Take Away This Lonely Man: ‘(500) Days of Summer’ and Musical Storytelling

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This guest post by Victoria Edel appears as part of our theme week on Movie Soundtracks. 

“This is a story of boy meets girl.”

It’s the first line of (500) Days of Summer and also the first line spoken on the soundtrack. Both, then, begin with a summation of our two characters. There’s Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the hopeless romantic who doesn’t understand the point of The Graduate, and Summer (Zooey Deschanel), who doesn’t believe in love. By beginning the soundtrack with this summary of the movie’s central conflict, (500) Days of Summer posits that the soundtrack is just as much of a storytelling tool as the movie is.

And it is.

(500) Days of Summer is a profoundly misunderstood film. I’ve spoken to many people who claimed Summer was the villain, or, perhaps even worse, just a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Even Joseph Gordon-Levitt has had to explain that Tom is selfish, not a romantic role model, as some misguided people have interpreted him.

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Like the narrator says during Track 1, this is a story of boy meets girl, but this is not a love story. Instead, it’s a story about obsession, about idealizing other people, and about having the strength to rebuild after your worldview is shattered. Its message would be impossible without the soundtrack, which places us in Tom’s obsessive mind, music conveying the depth of his feeling. And then, it helps us understand his recovery.

The movie lulls us in with the sweet sounds of Regina Spektor’s “Us,” a song about a monumental love. Accompanied by photos and videos of Tom and Summer growing up, it’s dreamy and romantic, just like Tom when he meets Summer.

A quick plot summary to refresh your memory: Tom meets Summer. Tom wants to date Summer. Summer explicitly does not want a relationship. Tom and Summer embark on something more than friendship, but less than a relationship. Tom thinks he loves Summer. Tom insists that this is, in fact, a relationship. Summer calls the whole thing off. Tom is angry, until he realizes he was wrong.

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Music is essential to the audience’s understanding of Tom’s feelings for Summer. The duo originally bond over their mutual love of The Smiths. Cue “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”: “And if a ten-ton truck killed the both of us / to die by your side / well the pleasure and the privilege is mine.” That’s an intense feeling to have about anyone, let alone someone you just met. The song is about longing, about abandoning everything you have to.

The movie only works because while Tom is in the over-the-moon, in love stage, the audience is brought there with him. And the music is essential to creating this loving feeling. As they spend time together, we hear Carla Bruni’s “Quelqu’un M’a Dit,” so breathy and romantic and French, and “Sweet Disposition” by Temper Trap, excited and airy.

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Then, after Tom and Summer finally have sex, he leaves his apartment and participates in an impromptu dance number to Hall & Oates’s “You Make My Dreams Come True,” complete with friendly strangers who join in and some animated birds. But this isn’t Tom celebrating getting laid. The lyrics give us his feelings: “You make my dreams come true.” Summer, he’s decided, is the culmination of the girl he’s always dreamed of, the true love he’s always wanted. With just music and dance, (500) Days of Summer tells us everything we need to know about Tom’s quick, rash, all-encompassing feelings.

When he describes how Summer makes him feel, he says every time he thinks of her he hears “She’s Like The Wind,” in his head. The Patrick Swayze song was recorded for Dirty Dancing, and used when Baby and Johnny part ways for what they think is forever. It’s a sad song to remember when you think of someone you love, but it does inform the way Tom sees his story. It’s romantic and dramatic, as classic as Baby and Johnny’s.

Until it’s not.

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We hear the song one more time in a moment that mimics the first, after Tom’s illusion is shattered. Instead of listing what he loves about Summer, Tom lists the things he hates about her, concluding with “It’s Like The Wind,” and yelling, “I hate this song!” The romantic illusions are finally cracked. This isn’t the movie he thought this was.

Thankfully, things are brighter by the end. Tom realizes that he tried to use Summer to mask his unhappiness, instead of changing his life. He finally dedicates himself to architecture ­— his original love — and we experience it in montage, accompanied by Wolfmother’s “Vagabond.” The lyrics: “Take away this lonely man. /  Soon he will be gone.” The song is loud and sprawling and rhythmic, in sharp contrast to the romantic, soft songs from earlier in the film. Tom’s finally started to change.

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This isn’t to say that Tom at the movie’s end doesn’t love the Smiths or believe in love; in fact, quite the opposite. Instead, he’s realized what a horrible thing it is to idealize another person, to project your hopes and dreams onto them without getting to know them. If we don’t know much about Summer by the film’s end, it’s because Tom didn’t learn that much about her either. He saw her as much as he wanted to, ignoring everything that didn’t fit into the picture.

And in the end he learns from his mistakes.

This is not a love story. It’s better than that.

 


Victoria Edel lives in Brooklyn, NY, but not the trendy part. The sitcoms is her one true love, so she’s currently watching every episode of  30 Rock and blogging about it here. Follow her on Twitter @victoriaedel.