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Pop & Hiss goes to the movies: With 75 songs in 111 minutes, the rock 'n' roll comes fast in 'Whip It'

October 6, 2009 |  4:52 pm


For all of its high-energy sweetness, Drew Barrymore's coming-of-age roller-derby tale "Whip It" may be one of the most rock 'n' roll flicks of the year. The film packs 75 songs into its 111 minutes, tracking the first taste of independence from Ellen Page's teenage character, Bliss, with a trail of contemporary music.

Staples of teenage autonomy, such as the Ramones' punk-meets-bubblegum pop of "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," are represented, as is a current chart hit like MGMT's "Kids." But discovery of music is natural in "Whip It." Songs don't dominate the discussion, and they aren't fueling the film's marketing. It may be a constant, but it isn't a device, as songs naturally fade in and out of the background as characters move from diners to parties.

Inspired by the Shauna Cross novel "Derby Girl," Barrymore's film follows Page's Bliss as she discovers a world beyond middle-class suburbia, falling in love with the danger and camaraderie of roller debry -- as well as learning the dangers of dating dudes in bands -- along the way. Set in and around Austin, Texas, the state capital ultimately becomes a symbol of free thinking.

Yet though the film spends much of its time on the roller-derby track, "Whip It" doesn't oversell the counter-culture world Bliss starts to explore. As Page's Bliss rubs elbows with plenty of tattooed rock 'n' rollers, she -- and the film -- keep one foot firmly planted on the moral high ground. Characters flirt with becoming their parents' worst nightmare, but discovery in "Whip It" doesn't always equate to recklessness. As Bliss breaks free from her beauty pageant-obsessed mother, she does so with the lightly sweet indie rock of Little Joy in her hands.

"We wanted to find music that itself didn’t feel overworked or overburdened," veteran music supervisor Randall Poster told Pop & Hiss on Tuesday morning. "The music lays naturally into the story. It doesn’t feel like it’s a contrivance or being asked to do more than just be musical. Sometimes when a movie is struggling, they rely on music to help carry the movie or make a dramatic point. We didn’t need to do that."

"Whip It" opened in theaters last week, bringing in a relatively tame $4.9 million in its debut weekend. An accompanying 19-track soundtrack on Rhino Records preceded the film's release, and its box office fate may ultimately determine whether a second volume makes its way to the public. But it won't be for Poster's lack of trying.

The music supervisor, whose credits this year also include Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox," Diablo Cody's "Jennifer's Body" and Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air," says he was ultimately surprised at how much music was crammed into "Whip It." Barrymore writes in the soundtrack's liner notes about trading iPods full of music back and forth with the cast and crew to discover the film's play list.

"I don’t think anybody thought that the film could have carried that many tunes," Poster says. "I saw a potential for using a lot of music, but this is more than you really ever see in a movie. On reflection, you realize there’s a lot of songs, but I don’t think it’s one of those movies that’s overwhelmed by songs.

"Sometimes you’ll see a movie that has 10 songs, and the music will compete for your attention," he continues. "I think that this movie is really successful at grounding you in the movie. It’s such a central part of the fabric that it doesn’t serve as a distraction."

Of the 75 songs in "Whip It," only a handful actually dominate the scene. Radiohead's "No Surprises" and the Breeders' "Cannonball" come at pivotal moments, and Jens Lekman's "Your Arms Around Me" scores an underwater love scene -- the song's innocent hand claps, sugary beat and daydream melancholy giving a bittersweet bite to the film's romance.

Yet it's the current MGMT hit "Kids" that stands as a centerpiece in the film's second act. It's one of the few contemporary radio songs in "Whip It," and it scores Bliss' step into adulthood.

"I think the MGMT record is still on the charts, so I think it does make a big impression," Poster says. "There’s some of this that’s intellectual, but at a certain point, it just becomes kinetic. You try these things and sometimes it feels like we’re trying too hard, or it takes us out of the story. But at that moment, it felt like we had earned it."

-- Todd Martens

Photo: Fox Searchlight