely felt as sad watching a film as I did when I realized I’d never see any of them again. Boyhood is beautiful, nigh-on perfect, and everything I hoped it would be.
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Seeing Boyhood has started me thinking about different ways to present familiar ideas. And possibly the most different one I can think of at the moment, musically speaking, is Beck’s Song Reader.
Like many of you, I thought of Song Reader as a bit of a gimmick at first. A new collection of 20 songs, released only as a songbook – as printed sheet music. The only way to hear these new Beck songs was to play them yourself, or wait for others to play them for you. Even as a gimmick, that’s an interesting one, but then I started thinking about the possibilities inherent in the idea. With no definitive recording of these songs, there would be no rules, no restraints – even subconscious ones – holding back anyone’s interpretations. You could do anything with these tunes, and no one could say you’re wrong.
In a lot of ways, Song Reader was like giving up control. It was handing this group of songs over to the masses, and letting them own them. It started to make even more sense when I began hearing the songs themselves – these were clearly more simple, old-school American songbook tunes than what Beck normally gives us, and it became clear that he was trying for a nostalgic approach to his craft. Song Reader attempts to capture an era of popular song that lived and died on the page – sure, popular artists would interpret these songs, and some might be considered definitive recordings, but if you could walk down to the store, buy the sheet music and play the song your way, and millions of people could do the same, it was harder to say which version should stand above the others.
A song intended to be played by millions of people needs to have certain qualities, and something like “Devil’s Haircut” wouldn’t (ahem) cut it. The 20 songs on Song Reader each strove for that in different ways, while remaining absolutely open to interpretation. The versions I heard (hundreds of them popped up on YouTube) felt like old American tunes, ones that could have inspired renditions from popular early-20th-Century singers. On its most basic level, this certainly was not a case of Beck writing his usual songs and releasing them in a clever way. Song Reader is an exercise in recapturing a moment of popular song.
I’d hoped that Beck would never create “definitive” versions of these tunes, so I was a little dismayed to see that Song Reader had been recorded. But the finished product is absolutely fascinating, and doesn’t betray the concept at all. In fact, it presents me with an entirely new way to hear songs like this, one I’m still trying to wrap my head around. The Song Reader album is essentially a “various artists” tribute to the tunes, with 20 bands and singers from many musical traditions pitching in. And with no audible reference point, they’ve been given complete freedom to do what they like with these songs.
Many have chosen to play them straight. Moses Sumney strolls through “Title of This Song” beautifully, while Jeff Tweedy plays “The Wolf is On the Hill” like one of his own works. Laura Marling gives us a glorious folk reading of “Sorry,” while Swamp Dogg brings all the emotion you’d hope to “America, Here’s My Boy,” a paean to young men heading off to war, and to those who do not return. Now, I haven’t heard any of these songs before, but these renditions strike me as straightforward reads of them. They’re lovely, but they are close to what appears on the printed page.
Others, however, have taken things in wild directions. You’d expect nothing less from Sparks, who bring their particular quirkiness to “Why Did You Make Me Care.” David Johansen, ol’ Buster Poindexter himself, winks his way through a jazzy take on “Rough on Rats.” Jason Isbell surprises with his long barrelhouse romp through “Now That Your Dollar Bills Have Sprouted Wings.” Marc Ribot takes on instrumental “The Last Polka” with clarinetist Doug Wieselman, while Juanes translates “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard” into Spanish for a Tex-Mex workout.
The interesting thing is, while these all sound like reinventions of the original tunes, I have no idea. I’ve never heard these songs before. For all I know, these are exactly what Beck had in mind. In fact, Lord Huron’s “Last Night You Were a Dream” is the only version of any song here I could hear Beck performing exactly as is (save for one other, but we’ll mention that in a moment). Everything, from Jack White’s bluesy “I’m Down” to Jack Black’s ridiculous, theatrical “We All Wear Cloaks,” could very well be the standard. Absolutely no care was taken to perform these songs in a way that respects the style of their author.
I mentioned one particular exception, though, and it’s an important one. Beck himself appears here, delivering his version of “Heaven’s Ladder.” And unfortunately, this is now the one Song Reader number that, to my mind, has a definitive. It’s impossible to feel like this is not how Beck heard the song when writing it. Any other version of “Heaven’s Ladder” will now have to stand up to this one, in the same way that any covers of “Lost Cause” or “Where It’s At” would. Don’t get me wrong, “Heaven’s Ladder” is a gorgeous song, and I adored hearing Beck’s rendition of it. But it seems to go against the spirit of this project.
Then again, the fact that these 20 versions of these songs all appear on a CD together with Beck’s name on it seems to indicate that on some level, these are the “approved” versions. It’ll be hard to shake that impression in the future. I would love to see a second volume of this, with entirely different spins on these songs. I wouldn’t mind an entire series, in fact. The songs seem open enough to allow for it. As it is, Song Reader is an entirely new kind of tribute record, one in which the original songs are ideas, not concrete things. I can’t imagine that Beck intended “Eyes That Say I Love You” to sound like Jarvis Cocker’s stomp-through, but I have no evidence to the contrary. It’s an interpretation with no divinable source. That’s kind of magical.
As an album, Song Reader is messy and indistinct, jumping from tone to tone wildly. But as a concept, it’s unlike anything else I can think of. Like Boyhood, it succeeds at something no one else has tried, leaping obstacles no one else has thought of, and it makes me consider art in a different way. If that’s not a noble and lofty goal, I don’t know what is.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.