When I first saw Kimya Dawson several years ago opening for They Might Be Giants, there was nothing that made me think that her music would eventually be the soundtrack to a successful movie. Don’t get me wrong, I liked her…a lot. She can’t sing, she can’t play, her songs are simple, yet she has an undeniable charm that comes from a bizarre off-color and childlike innocence. As such, she is perhaps the perfect person to make the music for Juno, a film with characters whose innocence isn’t candy-coated.
For those not familiar with Dawson or the anti-folk movement in which she is quite prevalent, the songs are typically off-key little ditties with a point of view that may seem a bit skewed to the rest of the world. It would be easy to dismiss her work, yet so many people who actually get to hear it can’t. Why? Because in all of her quirkiness, there’s a charming honesty, an honesty we can admire even as we wonder if she’s for real. Dawson contributes five songs to the soundtrack plus one with Moldy Peaches and two with Antsy Pants, all odd little tunes that are as awkward and beautiful as the journey through adolescence.
The soundtrack actually begins with "All I Want Is You," a tune by children’s artist Barry Louis Polisar which forms a nice bookend with the Moldy Peaches’ "Anyone Else But You" as performed by actors Michael Cera and Ellen Page at the close of the film. The open, naive beauty of the first fits almost perfectly with the irony and sweetness of the closer, bringing the album, like the movie itself, full circle. In between, there are, as with most soundtracks, songs that fit the album without the movie and songs that don’t. The Kinks’ "A Well Respected Man" and Mott the Hoople’s "All the Young Dudes" are surely perfect in the film, yet they stick out like sore thumbs when the soundtrack is taken on its own. Just in case you didn’t catch the indie credibility of including Kimya Dawson, Jason Reitman and company make their claim with everyone’s first choice in instant hipper-than-thou cred, Sonic Youth. Frankly, I could live the rest of my life without hearing "Superstar," the noise rock version here or any other, and its inclusion only hurt the soundtrack. At least "I’m Sticking with You" wasn’t the typical Velvet Underground pick, redeeming at least a little from that Sonic Youth misstep. A couple tracks from Belle & Sebastian fit in nicely as does Buddy Holly’s "Dearest." While Cat Power’s take on the classic "Sea of Love" isn’t essential, it’s a worthy effort that’s worth hearing.
As with all soundtracks, it is difficult to make something that stands on its own outside of the film. A song that may fit perfectly within the context of the movie may be lost without the visual and the story. The Juno soundtrack is no exception. However, instead of the typical b-side quality music that ends up in so many films, Juno provides mainstream exposure to the work of an amazing yet unknown artist to a broad (and hopefully receptive) audience. It’s a bit of an erratic ride, but worth the effort to hear nonetheless.