We Could Be Heroes, Just for One Night: The Importance Of Music In Coming-of-Age Stories

Music is a part of every film. Some emphasise it through waltzing original compositions or stellar soundtracks featuring some of audiences’ favourite tunes. Some do neither, instead allowing music to float in the background unnoticed but no less important, and some do both. A genre that is a particular favourite of this latter option is that of coming-of-age films. Here’s a task for you: think of the first coming-of-age film that pops into your head, can you hear its soundtrack? I know for a fact that you can. 

Shannon Murphy’s debut feature, Babyteeth, is one such coming-of-age film where music lives and breathes as much as the characters do. Taking usual tropes of ‘terminal teen’ and ‘bad boy star-crossed lovers’, Babyteeth offers a refreshing and deeply moving depiction of a young girl growing up in an extreme situation: Milla (Eliza Scanlen) falls head over heels for older drug-addict Moses (Toby Wallace) in spite of the raised eyebrows from her middle-class parents (Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn). But while also trying to deal with Milla’s terminal cancer, the family decide to work through this unique romance together. 

Babyteeth is a perfect example of one of the key reasons why music is so integral to coming-of-age stories, and adolescence in general. The film feels like looking through a photo album, each chapter an important memory to Milla and each is afforded it’s own song. Music from our teenage years is so important because those years are so full of new emotions, and we attach music to these new feelings so that, years down the line, a certain song will play and we get taken back. It’s all part of a psychological phenomenon called the reminiscence bump- but putting a science term to it doesn’t do it justice. 

More often than not, in coming-of-age films, these connections between music and emotional moments happen with a party. When Milla heads out into the city to rebel and party, she experiences a beautiful moment of intimacy with a performance artist with alopecia. Wordlessly they connect, Milla seeing the beauty of a bald head much like her own underneath her wild blonde wig. Underneath it all is, Bizness, a pulsing art-pop song by tUnE-yArDs. Despite the relevancy of the lyrics, with the singer frantically asking “Don’t take my life away! Don’t take my life away!”, Milla’s unadulterated joy of losing herself to the music in a place where nobody knows her but will join in her dance shines through the music.

A very different song captures the same feeling in Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower. Charlie (Logan Lerman) had always been, as suggested by the title, a wallflower until that school dance where his newfound friends Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller) pull him into the dance circle and flail around as teens tend to do. The music of Dexy’s Midnight Runners fades away as the party moves housebound, where Patrick raises a toast to Charlie who shyly smiles before stating “I didn’t think anyone noticed me”. The music here beings to creep back in as Sam welcomes him to “the island of misfits toys”, it is Davie Bowie’s Heroes and the impact it has on all three of them is immense. In the now-classic scene, Patrick turns up the music, drives through a tunnel with Sam stood in the back arms outstretched, and Charlie stares up at her, feeling for the first time accepted, happy. “I feel infinite”, he says as Bowie calls to him to become a hero, just for one day. 

Both Babyteeth and The Perks of Being a Wallflower use of music is thematically and narratively relevant to the stories they’re trying to tell, but that doesn’t always have to be the case when employing music in an empowering way in coming-of-age films. Olivia Wilde’s debut feature Booksmart, Wilde integrates music as a prop by including a karaoke scene that is a huge turning point for protagonist Amy (Kaitlyn Dever). Although the lyrics tell the story of an angry ex-girlfriend talking to the boy that left her, this moment shows Amy quelling her anxiety to find the strength to put herself out there. Literally. Alanis Morisette’s You Oughta Know is muffled until Amy takes a breath and belts the infamous chorus both to impress her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) and to let herself be bold and audacious, no longer held back by her own fear. She smiles and sings when moments before she was asking to go home. 

Alanis Morisette also makes a feature in another coming-of-age debut, with Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird. But it isn’t her popular song Hand in My Pocket that soundtracks Ladybird’s ‘best night ever’, that honour goes to Crash Into Me by Dave Matthews Band. This song breaches the gap of music empowering the characters in these films through songs that relate to them and their experiences as well as through songs as ‘props’. Crash Into Me appears throughout Ladybird as a song representative of Ladybird (Saoirse Ronan) and Julie’s (Beanie Feldstein) friendship. But later, in pretending to hate the song in order to impress the ‘cool kids’, Ladybird creates a pretend version of herself that doesn’t feature Julie in the picture. When Ladybird finally admits to herself that she’s tired of the charade and reunites with Julie, it is only fitting that they slow-dance to the song together at prom. And suddenly, you realise that all this time the song hasn’t just been a prop. The song is about someone who wants their ex back. Now, doesn’t that sound familiar? It might not a wild night full of techno beats, new friends, or daring decisions, but for Ladybird, this reconciliation with her friend and herself made it the best night she could have asked for.

Soundtracks have found a way to cement the importance of telling stories focused on this period of life while so many would be quick to dismiss these YA stories as childish things. We all have a soundtrack to our lives and each of us, in our own ways, have experienced a night like the ones in these films. For an element of filmmaking that was originally used to cover the sound of the rolling projector, music has been taken in and celebrated by the coming-of-age genre, and that in itself ought to be celebrated.