'Greenberg's' Noah Baumbach on his music-obsessed films: 'There are the people who overthink making mix CDs'
Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg," one could argue, could be traced to a specific song. LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends" is a 7 1/2-minute tragi-comedy, a post-partying reflection from principal James Murphy.
A repetitive and hypnotic piano line carries the artist through a decade of friends, travels, drugs and awkward relationships. "You drop the first 10 years just as fast as you can," Murphy sings, approaching the vocals as though he's talking to himself in a mirror. Without a traditional verse/chorus structure, one doesn't know if the artist is at the beginning or the end of an era.
It was the song, from LCD Soundsystem's 2007 album "Sound of Silver," that introduced filmgoers to "Greenberg," as Baumbach used it in the teaser trailer, above. Looking at failed rock 'n' roll dreams and an inability to connect in Los Angeles, "Greenberg" is, in short, a coming-of-age-story when one, in this case Ben Stiller's Roger Greenberg, feels perpetually out of tune.
"I was listening to LCD Soundsystem’s 'Sound of Silver'," said director Baumbach of the period in which he was writing "Greenberg." "James was tackling similar issues of aging and self-conscious and friendship and relationships that I was looking at. I was playing that record a lot, and ‘All My Friends’ says that all.”
Music traditionally plays a major role in Baumbach's films, both as a thematic point and as a backdrop. In the case of "Greenberg," the director tapped Murphy to write an original score, and his compositions represent a left turn from those more familiar with Murphy's disco-infused-dance of LCD Soundsystem.
"I hired the guy from LCD Soundsystem, and I made him sound like solo Paul McCartney," Baumbach said.
Indeed, "If You Need A Friend" is pure, clap-along, Wings-inspired silliness, but Murphy's signature cut in the film is "Please Don't Follow Me." It's a melancholy piano tune, with Murphy tapping his most vulnerable falsetto. The song eventually builds to a more uplifting, horn-enhanced trot, but almost peters out at first. Baumbach used both a demo and a completed version of the track in the film.
As was the case with Baumbach's 2007 effort "Margot at the Wedding," rock 'n' roll plays a part even when it's not being heard as part of the score. Stiller's character, like Jack Black's Malcolm in "Margot," is going through life with unrealized rock star dreams. Greenberg's relationship with his old L.A. friends, namely Rhys Ifans' Ivan Schrank, is forever shaped by Greenberg's decision to turn down a major label record deal.
"I’ve seen it a lot in my life," Baumbach said. "Friends of friends had bands in college or in their early 20s, and had a moment where they had some kind of interest from a record label or manager. It’s always interesting how people handle those decisions and those moments. As you get older, you realize that if you work professionally in any sort of artistic business, these moments happen all the time. There is rejection all the time. You have to live with that. There are people who don’t get past that point, and those moments become defining. They start to mean something way beyond what they really were."
As does rock 'n' roll. A crucial musical moment comes early in "Greenberg." Before Stiller's character begins an on-again/off-again relationship with the far younger Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), Greenberg attempts to make a connection via Albert Hammond's light-rock anthem "It Never Rains In Southern California."
Baumbach turns the moment into flirting at its most cringe-worthy. A debate as to whether the song is kitsch is instantly cut off, as Greenberg wants Florence to hear the track the same way he heard it as a child. Baumbach forces the audience to listen to the song while the two stand in largely silence.
"There’s something aggressive about it, but there’s something that’s rather sweet about it," Baumbach said. "He’s playing her something that he likes. He’s somewhat self-conscious, and is bullying her slightly. He wants to make sure she’s listening to it the right way.
"But for him," Baumbach continued, "that’s a gesture. He’s reaching out. There’s something really vulnerable about playing something that you like for someone. You don’t know what their reaction will be."
Though set in contemporary Los Angeles, the music of "Greenberg" isn't particularly current. An odd reference to hard rock act Korn is as modern as the film, which also features works from Galaxie 500 and the Steve Miller Band, gets. When the mid-20s Florence drowns her heartache in booze, it's to McCartney's 1971 song "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey." Baumbach uses a significant chunk of the mini-suite, taking Florence from near tears to alcohol-fueled jubilee.
"You can justify that her parents had some Wings albums and she liked that song," Baumbach said. "It’s a bit of an evergreen song. Yet shouldn’t she be listening to Pavement?
"But it felt better to me that she would sing full-voice to something big and epic," the director continued. "I didn’t want it to be of-the-moment, like an Arcade Fire song. I wanted it to be classic. I love that ‘Ram’ album and the first McCartney album. The songs feel like they’re coming from some other place. They’re deep down and homemade, even though they have so many parts and are so epic. That song did many things at once."
There are glimpses of Greenberg making a mix CD for Florence, and he attempts to educate her on '60s folk singer Karen Dalton. Florence misses some of Greenberg's reference points, and it's a definite cause of frustration to the main character, who champions Duran Duran's "The Chauffeur" as the perfect cocaine song, and blasts the youth of today for having it easy with Dan Zanes and Baby Mozart records.
"I’m interested in music as an extension of character," Baumbach said. "Taste is an important part of self-definition for many of the characters I’ve written, particularly Greenberg, since he is so about his opinions. There’s a notion that music is defining you. There are the people who overthink making mix CDs and playlists, and how that works generationally is all really interesting to me."
Photos: Ben Stiller, top, and Greta Gerwig in "Greenberg." Credit: Focus Features