As much as it is anything, “20th Century Women” is a catalogue of the artifacts that surround three distinct women in 1979. Among those artifacts — the jeans and the cameras and the cigarettes — is their music.
The film structures itself around this music, becoming itself a sort of playlist, and in the process assembling one of the best soundtracks of the year. It’s an audible time capsule of Santa Barbara in 1979.
The whole production is elevated by Roger Neill’s dreamy score, one of the most tragically overlooked of the year. Neill, who composed the score of Mills’s last film “Beginners” as well as Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice” and the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle,” crafts a score that both compliments and counteracts the punk, art pop and jazz that make up the rest of the soundtrack. The opening track — titled “Santa Barbara, 1979” for the text that appears onscreen — is synthy and soft, very Brian Eno and very un-punk.
On paper, or rather on a Spotify playlist, it’s pretty clear which songs “belong” to which character: Abbie is the Raincoats, Julie is the Talking Heads and Dorthea is Duke Ellington and Fred Astaire. But on screen the delineations are less clear. Each woman’s music invades the lives of the others — Dorthea goes to punk shows with Abbie and dances to The Talking Heads in a sincere attempt to understand the world her son is growing up in.
Mills understands how integral music is to defining a world, that music is one of the strongest world-building tools filmmakers have, something unavailable in the same capacity to other storytellers. And thus he creates one of the most sharply real period-pieces of recent memory. It’s one thing to look like a certain moment in time, but to look and feel like it too is something else entirely.
In the movie, Jamie, the boy who consumes the music of the women around him — both their literal albums and the figurative music their lives make — is 15. I turned 15 in the fall of 2011, and since seeing the film, I’ve been thinking about the soundtrack that would accompany my 15th year of life.
I was a freshman in High School, amped up on social anxiety and hope that the cute senior in my Spanish class would talk to me. In hindsight, I would love to be able to say I was listening to Watch the Throne and Section .80, but I wasn’t that cool yet.
I was emo without knowing I was. Sad, moody, lying on my bed listening to Bright Eyes wondering why the hell I was stuck living in the worst place on earth.
My soundtrack is not the kind of soundtrack conducive to fantastic dance sequences, although I can see Annette Benning and Billy Crudup trying to dance to Little Dragon’s “Ritual Union” before switching to M83’s “Midnight City” and absolutely losing it.
It’s the sort of soundtrack that lends itself to car rides, areal shots of kids on bikes and skateboards, walking along the creek behind my childhood home, my mom teaching me how to drive.
That was also the first year I started listening to my parent’s music, lured in by the sweet melancholy of Belle & Sebastian and LCD Soundsystem. I was also heavily influenced by the music my friends and my brother were listening to. There were two girls in my art class who paid attention to music, they would tell me about Beach House and took me to Black Keys concerts. My art teacher played David Bowie and had us watch the music video for Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.”
The music that surrounded me that year helps define it. It reminds me what it felt like to be 15. When I play that music for other people, our 2011 lives overlap sonically in some places and diverge in others. But music makes it easier to draw lines between different lives — much in the same way my mom noted to me as we left the theater how much my dad loved the song that plays over the film’s credits, “Why Can’t I Touch It?” by The Buzzcocks.
“20th Century Women” gets a lot of criticism for being plotless and untethered. And that’s valid, but also not necessarily a fault of the film. Because instead of adhering to a traditional plot structure, the film borrows its structure from a playlist — an assembly of tracks (in this case scenes) that exist without a destination or endpoint. So instead of coming down to finish its arc, “20th Century Women” ends soaring, quite literally, and pleading, “You must remember this.” And with its soundtrack, it gives you the tools to do just that, to remember.