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20 Years Ago: Sonic Youth Adds Angst to Richard Linklater’s ‘subUrbia’

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SubUrbia was a transitional movie for filmmaker Richard Linklater for many reasons. For one, it was the first film he didn’t write. After both writing and directing his first four features, Linklater chose to collaborate with playwright/actor Eric Bogosian, who adapted the screenplay from his recently produced play of the same name.

Due to Bogosian’s script, but also its cinematic treatment by Linklater, subUrbia displayed a shift to darker material for the director. While the movie shares elements with his previous movies (such as Before Sunrise and Dazed and Confused), in terms of its humanist focus on talkative young people and how it takes place in one night, the movie also gets a little more serious about jealousy, self-expression, aimlessness and impending adulthood.

But subUrbia also marked a change in how Linklater employed music. 1993’s Dazed and Confused had already shown the director’s mastery of syncing old songs to new film sequences. But because this movie took place in the present, as opposed to Dazed’s 1976 setting, he sought to use current music. As one of the characters in the movie was a newly minted alternative rock star, it made sense to lace the film with the songs of other alternative artists, including Beck, Elastica, Stephen Malkmus and the Flaming Lips. He also commissioned new music from Sonic Youth.

Watch “Bee Bee’s Song”

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The group agreed to write songs and score material for the movie, breaking in their new Manhattan studio by recording tracks such as “Bee-Bee’s Song” (named after a particularly tragic character), “Tabla in Suburbia” and “Sunday,” which would be re-recorded for the band’s A Thousand Leaves LP. The soundtrack also featured a Thurston Moore tune – the title track from his 1995 solo debut Psychic Hearts. The ragged, chugging, haunting music became the perfect complement to the raw emotions of the 20-year-olds in the film. Sonic Youth helped Linklater put the capper on his early works, while forecasting some of the subject matter of his future films.

“This one’s the nail in the coffin. This was my final one in what I call my ‘hangin’ out quintet’ – my first five films,” Linklater told the Austin Chronicle in 1997. “This was a good one to end with because it’s a good transition and I like the final kind of tragic elements. It was a good one to go out on. I think I’ve covered a pretty thorough bit of my own personal experience through these in a sort of realistic way.”

Both the subUrbia and its soundtrack album were released on Feb. 7, 1997, but to little media attention. Film critics were (and are) divided about the movie’s merits, while the soundtrack drew praise for its collection of new material from alternative’s heavy hitters.

Although the album didn’t produce any sizable hits, in some ways it was a marginally bigger success than the film, just in terms of accessibility. Although the soundtrack has been available in the years since its release, the movie has never seen a DVD release, ensuring its status as a sort of hidden gem among film fans. In the age of streaming that has changed a bit, as subUrbia has been intermittently offered on Netflix and Amazon. Decades later, both the movie and its soundtrack remain a deep, dark postcard from the slacker epoch.

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