SPINEMA Issue 36: Mondo Shows Their TEEN SPIRIT

Lend an ear to SPINEMA: a column exploring all movie music, music related to movies, and movies related to music. Be they film scores on vinyl, documentaries on legendary musicians, or albums of original songs by horror directors, all shall be reviewed here. Batten down your headphones, because shit’s about to sound cinematic.

I was one of the lucky few that caught Teen Spirit (2018) in theaters and found the film a charming underdog story that was refreshingly different than I expected, given the genre. The feature length directorial debut by actor Max Minghella is a musical starring Elle Fanning as the painfully shy and distant Violet, who spends her days working on her single mother’s farm and her nights busing tables in a dive bar. Her only escape is getting lost in the bubblegum pop she loves to sing to the bar’s inebriated patrons. When the American Idol-esque Teen Spirit singing competition comes to her small village on Isle of Wight (where the director’s father is from) looking for contestants, the young woman sees this as her big chance. There’s only one wrinkle — her conservative mother would prefer her singing for the lord in the church choir rather than the pop she prefers.

When the 17-year-old needs a legal guardian to audition, she recruits Vlad (Zlatko Buric), an alcoholic from the bar, to pose as her uncle. We soon discover Vlad was once a famous Russian opera singer, striking an unlikely bargain with the young woman offering his time on the condition he’s her manager if she makes it. As Violet rises through the competition, encountering stardom and temptation, the two make an unlikely pair. Vlad appears to find some form of redemption in trying to help Violet as we discover his own estranged daughter was once his protégée, while Violet finds the father figure she never had in the broken man.

The reason I think Teen Spirit failed to break with general audiences is its very melancholic tone. This, paired with Elle Fanning’s more subdued and defiant performance as the Polish mezzo soprano, has the actor delivering a more grounded and realistic approach that’s not your traditional likable underdog. This allows the audience instead to focus in on the emotional beats the film is trying to hit as Violet and Vlad’s relationship is tested when she is offered a contract before the finals of the competition. This all transpires through Autumn Durald’s (Palo Alto) dreamlike cinematography that keeps the audience guessing whether Violet could wake up at any moment.

That uneasiness is something that keeps you guessing throughout the film; you never feel completely safe in this world, or know Violet is simply going to win it all. In interviews, Minghella has admitted that it was Fanning’s performance that urged him to give her a move favorable fate, rather than the one in the original script. I loved that the film doesn’t simply pin its heart on this underdog story, but instead opts for this unlikely story of two damaged people finding they need one another. Fanning not only does the acting, but also the singing duties in a role that impressed not only me, but the fine folks at Mondo who saw fit to release the film’s soundtrack on a very fittingly 180 gram hot pink slab of vinyl.

Here’s a close up so you can see the spot varnish made to look like spot lights. Sorry for the fingerprints..

The packaging alone here is quite impressive, with the record housed in a spot varnished fold out sleeve that really drives home the slickness of the electronic and pop tracks that are contained on this volume. Inside of the fold we have an image of Violet from the film listening to her forever present pink iPod that not only is a key moment in the film, but shows you how personal this music is to our protagonist as we experience her playlist first hand and through her literal voice. We have an amazing line up of artists, with tracks by Robyn, Ellie Goulding, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, Tegan & Sara, Annie Lennox, Orbital, Alice Deejay, The Undertones, Major Lazer, Grimes, Whigfield, Sigrid, and an original song “Wildflowers” sung by Fanning, written by Carly Rae Jepsen and produced by Jack Antonoff.

The soundtrack is mix regular music, straight covers and interpretations by Fanning, who gives the songs to Violet and her world. Sometimes you review an album and maybe listen to it once or twice to get a feel for the mix and the mood you get from it, but Teen Spirit has fallen quickly into my heavy rotation with its saccharine mix of sweet and sour. Like Violet and the film for that matter, Fanning’s vocals may not be for everyone, since the film retools and reconfigures some of these pop standards to suit her story. It works not only as a reminder of the story, but also as a showcase for the young actor, who really makes these songs her own. If you notice some of Fanning’s performances in the film sound slightly different than what’s contained here, it’s because Minghella chose to go keep the on-set energy using the live on set take as opposed to cutting to the pre-recorded verisons.

After the soundtrack opens with Genesis by Grimes on Side 1, we’re introduced to Fanning’s voice with her first cover that sets the stage, Tegan and Sara’s I Was a Fool. Beginning with this kind of stripped down almost acoustic track, that is basically just Fanning and a Piano for the bulk of the song, lets Fanning show her range before moving to the more produced portion of the music. This is Violet at her very bare core, and Fanning giving a straight performance before we move to her take on Robyn’s Dancing on My Own and her take on Lights, which also closed Spring Breakers, a film I think has a similar visual style. These two songs have Fanning vamping, but they are Violet finding her voice, which ends with her cover of Annie Lennox’s Little Bird, whose lyrics feel they were the inspiration for her character.

Side two is the Teen Spirit competition portion of the film, with a few very uncharacteristic tracks that are pulled from her performance on the show. Teenage Kicks and Tattooed Heart are probably my least favorites here, till we start to slip into Violet territory again with Fanning’s take on Sigrid’s Don’t Kill my Vibe that goes into full orchestrated ballad. Pulled from Violet’s final pivotal performance in the competition, it does exactly what it needs to do, driving home the message of the narrative while putting Violet in full pop-star mode. This then slides into what is easily my favorite track, Fanning teaming up with Orbital for Halcyon Teen Spirit, because you know, Hackers.

The film and the record ends with Fanning doing her best T-Swift pop anthem impersonation with Wildflowers, written by Jack Antonoff, who produced some of Taylor Swift’s tracks on her opus 1989. This feels like a song I could picture being on Violet’s first album and one that Fanning just kills here. It also feels like a culmination, after hearing her hit all these different sub-genres of pop music, that her character would eventually try to carve out her own manufactured niche. It’s a satisfying conclusion that’s been my go-to work from home mix since I got the record a few weeks ago.

I was a fan of Teen Spirit, so it kind of goes without saying I would enjoy the soundtrack. But I have to admit, Fanning’s covers really stand on their own surprisingly well and give the collection a bit more weight than your standard collection of hits you usually get with films like these. Mondo has given a film I really didn’t think anyone else liked the attention and respect it deserved in the first place. The only thing that for me might have made that package any better would be some commentary from Minghella on why he chose the songs he did. When you have a film that is a musical that uses preexisting music it’s like a meticulously crafted mix tape, and I would love to know why particular songs resonated with him and were picked as opposed to others. What song didn’t make the cut due to cost and what kind of input if any did Fanning have? Short of that, this is easily one of my favorite Mondo releases in a while, and that’s saying a lot. Here’s hoping they release the soundtrack to the other quickly forgotten film where the lead also did an album, Natalie Portman’s Vox-Lux!

The Teen Spirit soundtrack is available from Mondo now.

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