Movie soundtracks are delicate things. A soundtrack can make a powerful sequence or ruin one. It can enhance a line of dialogue or overpower it. It can flow easily or echo distractingly out-of-place. Soundtracks, depending on the degree of care a filmmaker takes to refine them, can make or break a movie. And for “Mid90s,” the soundtrack is endearing and meticulously composed.
Jonah Hill’s (“Maniac”) directorial debut may seem like just a period piece centered around skateboarding culture, but as the soundtrack reveals, it is rather a heartfelt coming-of-age story that says as much about its period setting as it does about Hill himself.
If you’re looking for a Best Hits of the Decade Compilation, look elsewhere. The truth is that the soundtrack of “Mid90s” is anything but cookie-cutter. It intentionally strays from the mawkishly overplayed singles from the era and instead aims for a far more personal connection that feels both unique and universal.
The tracklist darts effortlessly between genres, traversing Golden Age hip hop, grunge, hardcore punk and — you guessed it — Hungarian folk rock.
In particular, “Wave of Mutilation” by the Pixies combines quirky chord changes with ragged, angry vocals, a perfect metaphor for the story’s raging adolescence.
These are clearly songs that Hill grew up with and remains close to after years. He elaborated on his thought process for curating the soundtrack on the “The Big Picture,” a podcast by The Ringer.
“A large part of wanting to be a filmmaker for me is having music be presented the way that I associate it,” he said. Indeed, the track choices, despite not being the most famous of the era, evoke a specificity in experiences and memories.
Perhaps the most endearing detail was the reason for which Hill chose the Nirvana song, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” to be on the soundtrack.
“This (song) has this deep emotional connection to me because it was the first song I learned on guitar,” he admitted. The link one forms to a piece of music strengthens substantially when learning how to play it, and the anecdote is a perfect metaphor for the kind of individualistic attention Hill poured into developing the film’s auditory texture.
Another standout from the soundtrack is its final song, “We’ll Let You Know” by Morrissey, which ends the playlist with a grounded sense of maturity. Hill also includes songs from previous decades as the album goes on, such as “Watermelon Man” by the jazz pianist Herbie Hancock.
The soundtrack was released as a playlist on Spotify rather than an purchasable album, and the form points to why “Mid90s” is so much more than a period soundtrack. Hill does not want to merely drag listeners back to another decade in time; he wants to interact with us in a distinctly modern form.
The unsung star of the playlist, however, was not music from the ’90s at all. It was the film’s instrumental score, interwoven between era tracks, by none other than Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (“The Social Network”).
The score periodically offers a break between the intense period grooves and forces listeners to confront the innately human side of the story that Hill expresses. Sure, Hill’s unmistakably personal track choices shape the experience, but Reznor and Ross elevate these nuances into mellifluous, thrumming climaxes that imbue the soundtrack with a sense of momentum.
As Hill ingeniously intends, a listener can walk away from the playlist with a view into someone’s life in the mid-90s, not a bland aggregate of timely music.
“To me, the title ‘Mid90s’ was a joke,” he said, “because people would expect it to be like that ’90s movie and then they get this kind of small emotional, hopefully moving film.”
The soundtrack, at least, is undoubtedly all of these things.