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Meet mixmaster Zach Braff

From ‘Garden State’ to ‘Last Kiss,’ this actor knows how to score a film. By Helen A.S. Popkin
/ Source: contributor

In this post-Napster era, fans are turning their backs on the corporate tastemakers who once dictated limited playlists with an iron fist. Internet radio services such as Pandora Media and now allow music fans to comb the playlists of their peers, and discover obscure artists previously relegated to independent record stores in remote college towns. Such musical anarchy is shifting the balance of power from major record labels to the consumer. There is, however, one man who can bridge the gap between consumer taste and corporate culture. That man is Zach Braff.

The star of the latest 20-something ennui dramedy “The Last Kiss,” Braff received groundbreaking Hollywood deal. It seems that the affable actor was hired, at least in part, for his ability to put together a killer soundtrack. As the writer, director and star behind the 2004 surprise low-budget hit “Garden State,” Braff also hit with his movie’s soundtrack. Featuring artists such as Coldplay, Imogen Heap, Remy Zero and the Shins, it sold 1.2 million copies, won a Grammy, and launched the careers of several lesser-known artists, most notably the Shins. “Garden State” moved Braff’s career beyond the goofy Dr. John Dorian on the sitcom “Scrubs.” Its mixtape style made Braff the official face of the music industry’s future.

Though hailed as “Garden State’s” spiritual sequel, the film “The Last Kiss,” is no low-dough Braff production. For one thing, “Last Kiss,” has a $20 million budget. The screenplay is by Paul Haggis, writer of Oscar-winning films “Crash” and “Million Dollar Baby.” By putting Braff in charge of the soundtrack, “Last Kiss” producers are banking on “Garden State’s” hipster cache — and it seems to be working. With the movie premier still weeks away, the Internet buzzed with rave reviews for the soundtrack.

As pop music soundtracks go, Braff isn’t the first budding auteur to assemble songs that are indelible to a movie’s plot (and also play like a mixtape from your more musically astute best friend). He is, however, the first guy to get hired to star in major motion picture and put together the soundtrack. With soundtrack sales, not to mention overall music sales, hitting the skids, Braff is showing the music industry how to keep the consumer. Offer them variety. Offer them something new. It’s a lesson that could have been learned from movies a long time ago.

It starts with ‘Harold and Maude’While the music to the 1967 film, “The Graduate,” is the commercial precursor to the pop song soundtrack, the Cat Stevens score to the 1971 film “Harold & Maude” is the spiritual start. Both are single artist soundtracks feature prereleased songs, along with one or two original numbers written for the movie. Along with the Simon & Garfunkel tunes, “The Graduate” LP, is rounded out by Dave Grusin instrumentals.The film-specific original “Mrs. Robinson,” certainly sells the movie, and the existing songs, available on previous Simon & Garfunkel releases, mark the birth of a marketing ploy, encouraging consumers to buy something they already own.

Meanwhile, more than any other movie before it, “Harold and Maude” intertwines pop music seemingly as important to the plot as the script. The Stevens soundtrack includes two songs specifically written for the film, “Don’t Be Shy” and “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out.” Every song is seamlessly melded into the action, as when Maude begins to play “If You Want To Sing Out,” on the piano, and the scene folds into the Cat Stevens vocal. Hardly a marketing ploy, the “Harold and Maude” soundtrack exists only as a Japanese import released years after the film.

These days, many movies follow “The Graduate” tradition of cramming in as many familiar pop songs as possible. But director Cameron Crowe remains true to the “Harold and Maude” ideal. Of course, beginning his career as a Rolling Stone writer at age 15, he comes by it naturally. As the precocious young writer of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” he pounded his fists to get the songs he wanted included in the movie. And now, can anyone forget the Jackson Browne song “Somebody’s Baby” playing as Jennifer Jason Leigh loses her virginity to that stereo salesman?

Crowe’s dedication to soundtracks is so legendary that last year faux newspaper The Onion ran a story with the satirical headline “Cameron Crowe to Release Only Soundtracks.” Crowe’s other iconic movie/music moments include “Say Anything,” when John Cusack’s boombox blasts Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” and “Singles” when Matt Dillon, as a Seattle grunge musician backed by the actual members of Pearl Jam, sings a slightly augmented version of the Mudhoney song “Touch Me I’m Sick.” And of course, there’s Crowe’s semi-autobiographical movie “Almost Famous,” in which the young lead character finds a note in the Who’s “Tommy” album that reads “Listen to ‘Tommy’ with a candle burning and you will see your entire future.”

It seems director Wes Anderson must have received that same note, as his scores are also influenced by that same Britpop sensibility. A scene in Anderson’s first major film “Rushmore,” in which Bill Murray drops into his pool, cigarette still dangling from his lips, is all the more melancholy for the accompanying Kinks song “Nothing in This World Can Stop me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl.” In “The Royal Tenenbaums,” an eclectic soundtrack featuring the Ramones, Nick Drake, the Velvet Underground and the Vince Guaraldi Trio helps create a mythic ’60s-era New York City set in current time. In “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” Anderson again uses music to create an unreal aura, with Brazilian samba covers by Seu Jorge of David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” and “Starman.” (And how many of you can honestly say that you knew Brazilian covers of Bowie songs even existed?)

Back to Braff
Braff is one of many directors to use his soundtracks to introduce new audiences to unknown music. Getting hired to pick the soundtrack for a movie in which he stars (but did not write or direct), he’s taking that tradition to the next level. Similar to the way music is used in “Harold and Maude,” Braff knows how to integrate songs with action. In “Garden State,” Braff’s character rides his grandfather’s sidecar motorcycle as a Shins tune scores the scene. He pulls up to the bus stop where Natalie Portman’s character is sitting. She takes off her enormous headphones and the music stops. It’s a neat little trick — letting the audience know that these potential lovers share the same headspace.

Since he’s not helming “The Last Kiss,” Braff doesn’t have the opportunity to create other neat little tricks with music. And while he’s doing the soundtrack, he doesn’t have complete control. Braff sent director Tony Goldwyn six mix CDs featuring 80 to 90 songs, with only 15 making the final cut. According to an Associated Press story, Braff’s first choice for opening credits, the 1996 Beck song “Jack Ass” was turned down partially for being too old. “Chocolate” by hot band Snow Patrol was picked instead.

Several artists from the “Garden State” soundtrack make return appearances on the “Last Kiss,” including Coldplay — a band a little too mainstream for many mixtape aficionados. (Sorry Zach — Coldplay is your dad’s alt rock.) Remy Zero and Imogen Heap are also back, as well as Braff’s college friend, Cary Brothers, who now has a career whether he deserves one or not. “The Last Kiss” soundtrack has an even mix of popular artists, including Fiona Apple, and underground favorites such as Aimee Mann. Like “Garden State,” music from “The Last Kiss,” may be overly mellow for some tastes, but it provides a nice variety of songs that moviegoers might have missed, had Braff not pointed them out.