The Reality Bites Soundtrack at 20: The Good, the Bad and the Totally '90s
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Reality Bites, Houston's cinematic "'90s moment" starring Ethan Hawke's grunge locks and Winona Ryder's doily dress. It's a flawed film, and rather unsatisfying at times, but it's hardly without its charms -- quite like Houston itself, one might say.
Today, it's remembered fondly by many not so much as a classic love story or intimate portrait of life in our city, but as a perfect, time-capsule snapshot of our mass-culture conceptions of success, love and self-expression in the early '90s, before the whole decade lost its damn mind towards the end there.
But hey, we here at Rocks Off ain't film critics. What about the tunes?
Music played a pivotal role in many of the movie's most memorable scenes, and if there's one thing we remember about the '90s, it's that the music back then was pretty good. The Reality Bites soundtrack must be chock full of grungy Gen-X touchstones and Lollapalooza favorites, right?
Well, no, not really. Like the film that spawned it, the soundtrack is kind of a mixed bag. Most of the songs included in the film weren't even recorded in the '90s, and the best stuff from the movie didn't even make the soundtrack album. It was a hit anyway, selling 1.2 million copies and climbing to No. 13 on the Billboard 200. It even managed to spawn a No. 1 hit single. In short, the CD was more popular than the movie.
There's no grunge on that record, or gangsta rap either. Stiller didn't set out to make a "Generation X" movie. So what was it that people were handing over fistfuls of cash to hear back in '94? To figure that out, let's step inside our time machine and travel back to our favorite, grimy coffee shop, fire up a cigarette and carefully examine the good, the bad and the totally '90s from the Reality Bites soundtrack.
THE GOOD In the film, Ben Stiller's character, Michael Grates, is a successful young executive for a hip, MTV-style music channel called In Your Face TV. For '90s reasons, this more or less makes Michael the villain of the piece, rather than the coolest, most well-laid guy in the movie. (Doesn't help that he looks and acts a lot like Ben Stiller, we guess.)
Although In Your Face mostly serves as a vehicle for cultural satire in the film, it also happens to deliver the best music in the whole damn enterprise. When Winona Ryder's character, Lelaina, is investigating the cable channel, she's treated first to the alternative hip-hop stylings of Arrested Development, possibly the greatest non-gangsta rap group to emerge from hip-hop's Golden Age. "Give a Man a Fish," the track featured in the film, was one of many good ones from their smash 1992 debut, 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of... That record, the only Arrested Development album you need concern yourself with, was good enough to win two Grammys and nab the group top year-end honors from Rolling Stone and the Pazz and Jop Critics' Poll.
Up next in the In Your Face rotation? Sepultura's "Arise," the title track from the Brazilian metal legends' 1991 thrash masterpiece. Ironically, this song couldn't be heard on the real MTV at the time, since the video, featuring some freak in a gas mask nailed to a cross in the desert, was deemed "too controversial" by the network and banned from airplay. Irony was big in the '90s.
Even Lelaina's precious documentary, which Michael sexed up into an awesome Real World-style montage for In Your Face that declared Pizza Hut (of all fucking things) to be the solution to all of life's problems, had some quality jams attached. The choice of Salt-N-Pepa's "Let's Talk About Sex" was perhaps a tad on the nose for the reality doc's relationship portion, but we'll allow it, since that frank and danceable bit of safe-sex proselytizing was practically the most '90s thing ever written and performed. Why Salt-N-Pepa aren't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is inexplicable.
Did any of these bitchin' tunes make the Reality Bites soundtrack album? Ha! Nah. RCA had to leave plenty of room for these gems:
Story continues on the next page.
THE BAD You know what the biggest, most memorable musical moment is in Reality Bites? It's when Lelaina and her roommates dance around like total doofs to "My Sharona" inside a convenience store. It's a cute moment, and one of the only times in the movie that the actors appear to actually be enjoying themselves.
And why shouldn't they? Well, because "My Sharona" is one of the most annoying fucking songs of all time, for starters. It might seem strange that a grating New Wave pop song released in 1979 should be received with such glee in our beloved little cinematic time capsule, until you remember that this was The Nineties, when young people discovered irony for the first time ever. Finally, even throwback pap (especially throwback pap!) like "My Sharona" could once again be enjoyed in public... ironically. With ironic dance moves! And that makes it so much harder to tolerate. May the Knack burn in hell.
But wait! It gets worse. If we had to pinpoint a reason why longtime Houston classic-rock radio station 93.7 The Arrow had to change formats recently, it would be because they refused to ever stop playing Peter Frampton's mercilessly repugnant ballad "Baby I Love Your Way." This song was already on the Mt. Rushmore of Suck by '94, but Reality Bites had to stick it in a little further by having it remade by shit-eating reggae-rockers Big Mountain. Naturally, it was a fucking hit, charting as high as No. 6 on the Hot 100. Legend has it that every time this Rasta-fried travesty gets played, a vinyl copy of the Wailers' Catch a Fire disappears forever.
The worst tune in Reality Bites by far, though, plays over its most detestable scene. When it comes time for the inevitable "Gosh, I miss you!" montage, a trope really best left in the '80s, Ben Stiller scraped the bottom of the barrel to come up with the perfect song for it: U2's "All I Want is You." It's a sopping ballad from the band's little-loved Rattle and Hum clusterfuck, and why it couldn't have just sucked in that movie without infecting this one has never been satisfactorily explained.
All three of these songs made the soundtrack album, alongside classics by the likes of World Party and Lenny Kravitz, a hit. 1.2 million copies, friends.
THE TOTALLY '90s So hey, there are definitely some hits and misses, song-wise, in Reality Bites. But who cares? The real fun of this flick is simply to revel in the sheer '90s-ness of it all. And certainly, there are a few musical cues in the film that still conjure that brief period in American youth culture like very few can.
"Rock and Roll (Part 2)" is a glam-rock trifle recorded by a pederast in the 1970s, but in the early '90s, it was everywhere. Particularly sporting events -- if this tune doesn't conjure up memories of the Rockets' title run in '94, well, it's because you weren't there, son. By the time Reality Bites was released, the song had become a kind of shorthand for ultimate victory: just the sort of tune to celebrate the Lelaina's conquering of college. It's the first piece of music we hear in the film.
Now let's talk about Ethan Hawke singing "Add it Up" for a minute. Released in 1983, it's one of the Violent Femmes' punkiest and best. But more importantly, it's one the angstiest songs ever to bubble up from the American underground. It's sexual frustration distilled into a simple melody, and approximately nine trillion dudes in the '90s tried to get laid by singing it to pixie waifs in dorm rooms and coffee shops. According to the historical record, that never worked, but damn if even Ethan Hawke could screw this song up.
But all that pales in comparison to the big hit: Lisa Loeb's "Stay (I Missed You)," possibly the most '90s song ever conceived. An early SXSW find, Dallas native Lisa Loeb was a pleasant young singer-songwriter who happened to live next to Ethan Hawke, and he liked her enough to submit the song to Stiller for inclusion in the film. It played over the credits.
Thing is, Lisa had a tremendously sweet voice, and she looked impossibly cute in the music video for the song. People couldn't get enough of it. "Stay" earned Loeb the distinction of becoming the first artist to top the U.S. Billboard chart without being signed to any record label. (In the '90s, people got signed to record labels.) 1.2 million records later, she got her deal.
If you can listen to Lisa Loeb and not be instantly transported back to 1994, then Reality Bites ain't going to do you any good, either. Maybe give She's All That a shot instead.
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