Soundtrack Saturday: “American Beauty”

Written by Film, Soundtrack Saturday

Hey, do you see that? No, not that plastic bag fluttering in the breeze, dummy — Kelly Stitzel’s latest Soundtrack Saturday!

It’s been Beatles week here at Popdose, but I’m not going to write about any of the Beatles’ movies. Nor am I going to write about any of the movies that are soundtracked using all Beatles songs or Beatles covers (I did really want to write about 1976’s cover-filled All This and World War II, but I’ve never actually seen the movie, and it’s not available anywhere). Instead, I’m writing about a movie that contains one Beatles cover by one of my favorite artists, whose untimely death was one of the tragedies of my music-loving life.

American Beauty (1999), Sam Mendes’s directorial debut, turns ten this year. It also happens to be the first film I’ve written about for this column that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I saw it in the theater twice — once with a friend and once with my mom — and I was truly blown away by it at the time. I don’t think the plot was necessarily what did it for me, though Alan Ball did write a fantastic script, for which he won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

The best part about the movie for me was the performances. I think every actor playing a major role in American Beauty was amazing (though I was less impressed with Mena Suvari, I have to admit). And while I was rooting for Richard Farnsworth to win Best Actor in 2000 for his beautiful performance in The Straight Story, I do think Kevin Spacey deserved the award. I’ve seen American Beauty on a lot of “most overrated films” lists, and while it no longer has the same impact as it did ten years ago, I still love it.

Lester Burnham (Spacey) hates his office job and feels as though he has little room for advancement, mostly because of his superiors, for whom he has no respect. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), has her own real estate firm and is trying to get ahead in a competitive market. Their 16-year-old daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), hates them and tries to talk to them as little as possible. The Burnhams’ new neighbors are the Fitts family: Frank (Chris Cooper), a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel; his mentally unstable wife, Barbara (Allison Janney); and their drug-dealing teenage son, Ricky (Wes Bentley).

While watching Jane cheerlead at a high school basketball game, Lester becomes infatuated with her friend and fellow cheerleader Angela (Suvari) and begins having sexual fantasies about her. After overhearing her make a joke to Jane about having sex with him if he worked out more, Lester immediately starts getting fit so he can “look good naked.” He also makes some other changes in his lifestyle, including smoking pot, which he buys from Ricky.

Meanwhile, Carolyn, who’s having a bad streak at work and is unhappy in her marriage, begins having an affair with her chief rival in the local real estate market, Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). Although her stress level diminishes when she’s with him, things go back to crap when she’s home with Lester and Jane.

Jane is incredibly unhappy at home, and spends most of her time hanging out with Angela. After the Fittses move in, she notices Ricky videotaping her and, during a weird conversation at school, asks him to stop. Despite Angela’s warnings that Ricky is a freak who once spent time in a mental institution, Jane is intrigued by him, and the two start spending time together, eventually becoming somewhat of a couple, giving them both a refuge from their abysmal home lives.

Ricky’s father, Frank, is a strict disciplinarian who mistrusts his son and gives him regular drug tests, which Ricky manages to pass by using clean urine samples he obtains from one of his customers, a nurse. Frank is very conservative — and outwardly homophobic — and suspicious of his son’s lifestyle, even after Ricky informs him that Jane is his girlfriend. Ricky’s mother is an emotional mess and most of the time seems completely oblivious to what’s going on around her.

As Lester continues his transformation into a more confident, sexy guy, he’s told he’s being laid off. He decides to blackmail his boss to get more severance money, then takes a job at a fast-food restaurant and trades in his Camry for a 1970 Pontiac Firebird. He continues to fantasize about Angela and flirts with her whenever she comes over to hang out with Jane. Eventually, Jane stops bringing her around because she’s embarrassed by the way Lester behaves around her, an opinion she doesn’t mind sharing with him. Eventually, Lester finds out about Carolyn and Buddy’s affair, but he doesn’t really give a shit. Buddy then breaks off the affair with the excuse that it could lead to a financially ruinous divorce for him.

Frank becomes suspicious of Lester and Ricky’s friendship. While searching his son’s room he finds camcorder footage of a nude Lester lifting weights, which Ricky had captured by chance; he concludes the two are lovers after watching what he thinks is them having sex, though what they’re actually doing is smoking pot.

After Ricky comes home, Frank beats him and accuses him of being gay. Ricky lies and says he is, which goads Frank into kicking him out of the house. He then says goodbye to his mother and leaves, and heads over to the Burnhams’ house to convince Jane to run away with him to New York. The two get in a fight with Angela, who’s spending the night, and Ricky calls her ordinary, which sends her fleeing from the room in tears.

After the breakup with Buddy, Carolyn loads a gun and heads home, repeating over and over to herself that she refuses to be a victim. Meanwhile, Frank heads over to the Burnhams’ and finds Lester in the garage. He tries to kiss him. When Lester rebuffs his advances, Frank goes home.

A few minutes later in his living room, Lester finds an upset Angela, who attempts to seduce him. But when he learns she’s a virgin he puts on the brakes, and instead the two talk about their shared frustrations. When Angela steps away for a moment to use the bathroom, Lester smiles at a family photograph in the kitchen, and then …

Well, I won’t spoil the ending for you if you haven’t seen American Beauty, but let’s just say that Lester tells you what happens to him in the film’s narration, so you really shouldn’t be surprised.

The most impressive music in the film is Thomas Newman’s gorgeous, Oscar-nominated score, but since that’s still in print and supereasy to find, I’m going to let you check it out for yourself. The film’s soundtrack, however, seems to be out of print in the States, available only as a pretty expensive import, which I find interesting, since it was nominated for a Grammy.

While the soundtrack album is pretty great — it includes one of my favorite Beatles covers, Elliott Smith’s “Because,” which effectively plays over the film’s closing credits — there are quite a few songs that never made it to the disc, including Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” the Guess Who’s “American Woman,” and several of the Bobby Darin tracks that Carolyn Burnham loves so much. I’ve compiled everything except one song, Zen Dadio’s “Tenderfoot,” which you can check out on the band’s MySpace page.

Thomas Newman – Dead Already
Peggy Lee – Bali Ha’i
Bill Withers – Use Me
Betty Carter – Open the Door
Hilton Ruiz – Something Grand
Eels – Cancer for the Cure
Gomez – We Haven’t Turned Around
Bob Dylan – All Along the Watchtower
The Guess Who – American Woman
Bobby Darin – Call Me Irresponsible
Bobby Darin – Where Love Has Gone
Bobby Darin – Don’t Rain on My Parade
The Who – The Seeker
Bobby Darin – As Long as I’m Singing
Free – All Right Now
Annie Lennox – Don’t Let It Bring You Down
Elliott Smith – Because
Thomas Newman – Any Other Name

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