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Scott Pilgrim Turns 10

Andrea is a film scholar who obtained his Masters in Research of Film (Mres) at Edge Hill University by analysing the music biopic genre.

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The 25th of August 2020 saw the 10-year anniversary of the UK cinematic release of Scott Pilgrim vs The World (Edgar Wright: 2010). This music-packed video game of a film is a personal favourite. Although the fantastic visual elements are vastly stylistic within this film, especially in terms of turning life into a video game, the use of music is not only phenomenal but also crucial to the film’s narrative. After all, the originator, Bryan Lee O’Malley, penned his title character Scott Pilgrim from a track by the band Plumtree of the same name. In fact, he’s very open about music as an influence for this particular graphic novel series. At the end of each edition, he scribbles in recommended playlists for the reader with tracks that directly inspired his work. This importance of music is transcribed into the film adaption. Within his Oeuvre, it is safe to say that director Edgar Wright is also heavily influenced by music in the creation of his craft. So let’s take a closer listen to why music is the driving force to the narrative of Scott Pilgrim vs the World.

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Between the Panels

Scott Pilgrim vs the World is a multi-genre film. It contains conventions from genres such as action, romance, comic book/video game adaptation, and of course… concert film. Nostalgia film scholar Jason Sperb argues that:

Scott Pilgrim is in some ways also a concert film, as the diegetic musical performances of the title character’s garage band (Sex Bob-omb), as well as those of his romantic rivals, are another anchor to the film’s narrative. Non-diegetic songs are also often used as bridges from one scene to the next, but more subtly Scott Pilgrim also repeatedly uses conversations to cross from one location to the next… Collectively, these different instances of sound bridges throughout the movie, along with intensified editing, suggests that Scott Pilgrim, for all its visual creativity, is driven narratively by sound, not image. (Jason Sperb: 2016)

Before analysing the importance of the musical performance scenes, let’s take a closer to listen to these ‘sound bridges’ that Sperb is referring to. A scene that portrays this crucial function of the film’s music involves Scott (Michael Cera) suggesting to his new girlfriend Knives (Ellen Wong) that they should “break-up… or, whatever.” The scene is exposed to the dial of a phone and a wide-shot of Scott in a phone booth. In the same narrative space, we then hear the bass riff intro of Black Sheep by Metric (aka the true Clash at Demon Head). The song continues as the narrative space transitions to the record store. As Scott breaks up with Knives the narrative space turns to darkness. Scott slides out of the mise-en-scene to the piano intro of Teenage Dream by T. Rex. Once again, the song continues to play through the scene transition and into the new narrative space. The track bridges us into Scott’s subconscious, as we are now subjected to a montage of mid-shots of Scott sitting on a bus and thinking about the replacement of his new girlfriend Knives with new-new girlfriend Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

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“You Should See Them Live. They’re Much Better Live.”

As well as non-diegetic music functioning as a bridge from scene to scene, diegetic music functions as the focus of the scenes. Wright transposes the non-audible music within O’Malley’s graphic novel into extremely audible pieces of music that reflect the adolescent, simplistic, fast-paced indie-punk music that the fictional bands. During pre-production, the originally idea for the transition of the music was to essentially do away with the musical content. Wright disclosed in a “Q and A” interview that:

In the first draft of the script, there was this running joke that you never heard the bands… You heard the intro, and then it would cut to the next scene, and somebody would be going, ‘Oh my God, that’s the best song ever.’ that was a joke for a long time.

This idea lasted until music producer Nigel Godrich recruited several real-life alternative music artists to produce soundtracks that would emulate the same spirit of the fictional bands being displayed on screen. This included Metric as The Clash at Demon Head as discussed earlier, Broken Social Scene as Crash ‘n’ the Boys, and Beck as the protagonists Sex Bob-Omb. The actors were made to learn their instruments essentially to make a soundtrack appear diegetic on screen, as if to make the fictional bands appear as real performers.

An example of the narrative importance of these musical performance scenes can be seen prior to Scott’s battle with evil ‘X’ #3, Todd (Brandon Routh). Narrative conflict is set up through a literal concert performance. During this performance scene, wide-shots are used to portray The Clash at Demon Head physically performing over the same track that was used during the break-up scene, Black Sheep by Metric. A conflict is presented through several binaries, specifically between the performers in Envy (Brie Larson) and Todd, and the spectators in Scott and Ramona. Fast cuts that portray shot-reverse-shots between the characters transition to the beat of the performed track. The stern performances of Envy and Todd on stage juxtapose the still and shocked reactions of Scott and Ramona in a bouncing crowd. Therefore, through this performance the next battle scene has been established.

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"Ramona Come Closer"

Finally, let’s see how the film’s soundtrack revolves around the narrative McGuffin, Ramona Flowers. As discussed earlier, Bryan Lee O’Malley was directly influenced by music in the creation of his main characters. This is definitely transcribed in the film as the soundtrack contains two key “Ramona” tracks; one during Scott’s first physical encounter with Ramona, and another for his last. The first is I Heard Ramona Sing by Frank Black of the Pixies. This is used in conjunction with shot-reverse-shots of Scott searching for Ramona at a party. All aspects of the mise-en-scene and sound are devoted to Scott’s want for Ramona. Saturating the film language in such a way then fading out the soundtrack on the moment of Scott and Ramona’s encounter essentially progresses the film into its core narrative; Scott’s quest for Ramona’s love.

The second track is the less subtly titled ‘Ramona’ by Beck. Originally, the narrative was supposedly meant to conclude with Scott getting back together with Knives. However, Wright and O’Malley agreed to change this as Ramona is the film’s narrative McGuffin; the girl Scott has been fighting for the whole time. Using Beck to sing the final song is a perfect way to conclude Scott’s quest for Ramona. As established earlier, Beck is the sound of Sex Bob-Omb. His sombre repetition of “Ramona” feels like a meta-diegetic celebration of Scott’s consciousness as he has achieved his goal. Using this track for the original ending would have no sense. Furthermore, earlier in the film Scott serenades Ramona with a “finished” acoustic version of the same song on their second date. Therefore, the transition from a more mute version of the song to the complete studio product is a perfect musical metaphor for Scott’s completed quest.

© 2020 Andrea Sciambarella