Adventureland isn’t the most visionary film ever made. It’s not La Notte, or Sunrise: A Tale Of Two Cities, or Breaking The Waves. Nor is it another culturally astute millennial stoner sex farce, despite that fact it features a supporting cast of Apatow-regulars like Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and the guy who played Bill in Freaks And Geeks.
It’s really just a movie about teenagers, sex, summer, soft drugs and long nights. It’s romantic but unsentimental, depicting those years of your life when you live in a fluctuating state of fear and fervor, not knowing what your future will be and seeing out the twilight of youth in a sickly, nervous fug of deep tokes and stomach pangs (a period that Hollywood usually tars with the broad strokes of mawkishness and premature ejaculation jokes). Imagine Fellini’s I Vitelloni with hash cakes, or American Graffiti had it not been directed by a Mormon and you’re on the right track.
The plot is simple: a precocious college student played by Jesse Eisenberg slinks back to his suburban hometown for summer, only to find his dream of traveling through Europe crushed by his parents' financial issues. He’s forced to find a job, and the only one he can get is at a third-rate theme park just outside Pittsburgh. The park, which gives the film its title, is staffed by a crew of similarly inexperienced teenagers from across the social spectrum, all united in a need to make an easy buck.
Within a day Eisenberg finds his place at the park, quickly being accepted by a whole cast of metalheads, misfits, jocks and nerds, including the hot-panted teen temptresses that dances next to the rides and Kristen Stewart’s surly games machine operator. Soon, we begin to realise that these seemingly disparate youths, some of which have had sex, most of which haven’t, are united by something much more than just needing the money—they have that uniquely adolescent sense of uncertainty.
The film is set in 1988, but it’s not defined by history. There are no jokes about Michael Jackson still being black, Reaganomics or having to use payphones. It's not The Wedding Singer. The songs on the soundtrack are just the noises that play out in the character’s lives rather than a Sofia Coppola-style curated playlist. If there’s a mega hit, it’s because it would have been all over the radio at the time, not because it’s a funny song with a sax solo in by a man with a mullet.
It’s a naturalistic but fun approach and one that it’s easy to imagine yourself in. Aviici becomes Falco, Odd Future become Rush, “White Noise” by Disclosure becomes “Let The Music Play” by Shannon, The xx become The Cure. The soundtracks of our lives are not Spotify playlists of songs we love, but the songs we cannot escape.
That’s not to say we don’t get glimpses of the character’s own personal choices when they’re at parties and in their cars, as well as radio fare that blares over the park’s tannoy system. It’s hard to imagine that Hüsker Dü and Crowded House could feature on the same soundtrack, but the clever selecting of tracks and the context of the film makes it work.
The punkier stuff (Hüsker, The Replacements, New York Dolls) is there to evoke the kind of frustrated, cerebral male sexuality that Eisenberg’s character occupies at the heart of the film. It’s music that begs and yearns; it’s fast, it’s loud, it gets drunk and fucks up but it’s also very much in love. It comes from a big dumb heart that thinks it’s smarter than it is, and it sounds totally at home in the world of the film.
The big, stadium-pop numbers in the shape of INXS’s surging “Don’t Change” and The Outfield’s “Your Love” (which is so over-produced that it actually starts to sound kind of avant garde, like a Yeezus leftover) perfectly reflect the hot waxed, pink pomp of middle-American culture in the 80s; a world which is represented by the sunburnt lunks who frequent the park, and by Ryan Reynold’s tragic Classic Rock lothario who uses his guitar case and a squint to make his way through all the teenage girls in the park.
This largely derided strain of American music, with its pained vocals, echoing toms and lyrics about girls called “Jessie” who drive muscle cars and break hearts suddenly makes sense when you see a world where the tough guys wore arse-enhancing jeans and blow dried their hair.
In their quieter moments, the two almost-lovers played by Eisenberg and Stewart (in a performance where her famous moodiness is brilliantly used as a sign of insecurity rather than studied aloofness) are seemingly more enthralled to the past than the music that surrounds them. Like generations of teenagers who take themselves way to seriously, they listen to Lou Reed, Velvet Underground and Big Star as if to intellectually inoculate themselves from all the INXS and Falco.
In Diablo Cody films, for instance, having young characters with such developed taste can be quite jarring and unconvincing, but we have to remember the film is set in the 80s, and that kinda stuff was really only as far from memory as UK Garage is to us now. And because the characters are supposed to be endowed with minor superiority complexes, it doesn’t feel forced. They just feel like those slightly pretentious, yet naïve teenagers we all knew. The kids in every town who pronounced “Camus” wrong and had Smiths lyrics in their MSN screennames.
But for the emotional climaxes of the film, that combination of the pop stuff they play on the park’s soundsystem and the music the kids would have actually listened to combine in a kind of perfect unison. Eisenberg, Stewart and the gang take extra strong hash cookies and go on a woozy, loved-up bumper ride soundtracked by The Cure’s searing “Just Like Heaven.” In other hands it could feel forced, but it’s easy to forget that The Cure would have been all over middle American radio in 1988, and the total romanticism of it all just makes it feel like a moment from your own life that you couldn’t believe was real.
David Bowie’s 80s hit “Modern Love” (his best tune) plays in another moment, as does Wang Chung’s hazy, GTA-approved anthem “Dance Hall Days.” The Replacement’s “Unsatisfied” sounds out the romantic crescendo.
It’s a soundtrack which is intelligent and naive, nostalgic but totally believable, and it has just about all of my favorite songs of all time in it. Adventureland might not be a Palm D’or winner, and the soundtrack might not be Phillip Glass or Mica Levi. But it’s about as good as pop-filmmaking gets.