Maybe it’s just because pop culture is my life, but it seems a solid majority of the people I know either nurse faded dreams of being a musician or, in rare cases, actually did learn an instrument and even put a band together. I myself have quixotically acquired a collection of musical toys over the years – a drum set, electric guitar, keyboard, ukuele – and successfully failed to play any of them long enough to be considered even a beginner. Even now, come every New Year’s, I tell myself that I’m finally going to take lessons, while the layer of dust thickens on my tom-toms. If artistic expression holds any allure for you, channeling it through music feels like the most immediate way, even though realistically painting or writing are probably easier to bullshit you’re way through if we’re just accounting for the learning process. Unless you can sing, learning an instrument is a long-term investment of your time and energy. Still, the power of a song is hard to estimate – works of illustrated art, or books, or movies, or sculpture, these all bear unique rewards, yet a song, so emotionally direct and fleeting in its brevity, can wrap around any given moment to provide a catharsis. It unites people to sing together, to dance its rhythms and beats, to celebrate, mourn, revolt, and ponder, and we submit to this bewitching day after day via our iPods, radios, karaoke outings, concert experiences, or American Idol viewings. Music is so inescapable in daily life that naturally, at some point, we all covet the gift to conjure that magic.
So it’s perfectly universal for a tale of impending mortality dipped in existential emptiness to frame its protagonist’s inevitable breakthrough around his proximity to a guitar. Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) has been shy, precise, and predictable his whole life, but when he finds out that death is imminent and he’s better off “living the life he always wanted” in his remaining days, his inclination isn’t to run naked in the streets (been there, done that) or scale the highest mountain: it’s to learn the guitar. This pays off when he accomplishes another item on the bucket list by making a move on Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a woman he likes. After dinner at her place, Harold finds an acoustic on her couch but even having recently taught himself how to play and even getting good at a single song, he’s too embarrassed to go for it. Once Ana leaves the room, though, Harold finds courage outside the spotlight – or takes an impulsive leap, however you prefer to see it – and starts strumming the opening to Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World”. Closing his eyes probably as a shield from judgment, then because he has given himself purely to the moment, Harold timidly croons the song as Ana catches on from the kitchen and approaches him in disbelief. As soon as he notices she’s sitting there with him but decides to press on anyway, the deal is sealed – she pulls him in for a glorious kiss, like it’s the last one they’ll ever get, and as the guitar falls away, the soundtrack cues up the anthemic chorus of Wreckless Eric’s original. Eventually they pause for breath and confirm their feelings in a cute little callback, and then, because the song is so awesome, it kicks in again for another wild make-out session.
Stranger Than Fiction offers this as an excellent prototype for the quintessential past-time of romance cinema to match a great song to the moment when a couple finally unites. It’s not just Harold coming out of his shell and enjoying life on spontaneous terms; it’s Ana’s climactic recognition of a fellow passionate soul buried in her IRS agent enemy. And it’s not just the convergence of thematic meaning and a pivotal narrative turning point, either – it’s in the selection of this half-punk, half-power pop gemstone that was otherwise lost to history, doomed to sporadic ’70s-punk comps. Calling attention to and irresistibly re-contextualizing songs that most people have never heard of is one of the great unsung pleasures of the movies; having been a cinephile long before I began taking an active interest in music, I have movies to thank for a lot of my exposure to good music. In coming editions of this feature, you’ll see that this is how I first took notice of so many different bands – The Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Suzy Quatro, The Beta Band, Lick the Tins, Fear, Yaz, last week’s Harry Belafonte…Wreckless Eric (Eric Goulden’s stage name) came out of nowhere for me when I went to see Stranger Than Fiction in 2006, and by then my in-depth music history education had already come a long way. The punk phase had come and gone years ago, in fact, my depository of Clash, Ramones, Sex Pistols, and Misfits records sufficiently padded out. So where did this song come from? Well, there’s always more out there that you haven’t found yet. That in turn is one of the great pleasures of pop music. You may think you’ve heard everything worth your time, but the historical catalog, even at only about 60+ years old (if you count from the birth of rock and soul in the ’50s), is so immense and disorganized that you’ll never hear it all. Sounds depressing in a way, but I’m comforted to know that I haven’t turned over every rock and found every gold coin yet. Who knows what movies or the radio or some music blog or somebody I’m talking to will introduce me to next…
Even beyond how boldly romantic it is, “Whole Wide World” was a smart song to use at this particular moment in the movie, since it uses only E and A chords, a cinch for guitar-playing novices. Of course Harold would learn this song before any others. If he’d busted out some Metallica, that would be a stretch for his character, but a crude ’70s punk anthem? No doubt. In not being strictly punk – more like pre-new wave pub rock, you might say, but even that gets confusing – it finds an agreeable middle ground for anyone to appreciate, while still making sense that tattooed, free spirit Ana would be a fan (she lip synchs some of the lines while watching Harold). That simple chord scheme, starting off in hushed reservation like the initial climb of a roller coaster, then letting loose with a charging declaration of love, with tambourines and handclaps adorning the all-out release; the primitive aggression in these choruses, on top of Eric Goulden’s affectation of a nasally growl is what situates this in the punk camp, but really it’s just a pop song in wolf’s clothing (often the best kind). Still, it’s Goulden’s raw performance (rather than the many sterile covers from artists like The Monkees and The Proclaimers) that makes it so fitting for this key point in the movie. By transitioning from Harold’s whispered rendition to Goulden’s howl, it’s like his inner self being unleashed. That’s how he really sounds, and Ana rejoices in suddenly hearing that.
Needless to say, credit goes to the actors charged with making this scene pulsate. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a secret weapon of an actress, never pushing for attention but disarmingly unaffected and as a result effortlessly convincing in any role she takes, and in this scene, she internalizes most of her reaction to Harold’s song but we can still clearly interpret the breaking down of her last defenses as real affection dawns. Will Ferrell, meanwhile, is a revelation in the movie – it’s one of the few times in his career when he hasn’t been unmistakably self-aware of his own buffoonery. Instead his acting style reminds me of what Jim Carrey was going for by the end of the ’90s when he tried to move away from comedy and get taken seriously as a thespian, in stuff like The Majestic and The Truman Show. Will Ferrell avoids the archly serious tics he uses (effectively, I might add) in every single other appearance, and rather becomes Harold Crick, a regular person befuddled by strange events. His entire demeanor is dialed down several notches, but it’s not a wet noodle acquiescence to sincerity overload like Carrey was in The Majestic; it’s fitting for the buttoned-up, soft-spoken person he’s playing, and Ferrell finds some touching notes to play in-between earning laughs in straight-man deadpan territory. In this moment, Ferrell’s unexpected sense of understatement and well of soft-centered reticence quickly conveys the song’s yearning spirit even before reaching Goulden’s stanza about his lonely tears and not being able to find his dream girl. At its heart the song is more of a rage against uncertainty and the injustice of loneliness than a “hallelujah” to never giving up, and so the movie capitalizes on both ends by expressing the former through Ferrell’s vulnerability and the latter by way of the scene’s happy ending.
You might’ve seen this same scenario already: “Whole Wide World” on screen sung by a character, then a shift into the Wreckless Eric version playing louder on the soundtrack; it happened first in the 2002 Michelle Williams coming-of-age movie Me Without You but chances are you didn’t see that movie, and Stranger Than Fiction will be your first taste of the band. “Whole Wide World” has all the trappings of a hit single, but it never took off, and though Wreckless Eric continued to release various amounts of music since the late ’70s, this revved-up love ballad from the debut album remains his signature creation. A corresponding fate awaited Stranger Than Fiction – it grossed a decent amount, was well-received, and even nabbed some minor award recognition that year, but it’s not commonly remembered seven years later. Talladega Nights is the 2006 Will Ferrell movie that most people saw and to this day associate him with, and Fiction was probably a few degrees too accessible to be anointed a Criterion-level work of art, so in the deluge of pop culture options these days, it will end up just as overlooked as Wreckless Eric was back in the ’70s. Though if history is indeed cyclical, then just maybe, in thirty years some new media platform will use the movie for its own ideological short-hand, and a different generation will discover a great movie, a killer song, and the urge to pick up a guitar. If not, at least Goulden’s poignantly thrilling dedication to the quest for One True Love finally got its moment in the sun.