‘A Short History of Decay’: Is it time to ban indie rock from soundtracks?

not coming to a theater near youIn my previous post I wrote how the overuse of pop music in movies today has become a crutch for uninspired directors, using Jon Favreau’s Chef as Exhibit A. Michael Maren‘s A Short History of Decay is a far more recognizably “indie” release than Chef (no celebs dropping by in the cast, and a far more modest budget, for starters), but it‘s another example of a pop soundtrack being pressed into service to prop up a movie’s narrative.

Bryan Greenberg and Linda Lavin, A SHORT HISTORY OF DECAY. Copyright So-and-So.

Bryan Greenberg and Linda Lavin, A SHORT HISTORY OF DECAY. Copyright Big Fan Films.

I hesitate to critique a low-budget indie film, particularly in this case; writer-director Maren was clearly sincere in wanting to explore the dynamics of a family with ailing, elderly parents. But to judge from the evidence of his debut feature, Maren — previously a war correspondent and aid worker, and the author of The Road to Hell, a well-regarded critique of foreign aid— may not be a natural-born filmmaker.

A Short History of Decay gets off to an unfortunate start with an opening montage of the Ft. Greene and Prospect Heights neighborhoods of Brooklyn — an indifferent series of quick cuts of subway signs and local landmarks — that plays as rote scene-setting, and a missed opportunity to convey the actual character of these areas. The opening is especially disappointing because New York City no longer requires permits for public filming, provided the camera and crew aren’t obstructing anything (and aspiring auteurs can even use a tripod); a single pan across Grand Army Plaza could’ve served as a better intro for A Short History of Decay.

Chef-01(Jon Favreau’s Chef gets into similar trouble when the movie relocates to Miami: a city which is not exactly hurting for cinematic locales is introduced with a montage that’s so unimaginative that it’s almost baffling. Favreau keeps cutting back to an unattractive high-rise hotel; I can only assume the producers cut a sweet deal to use this location in return for guaranteed screen time. But more than that, the absence of rhythm in the way this sequence is put together is a puzzle. You can’t discern any reason or intent as to why one shot follows another.)

Inevitably, A Short History of Decay‘s opening montage is accompanied by a strummy indie-rock tune, which I presume is meant to inject energy into the movie. My heart sank as the film resorted to several more music cues within the next 10 or 15 minutes, all of the same generic, “sensitive” indie-rock genus.

It’s not just that whoever picked the songs had a tin ear, but that the songs seem so randomly, haphazardly placed, as if a blindfolded music supervisor jabbed at a timeline in Final Cut Pro and that’s where the songs landed. Every few minutes, another brightly mastered acoustic guitar strikes up on the soundtrack, pushing, straining to give the movie added life.

Did someone in the editing room feel that the narrative here needed any quick boost of energy it could get? When filmmakers use pop music so indiscriminately, I start to feel like I’m watching the idea of a movie — somebody’s hopeful simulation of a feature film — rather than the real thing. In place of the tired indie rock soundtrack, an inspired instrumental score could have imbued A Short History of Decay with far more unique character and atmosphere.

A Short History of Decay is out now on DVD and is also available to watch on Amazon and iTunes.*

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