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Breaking Down American Honey's Perfect Soundtrack

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Photo: Courtesy of A24Films.
In the middle of American Honey, there's a stirring Mazzy Star moment. The dirty, rat-tailed, but still handsome Jake (Shia LaBeouf in his best role in recent memory) has just stolen a rich cowboy's fancy convertible after "rescuing" Star (break-out 20-year-old star Sasha Lane) at gunpoint from a group of rowdy men with handlebar moustaches who are trying to get her drunk off tequila in their backyard. His reckless actions at the house wouldn't be considered brave to anyone but Star, who is head-over-heels in lust with him.

The two lost souls, who first crossed paths in a Big K parking lot and now work together selling magazines on the road with a crew of tattooed and tipsy runaways, are driving to god knows where when Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You" starts playing on the car's radio. The twangy rock song is a beautiful plea for attention, for understanding, and for total abandonment of anything but the person you're with. In the movie, this scene is charged with a mixture of illegal activity, intimacy, and innocence.

The singer's breathless lyrics hint at what's going to happen next — what the whole movie has been building up to: "I want to hold the hand inside you / I want to take a breath that's true / I look to you and I see nothing / I look to you to see the truth." Jake and Star exchange longing glances, letting the hot wind brush over them until they can't stand it anymore, pull off to the side of the road, and have sex in the stolen car surrounded by weeds and wildflowers, reflections of him and her.

That perfectly soundtracked cinematic moment is just one of 22. American Honey's music is never cheesy or distracting. Unlike in many movies, these songs aren't meant to be background music to Star's, Jake's, or the rest of the cast's actions. Instead, they're here to narrate the film, sometimes quite literally. What's more, every time a song plays, it is actually present in the scene: It's being played off of a cell phone, through the sound system in the van, or on the loudspeaker of a store. A song is never just thrown over a pre-taped scene — it's an intrinsic piece of the film's skeletal core.

Much of American Honey takes place in the four back rows of a van that's hauling a dozen teenagers across America to sell magazines. It's a fairly fruitless job, but it gives them something that they crave and never had before in their often poverty-stricken hometowns: freedom. Or, at least, the illusion of freedom. These young adults are still kids at heart, and all they want to do is — in the words of Notorious B.I.G — party and bullshit. (Heavy on the party, light on the bullshit.)

Nearly half the tunes are popular and explicit rap-trap songs with lyrics like "I like to make money, get turnt," "Everybody get choices / I choose to get money, I'm stuck to this bread," and "I'm figgity figgity fucked up / Girl you got me fucked up." Anyone who has listened to trending artists over the past year would recognise at least half of the songs, including Rihanna and Calvin Harris' "We Found Love" which reappears throughout the film. The plot of the movie pivots around this particular song a few times: The song is playing the first time Star meets Jake, and it's playing again the last time she really trusts him. It's the crew's favourite song, and they all have to dance when it comes on — tradition is important.

As exciting as this style of soundtracking a film is, it's also a risky move. Having the blaring (yes, blaring; the music powers entire scenes, and the bass may leave a lingering vibration in your eardrums) tracks dictate the tone of the entire movie — and repeating songs like Rae Sremmurd's 2014 single, "No Type" — could come off as abrasive, annoying, or cheesy.

But in American Honey, it just works. The songs feel essential in every scene and are magically elevated from trashy pop anthems (no offence, Ri-Ri and Carnage) to audible art. The movie is a rap-fuelled, vodka-soaked, coming-of-age fever dream — and the variety of songs, ranging from country to trap to EDM, reflects that.

These kids' favorite songs, like those of so many American teenagers, are ones they can rap to, dance to, and fuck to. The soundtrack feels like it happened organically, as if director Andrea Arnold let the actors (many of whom had no professional acting experience) choose what they wanted to listen to in the van, and included that in the film. The recognizable songs are building blocks that dictate the mood of the scene, because they are so reflective of the cast's carefree and uninhibited attitudes.

Another great example is the final scene of the film. The whole mag crew is swigging liquor and dancing with abandon around a campfire. They're oozing with energy and blasting Raury's "God Whisper." The only things illuminating the screen are the leaping flames and the rising chorus of the song. The van's back door is open, and the sound is pouring out. You can feel the film coming to a close, even though Star's quest is far from over. That's why it works. The songs are a vehicle that instantly places the viewer inside the frame. You want to be drinking, dancing, and wild. You want to take over the AUX cord and choose the next song. It's not an impressive playlist; it's just realistic. By the end of the film, these are your friends, and this is your playlist, even if this isn't your story.
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