We all know the typical indie movie storyline. A ‘life-changing’ event leads to the main character exploring his/her inner soul and realigning his/her life. There’s no real plot, just a bunch of characters whose personalities allow the film to get from A to B in an often entertaining and enchanted way. Greg Mottola’s Adventureland is one of those films.
The film is about a young graduate called James Brennan, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who has to find a summer job at Adventureland, a run down amusement park, in order to keep his hopes of studying in New York alive after his father is demoted. The idealistic vision James created of his post-graduate life suddenly comes crashing back to reality as he realises he will have to put in some effort to achieve his goals.
On his soul seeking journey, James is aided by a host of characters, each playing their role in guiding him, helping him mature. But another guiding force is that of music. Indeed, music plays a massive part in the movie and its role is much more than simply conveying emotion. The original score is actually written by indie rock outfit Yo La Tengo, but after viewing this film, which I have done on many an occasion, you never seem to recall any of this. With 41 songs licensed in the movie, most of which are diegetic, Adventureland covers a wide scope of sounds that help to set the scene.
Set in 1987, Adventureland shows two different worlds – that of the alternative crowd, to which James belongs, and that of the mainstream corporate world in which he lives. Not many films set in the 80s actually show the genuine reach of college rock – the only one I recall is the inclusion of Dramarama’s Anything, Anything in one of the Nightmare On Elm Street sequels. Yet many college students were into the rock scene around the mid-80s, hence why we call it college rock.
This music helps James make new friends over the summer, most importantly his love interest Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart). They bond over music as they drive around Pittsburgh on summer evenings. The film includes bands like Husker Du (Em even sports one of the band’s T-shirts), The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Replacements, The Cure. but it also delves into these bands influences from David Bowie to The New York Dolls. There is a special place given to Lou Reed – he is idolised by James. Reed’s music appears regularly over the film and his face appears on T-shirts and posters. Adventureland’s resident handyman Connell (Ryan Reynolds) even uses an alleged jam session with Lou Reed as a way to bond with the younger generation he is constantly in contact with.
On the flip side, the film demonstrates the mainstream scene. The classic rock and hair metal played on the radio and TV do not seem to grab anyone’s attention. Falco’s Amadeus, which is repeated over and over throughout the film, drives the characters – and indeed the viewers – mad. Well, all but Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), who embodies the pop side of things in the film. When James finds himself torn between Em and Lisa, there’s a real sense that although choosing Em may be a tumultuous ride, at least he shares things in common with her. The divide between his world of natural cool and that of calculated cool reaches its climax when Lisa P. dances to Shannon’s Let the Music Play in perfect sync with her best friend while the crowd are at a local nightclub.
In many ways, music is what helps James realign his life. He realises that his materialistic and idealistic dreams, portrayed by the corporate fakery of the 80s, are not what he wants or needs. Being able to connect with people on an intellectual and cultural level seems much more important and his initial ambitions of being a writer seem more realistic. The movie’s soundtrack plays a great role in advancing a story with very little plot. It helps the viewer connect with the multitude of great characters, enabling us to fully appreciate the emotional journey the lead character must take along the way.