Except for a fascination with Tetris that started back in the early ’90s—I dig geometric challenges, and there used to be one of those big arcade versions in the main room at 7th Street Entry/First Avenue that was ideal for killing time between sets when I lived in Minneapolis and frequented that legendary club—I’ve never been big on videogames. I like to have something to show for my efforts, even when I’m wasting time goofing around, and the high score doesn’t really count.
And don’t even get me started on “Rock Band” or “Guitar Hero.” (The real thing is infinitely better, kids!)
Yet for all of the attention that reviewers and fans have paid to the vintage gamer references running throughout the film and the mix of digital arcade and graphic novel aesthetics that give it such a unique look, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is at heart a rock ’n’ roll movie—an instant classic at that, and boundlessly superior to the last Generation Y stab at this genre, the thoroughly despicable and musically lame “Juno.”
In case you’ve been sleeping under a rock, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” follows the title character (the infinitely bland but annoyingly ubiquitous Michael Cera) as he falls head over heels in love with a hardcore punk babe fittingly named Ramona (an alternately purple-, blue-, and green-haired Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The only catch: In order for them to be together, he must first defeat her “seven evil exes.” In the process, Pilgrim’s life suddenly becomes one of the videogames which comprise one of the two non-romantic obsessions in his life, the other being an underground Toronto band called Sex Bob-Omb, where he backs his friend and “the talent,” Stephen Stills (no, not this one; a slacker guitarist and songwriter played by Mark Webber) on Rickenbacker bass while trying to keep up with ferocious drummer Kim Pine (Alison Pill), who just happens to be one of his own exes.
Based on the comics series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, who set the story in the first Nintendo golden era of the late ’80s and early ’90s, more or less at the onset of the alternative rock explosion and coinciding with my primary Tetris days, this theme hardly is a new conceit: A lovable schlub walking a fine line between fantasy and reality was a hoary idea when James Thurber published The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in 1939. But in addition to the stunning look of the film, its brilliant use of music makes it seem utterly fresh and endlessly inspired and inspiring. And, in the end—minor spoiler alert!—Pilgrim’s musical prowess plays as big a role as his videogame super powers in winning Ramona. He writes a song for her, of course, and defeats one of the exes in an awesome bass duel.
That bass showdown was written and recorded by producer Nigel Godrich of Radiohead, Beck, and Charlotte Gainsbourg fame. And Godrich also deserves a lot of credit for the instrumental score, which puts a modern electronic spin on the vintage ’70s progressive/psychedelic-rock sounds crafted for the gory classics of horror maestros Dario Argento and George Romero (in the original “Dawn of the Dead”) by one of my all-time favorite buried treasures, the Italian band Goblin, as noted by the L.A. Times’ Pop & Hiss blog.
Alas, there isn’t much of Godrich on the official soundtrack album—bring on volume two and/or a CD of the instrumental score!—but that’s the only knock I have on the disc, which mixes tracks from current underground heroes (Broken Social Scene, Metric, Beachwood Sparks, the Black Lips) with some classic-rock nuggets (“Teenage Dream” by T. Rex, “Ramona” by Frank Black, and, in a nod to Wes Anderson as obvious as the many others to Cameron Crowe, “Under My Thumb” by the Rolling Stones) and a healthy heap of originals written for the film by Beck.
Far from just phoning it in, the tunes that Beck penned for Sex Bob-Omb to sing—including the group’s theme song and a delightful ditty called “Garbage Truck”—are some of the best on the album and in the movie. “We are Sex Bob-Omb, and we’re here to make you think about death and get sad and stuff!” Cera/Pilgrim shouts at the start of “Threshold,” but don’t call this band emo. Theirs is a more timeless sound that could be garage rock circa ’66, punk/New Wave circa ’78, grunge circa ’91—or the racket being churned out by the next big thing as it tries to pull it together in some garage in Schaumburg or attic in Oak Lawn.
Sex Bob-Omb: The actors behind the comic musicians
It may not be the main focus of the movie, but O’Malley and screenwriter and director Edgar Wright (whose earlier credits include “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”) perfectly nail the universal dynamics of Sex Bob-Omb, a band of outsiders and misfits like every other, rife with envies and enmities, yet blissfully united in making a glorious noise and capable of conquering the universe—forget about seven evil exes—whenever its instruments are in hand.
You can keep your joystick or Wii controller, ’cause that ain’t no videogame fantasy.
Various artists, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” soundtrack album (ABKCO) Rating: 3.5/4
“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” the movie Rating: 4/4