Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows three high school misfits: freshman Charlie (Logan Lerman), the sensitive aspiring writer and the narrator; Sam (Emma Watson), a senior, the quasi bad girl who dreams of escaping to Penn State; and her fellow senior Patrick (Ezra Miller), so flamboyant and outrageous that it’s only a matter of time before his classmates’ reflexive homophobia catches him in its sights. The setting is a suburb outside Pittsburgh, circa the early ‘90s.
These three do their share of aimless driving around town in a pickup truck; one way they relieve their boredom is to cruise through a tunnel that opens onto the bridge to Pittsburgh. One night Sam stands in the back of the pickup, arms raised, hair flying behind her in the wind formed by the tunnel. When the pickup comes out onto the bridge, Sam exults in the spectacular vista of the bridge and the lights of the city spread out before her.
On this particular night, the cheap thrill is made glorious by an unknown song that Charlie has discovered on the radio, which he cranks up for Sam’s benefit. No classic-rock dinosaur or current Top 40 hit, the song is both chilly and warm, intimate and grandiose, romantic and fatalistic. The spiraling electric guitar sounds both metallic and fluid; it’s a guitar sound that resists easy pinpointing — if you’re unfamiliar with the song, you can’t really pin the guitar or anything else down to a specific decade.
The guitar and the swirling electronic backdrop combine to create an icily beautiful soundscape of vast, indeterminate space. Yet if you listen closely, paying attention to the verses and not just the chorus, the vocal suggests a singer going to seed in a shabby motel room, an empty bottle at his side, all too earthbound as he croons to his lover that they can be heroes… just for one day.
Blasting the song on their car radio, Charlie and his friends aren’t hearing the verses. To their ears, the song is like a transmission from out of nowhere, come to bless their hopes of making it out into the wider world, beyond the suburban conformity that stifles them. The song seals the moment for them, and makes it perfect.
Being a self-conscious literary type, poor Charlie can’t let the moment go. He has to find out what that song was, so that he can put it on a mix tape for Sam, the far more worldly senior whom he loves but can’t have. The astute moviegoer cottons on here that David Bowie’s “Heroes” will turn up again, close to the end credits. But first it’s amusing to see how stumped Charlie is about just what that song might have been, and to be reminded of what it was like to be in his position back in the primordial, pre-Internet era. If you didn’t hear the DJ identify what the tune was or who sang it, tracking down a song you heard on the radio could feel like snatching at the air.
Sure enough, late in the movie Bowie’s “Heroes” is called back into service, for the purpose of strenuous uplift. Our three leads head back into that tunnel in their pickup, only this time it’s Charlie standing tall in the back of the truck as the lights of Pittsburgh come into view and “Heroes” blasts on the soundtrack. The song and the moment are less magical the second time around, mainly because Charlie’s narration insists on telling us, again and again, that this is a magical moment.
“Heroes” was a canny choice on Chbosky’s part. He needed a cool, semi obscure song that would inspire a sense of discovery in a high school kid in the early ‘90s (first released in 1977, “Heroes” was never a hit in the U.S.). But the song also couldn’t sound like a relic or a one-hit wonder to movie audiences in 2012.
It’s curious to see how “Heroes” has become utterly disconnected over the years from its original scenario of a doomed romance conducted in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. The kids in The Perks of Being a Wallflower aren’t hearing the note of anguish in the vocal, and it’s as if the lines “Maybe we’re lying/Then you better not stay” have been excised from the lyrics. A song that once came in gun-metal grays is now a sunny Technicolor anthem. As with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” the singer of “Heroes” might sound a note of bitter defeat, but that’s not what people remember about either song today.
You can watch David Bowie’s 1977 music video of “Heroes” here: