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Animal Collective Songs in 'Waves': Connecting Characters Through Music, by Jocelyn Gale

I have listened to Animal Collective music my entire life, but before watching the movie, Waves, I had yet to hear it on a movie’s soundtrack. Animal Collective produces music that evokes feelings unlike any other artist I’ve heard, and to combine this with a movie like Waves and its extremely talented cast and writing is absolutely stellar. Reader; please know that feelings can be felt in their most chest-fluttering, gut-twisting exposed form when watching a movie that uses Animal Collective songs.

Waves was released in 2019 and written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. After hearing the soundtrack of his film, I can attest to Shults’ interesting and fairly diverse taste in music. When I watched the movie, I noticed the significant use of music throughout. I thought at first that it might be too much, but upon reflection, I can see just how well Shults used the music to accentuate the inner workings of characters in the film.

Every song was so clearly hand-picked to awaken your senses and feel the scene with such amplitude. Three of the thirty-nine songs in this two-hour and fifteen-minute movie are Animal Collective songs, two of them holding a significance that connects the two main characters more than any other music used in the film’s tracklist.

Animal Collective is technically an indie band formed in 2003, but it is truly its own genre of eccentricity. Their music uses synthesized sounds and crescendos of tone that exude feeling in a way that is so specifically Animal Collective. Their lyrics are technically simple, but used with the complexities of sound they produce they become words strung together creating layered outcries of human emotion.

I wondered if the nostalgia I feel when listening to Animal Collective gives me a biased warmth toward the use of their songs in the movie. However, when I rewatch the scenes, I find it simply impossible that anyone watching it wouldn’t find themselves in awe of how entirely the music paired with the scene can decorate your screen and entrance you with feeling.

The movie showcases two perspectives, beginning with Tyler (played by the exceptional Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Tyler is a high school student who has found himself in the limbo between childhood and adulthood in his senior year of high school. He lives in a middle-class family with his father, mother and sister. Tyler’s father pushes him to his limits physically and mentally, expecting nothing short of perfection, both athletically and academically.

In the second act, the perspective moves to Emily, Tyler’s younger sister (played by Taylor Russel). She is the opposite of Tyler; she moves with reserve in the house, not shadowed by him but outshined by the focus and attention their father gives to Tyler. When the camera is following her, it feels unhurried. There is an underbelly to her demeanor, but even with that, she feels more gathered and reflective. 

The first of all thirty-nine songs on the movie’s tracklist to play is FloriDada by Animal Collective. I was so absolutely intrigued by the movie’s opening track choice. This song keeps a consistent beat, rapid culminations of synthesized instrumentals and a catchy repetitive chorus. It’s the feeling of warm sand grains pushing between your toes, sunny breezes washing over your face and saltwater soaking your hair.

Shults chose to use the song’s bridge as the camera spins circles between Tyler and his girlfriend, Alexis (played by Alexa Demie), as they drive down a Florida highway. The sky is vibrant and the ocean surrounds them as Tyler and Alexis are singing and smiling. He’s driving with no hands and a foot out the window; she’s hanging her head through the passenger side window, letting the breeze catch her hair. There is a warmth in the recklessness. It feels like youthful adoration. 

There is a brief nervousness in Alexis’ tone when Tyler asks if she trusts him, putting his hands above his head as she tells him to grab the wheel. It’s quick, as he returns one hand, using the other to pull her close to him. It isn’t exactly uncommon for a teenager to ensue chaos in small doses behind the wheel. However this brief perfunctory instance is a weighted glimmer of what becomes of Tyler and Alexis.

In Tyler’s perspective of the film, the camera moves swiftly, sometimes excitedly, other times manically. Tyler is bouncing back and forth in his brain, breaking bit by bit from the originally depicted jumble of teenage stresses and social antics to tumultuous rage and intensities. It’s known that big things are expected of Tyler and the camera keeps the viewer close to him to feel how much this weighs on him as he navigates this romantic and social life with the weight of his father’s expectations. He suffers a potentially athletic career-ending injury that drives the beginning of his downward spiral that comes to fruition in the violent tragedy that concludes the first act.

I’ll simplify the stomach-turning, eye-watering, painful scene to avoid spilling pivotal moments in the movie. The movie moves to its second act after Tyler acts on a siege of violence that had been sunk under his surface. He reveals the complexities of his vicious capability by way of harming his girlfriend, Alexis. The pain of the scene is enhanced by the intimacy created between the viewer and Tyler up until this point. We got to see the tenderness of young love and highway embraces while also seeing him deal with much more serious conflicts in his life and relationship. We see his humanity and turmoil. Tyler is human; there is so much empathy to be felt on his behalf, especially as the viewer gets a deep-seated understanding of his hurt. This is why “FloriDada” is chosen for Tyler.

The bridge used in Tyler’s first appearance has a aestival beat of drums, lighthearted catchy tones and bright rhythms. As those sounds persist, the lyrics in repetition are, “Where’s the bridge that’s gonna take me home?/The bridge that someone’s fighting over/A bridge that someone’s paying for/A bridge so old so let it go.” As a creative writing major, I can’t help but read into this. The significance of these lyrics to Tyler as a character is undeniable, especially with their repetition, costumed by flashy cadence.

The first line, “Where’s the bridge that’s gonna take me home?” sticks out the most. In the final moments the viewer has with Tyler, the pinpoint where his break begins is in his home, where depths finally surface. His perspective of his parents and the dynamics of his home can now be seen in a broader lens, humanizing each character in their own respects and broadening the space outside of Tyler’s angle. The director was intentional using this piece of the song; it opens the viewer to Tyler, guiding them without their notice, to feeling alongside him without a transparent understanding up until this moment of the nature of his capabilities. Through Tyler, the viewer can experience empathy for the true nature of humanity and its complexities.

It isn’t rare that when a human does something bad, they are seen as wholly bad. Tyler is a human; he is a mosaic of feelings and actions that create a person. He becomes lost in the pieces of himself, being able to be tender and violent in tandem. “FloriDada” is used for Tyler because it laces somber lyrics within the sounds that create an opposite feeling. It can be both complex and light-hearted. It becomes a musical foreshadowing of Tyler.

The atmosphere of the film shifts in the second act, following Emily. The camera movements have a sense of patience as they follow her. She remembers her brother as she understood him, hiding a feeling of responsibility while also developing her own romantic relationship.

We follow Emily in her soft temperance as she navigates a different side of young love, one more awkward and endearing. She empathizes with Luke, whom she begins dating (played by Lucas Hedges). She identifies with his feelings while in her process of internal exploration. As we see her become closer with Luke, the live version of “Loch Raven” by Animal Collective plays while they move through the delicate beginnings of a relationship.

“Loch Raven” is comfortable and mellow. Using its calm persistent sound allows the viewer to feel along with Emily as she finds solace with Luke. He is someone outside of the stresses in her home that she can rely on, who can rely on her. This song works well tonally for this scene, establishing Emily and her harmonious ability to see the ebbs and flows of relationships in her life.

Animal Collective’s music is used to enhance the reflection of imagery between Emily and Tyler as she and Luke are driving down the warm streets of Florida serenely. Luke drives, both hands on the wheel and listening as she acknowledges that there is an Animal Collective song playing, asking if he knows it. He glances between her and the road as Bluish by Animal Collective plays. She opens the window, feeling the wind on her face singing softly. The opening line sets the tone for the song, “I’m getting lost in your curls/I’m drawing pictures on your skin/So soft it twirls.” It’s the freshness of getting to know someone and the want to be with them so endlessly.

Using an Animal Collective song gives the viewer a direct connection to Emily’s memories with Tyler. It leaves room to imagine their music sharing, continuing their connection even when he is gone, changed. This music links them, both in a canonical sense and through the film’s lens.

The song continues as Emily and Luke go to a small party and dance through sprinklers, creating swishes of rainbow droplets across the camera. The energy has shifted prominently from the first act, it’s gentle. It creates that same sense of reckless youth and adoration, but this time in its most innocent form. These two characters are so aware of each other and tender to one another. It has the exciting characteristics of young love but without the toxicity of a hidden violent streak. It is one of the most heartwarming relationships between two young characters that feels so undeniably realistic, and those feelings are saturated with the sounds Animal Collective produces in “Bluish.”

The song is truly entrancing, with lyrics that are idyllic and pure in their romanticism, no costumed hurt undertones. It feels exactly the way it is displayed on screen, like cool breezes in the warmth of daylight or water spraying rainbow patterns in the reflections of streetlights. It has a warmth that isn’t like the burning of the summer sun but the feeling of loving someone and feeling that closeness fully and mesmerizingly.

The use of Animal Collective for these mirrored experiences and Emily’s acknowledgment of that is how the director has connected Tyler and Emily’s emotional development. She also feels something much stronger than she is presenting, but her exuding of that is so different from Tylers. The peak of her emotional turmoil comes out while talking to her father, finally bursting to admit the guilt she feels involving Tyler’s perspective’s violent conclusion. It creates a stronger bond with her father, whereas Tyler’s emotional surface works to create a divide.

To use Animal Collective in these mirrored scenes gives the viewer the connection between them, not as siblings but as humans with feelings who are approaching them so differently. Animal Collective creates music with such flush innervation that it makes the scenes’ emotional understanding tangible down to the swirls of your fingertips. 

Waves masterfully incorporates Animal Collective songs, weaving them into the understanding of Tyler and Emily’s complex emotions. The sheer luminosity of feeling in this movie is remarkably captivating, leaving a lasting imprint that will have you humming Animal Collective tunes for at least a week after watching.

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