An adorable man-boy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) walks into an elevator, his headphones blasting the sad British pop music of The Smiths. An equally adorable dream-girl (Zooey Deschanel) steps in after him, remarking that she also likes the not-totally-obscure-but-still-too-indie-to-be-mainstream band. “To die by your side would be such a heavenly way to die” she sings along to the lyrics of “There is a Light that Never Goes Out.” He stares at her with slack-jawed incredulity: love at first song.
This pivotal scene from (500) Days of Summer brings the characters of Tom and Summer together for the first time—and also marks the moment when the concept of “indie” totally morphed into mainstream. Garden State may have paved the way in 2004 (remember when Natalie Portman offered Zach Braff her headphones during their musical meet-cute and told him that The Shins would change his life?) but the soundtrack to Summer has attracted an even broader post-indie appeal.
Following the film’s release in 2009, The Smiths expanded their fan base to teenagers who weren’t even born when the band broke up in 1987. Fox Searchlight—an independent subsidiary of 20th Century Fox—proved once again that their films are more hip to the younger crowd than those of their aging flagship. The cardigan-clad leads of the film became romantic hipster icons. And the soundtrack—which also features Regina Spektor, Temper Trap, Wolfmother and ’80s pop duo Hall & Oates—enjoyed instant popularity with scores of eclectic, vinyl-touting millenials.
The songs that make up (500) Days of Summer are a mix of old and new, creating a warm and inviting “indie” feel that is more akin to a sunny glow of nostalgia than a dark cloud of alternative angst. Although some of the music borders on wistful melancholia, the mood never gets too dark or depressing. Tom and Summer’s relationship doesn’t have a conventionally happy ending, but it’s not a tragedy either.
To effectively capture the film’s many shades of grey, each song on the soundtrack is an exploration of love’s confusing yet often revelatory middle ground—volleying between jaunty determination, hope-tinged heartache, and welcome bursts of spontaneous joy.
An effervescent piano ditty (Regina Spektor’s “Us”) opens the film, with childhood home videos of Tom and Summer playing side by side. Even though the narrator has already warned us “this is not a love story,” the song still sparkles with optimism—as if to say “We’ll be just as happy together as when we were kids!”
The next Regina Spektor track, a plaintive piano ballad called “Hero,” is drastically different in tone. With lyrics such as “I never saw it coming at all” playing over the devastating side-by-side sequence of Expectations vs. Reality, Tom goes to Summer’s rooftop party with the hope that they will reconcile…until he sees an engagement ring from another man on her finger.
The rest of the songs are considerably lighter, with Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition” capturing the whirlwind romance of Tom and Summer’s better days and Wolfmother’s “Vagabond” signaling Tom’s post-breakup renewal. Surprising little gems also pop up throughout, such as Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends” during a screening of The Graduate and Carla Bruni’s “Quequ’un M’a Dit” on a dreamy afternoon drive.
However, the standout track on the album (and the best scene in the film) belongs to Hall & Oates. After finally spending the night with Summer, Tom walks to work the next morning with an extra-special spring in his step. To the irresistibly happy tune of “You Make My Dreams Come True,” he greets everyone on the street with a nod and a smile before joining them in a synchronized dance routine straight out of a classic movie musical (marching band and animated bluebird included). This sequence didn’t just singlehandedly resurrect the genius that is Hall & Oates—it turned one of their biggest hits into the perfect metaphor for getting laid. In other words: a feel-good anthem for the ages.
(500) Days of Summer may be full of pseudo-indie clichés, but the film still has heart. And if certain audiences refuse to crack a smile from the “adorkability” of Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel onscreen, they can at least sing along to The Smiths or dance around their room to Hall & Oates when no one is looking.