Boys-Hood: Remembering The Boyhood Soundtrack

With Boyhood up for multiple Oscars, our resident boys make their case for the film using its soundtrack.

Welcome to Oscar season. We’re looking back at the best in film as Chris Longo and Nick Harley make their case for Boyhood to win Best Picture. For more on the Oscar contenders, check out our Oscar content hub. 

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Boyhood was a film with virtually no rising action and a climax so unfulfilling you’d think it was set in a high school parking lot. Yet somehow Richard Linklater’s love letter to childhood captured our attention in a way not many films have over the years.

The simple answer is: We were boys too once. Maybe we still are. A lot of the fun of Boyhood for us comes from the fact that we’re only a couple of years older than Ellar Coltrane, who played Mason, the titular boy, and Lorelei Linklater, who played his older sister, Samantha. As the months and years ticked away with every passing minute of the film, we saw bits and pieces of our own life stories projected on screen. In our heads, we juxtaposed what made our journeys from rugrats lying in the grass looking blankly toward the sky to naive college freshman eager to ponder life’s open-ended questions.

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Mason’s ascent to the point where “boyhood ends and adulthood begins” as Linklater describes it in a DVD featurette, is a loose adaptation of the director’s own childhood. What caught us was not the malleable character arc that could hook in anyone who took a little time to find themselves as a kid, but the odes to our era through the music selection. Boyhood’s soundtrack–though lacking the enigmatic fullness of a Hans Zimmer score–is as essential to moving the film’s plot along as any absentee father or degree-waving mother or grateful former yard worker.

Don’t get crazy here, the tremendous performances of Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Coltrane, the younger Linklater and her director father should net the film at least one trophy. We can talk circles around all the wonderful aspects of Boyhood, but let’s look at the film’s most underappreciated one, its soundtrack and our memories of a few of the songs… 

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Linklater, The Lyricist

Chris Longo: The first time I really listened to “Yellow” by Coldplay I was operating barely functional bumper cars. It likely wasn’t the first time I heard the song, but I made a point to grasp what Chris Martin was saying. Anything to distract me from the neon blue carnival lights that bled into the chipped, stale orange paint of the most pathetic arcade you’ll ever step foot inside of.

Nothing was Yellow about being 16 and working your first shitty job pressing green and red buttons. The monotony of being alone in the back room of a mostly empty arcade could only be broken up by sneaking texts when the manager wasn’t looking and singing along to whatever CD they decided leave on repeat all day. “Yellow” kept me sane the first three or four spins. I chose to remember those times.

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If you worked in that place, you were delusional enough where eventually the tunes start talking to you.

I came along

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I wrote a song for you

And all the things you do

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Thanks, Chris Martin, for the overtly positive melody, coupled with the romanticism of lyrics that believe something beautiful could spawn out of these skin and bones. Martin has never really pinned down what exactly “Yellow” is about — he’s made it a thing to whisper different origins to the media. What we do know is “Yellow” reads like a song about unconditional love. His words picked me up–mostly because it was a huge upgrade over listening to Jaaason Derulo— but whatever beauty Martin was singing about seemed way off because the reality around me was dingy.

When we first set our eyes on Mason, the kid’s face looks frozen in time, like the most realistic china doll ever made. Coldplay casts over him like a cloud and he’s thinking about nothing. He’s a young boy. Boys think about bugs or what action figure they’re going to ask for next or how they’ll piss off their sister before bed. As if that’s not enough beautiful imagery to open Boyhood, Patricia Arquette’s Olivia, in many ways the progranonist for a good chunk of film, picks her son up off the grass and pulls his head out of the clouds.

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I swam across

I jumped across for you

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Oh what a thing to do

Looking back, this scene is everything and nothing at all. It’s the entire movie in a nutshell. Just by existing, Mason is unconditionally loved by Olivia. If he lands a job as a pharmacist or works the prize desk at a dumpy arcade, Mason is one step ahead of the game in her eyes. If he turns out to be an ax-wielding murderer, well, unconditional pivots to irrational, but somewhere deep down it’s still there. She’s not totally fulfilled ninety seconds into the film–there’s more in life she desires aside from being with child–but there goes a piece of her heart she’ll never get back. It’s his. Mason will become a thoughtful young adult quickly enough, but at this point he’s free to daydream while Olivia provides for him and his sister. 

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“Yellow” to me, in the context of the film, can be taken from Olivia’s perspective. She’s looking at this beautiful child she’ll do anything for, even if it means sacrificing her happiness in the short term. The only hope is he’ll appreciate it someday.

If the love of a parent was all we needed to feel in this life, Mason would be set before the two-minute mark. But life goes on and each passing year in “Mason time” triggers another memory. “1901” by Phoenix drops when Mason is urinating on the smoldering campfire, ending a scene in which middle school Mason talks about girls with Ethan Hawke’s Mason Sr. The song appeals to me now as it did then, when my first girlfriend showed it to me.

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Lie down, you know it’s easy

Like we did it all summer long

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And I’ll be anything you ask and more

Going “hey hey hey hey hey hey.”

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It’s a song about sex! I get it. But on second glance, Phoenix, a French band, is known for its obscure lyrics and they wouldn’t make it that easy. “1901” is about love not being bound by the physical nature of the relationship. Love has to exists as you do, it has to change as you do, or it won’t survive.

The growth of the characters in Boyhood hinges on removing the physical elements from a relationship, whether it’s in distance or sex or violence. Early on the adults are caught in the “elliptical pattern” Phoenix croons about in the song. Mason Sr. leaves Olivia and the kids for northern exposure, effectively squashing those relationships. He builds them back up only to sub a perky redhead in skinny jeans for the wholesome mother-type he eventually marries. He moves away with his new family and tries to remain there for Mason and Samantha but he’s only present as a ghost — a glowing figure on a smartphone. Had he been that dad jean guy a decade earlier, maybe him and Olivia could have made it work. Go figure.

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Olivia is forced to do it all from the start. She really only has time to use the higher education setting as a crutch to find love and it results to two failed marriages — both one crumbling due to physical abuse, the other emotional. Arquette won her potential Oscar not on the floor of a drunk’s garage, but on the strength of powerful final few scenes. When Mason has one foot out the door toward college, the woman who held up through all the heartbreak finally breaks down. All she has left now are possessions — ones she spent the first half of her life collecting and second half getting rid of it.

Watch them build up a material tower

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Think it’s not gonna stay anyway

Think it’s overrated

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For a minute, thought I couldn’t tell how to fall out

Remembering The Hits

Nick Harley: Boyhood is a strong contender for best picture because it offers a slice of life that’s shot and presented in a way that no one has ever seen before. It so accurately shows what growing up in that time period was like. If you’re around the same age as Mason, watching the film triggers similar memories and becomes a deeply nostalgic experience, with the soundtrack especially feeding into that. The songs chosen are great signifiers of what music mattered most at that place and time, making it a perfect snapshot of the first decade of the 21st century. 

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Britney Spears – “Oops!…I Did It Again” 

Just like Mason in the film, my relationship with “Oops! I Did It Again” by Britney Spears stems from my sister. Growing up in a house with older siblings, I feel like I was regularly exposed to pop culture moments a bit earlier than most of my friends and peers. I don’t know how many people my age were regularly watching MTV, TGIF on ABC, and seeing all of the latest blockbusters at the age of 7, but I definitely was.

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MTV was huge in my house, despite the fact that we were forbidden to watch it. Obviously, that really didn’t stop us. Total Request Live was a crucial part of every afternoon. I remember seeing Eminem’s first appearance on MTV, I remember whacky VJ’s like Jesse confusing New Yorker’s on the street, and I remember seeing the debuts of many music videos from people like Nsync, Backstreet Boys, and my generation’s queen of pop, Britney Spears, with the help of MTV’s Making the Video.

Unlike Mason, I never found song annoying. By 2000, when Britney released “Oops!…I Did It Again,” my brother, sister and I were already huge fans. When “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” first popped up on MTV, we were instantly hooked, and my sister bought Britney’s debut as fast as humanly possible. We anxiously awaited its follow-up, and when lead single “Oops!” dropped from the album of the same name, we were floored. Even as a young kid, the episode of Making the Video that proceeded the video’s release had my eyes glued to the TV. Britney in that skintight red latex catsuit could get anyone’s blood moving. The music video even made references to Titanic, another huge pop culture phenomenon that was adored in our household. Before I found my own music to love, I loved listening to Britney in the car with my family, and even as I moved away from pop music, I still appreciated her catchy singles and her undeniable sex appeal back in those pre-Kevin Federline days. 

Blink-182 – “Anthem Pt. II” 

Blink-182 have been making headlines recently due to interband turmoil, with members Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker slamming now ex-member Tom Delonge in the press. Back in the early 2000s, this news would have had me locked in my room for days in a pit of despair. Right around the time “Oops!…I Did It Again,” was being released, pop punk started to gain my attention in the form of a music video featuring three grown men running around Los Angeles naked. The follow-up video, which lampooned Britney and my former favorites, the Backstreet Boys, cemented things; Backstreet Boys were out and Blink-182 was in.

Their breakthrough album Enema of the State was a treasure my brother and I shared in secret. Just like the kids in the movie, Blink was the soundtrack to our day-to-day lives. We had a burned copy, which back in those days probably took three hours to make, full of all the hook and expletive-laced songs that we listened to so many times that it stopped working all together. If my parents had heard the songs, they would have been mortified, like the time my Dad found my brother’s copy of a Limp Bizkit (don’t judge, we were young) record and was so appalled by the lyrics that he broke it in half.

When a friend in our neighborhood got a copy of the follow-up, Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, we all rejoiced, knowing that we’d be able to get a copy ourselves and not have to persuade our parents to get us a record featuring the dreaded warning label. The amount that my friends and I loved Blink-182 is incalculable. They wrote songs for pre-adolescent and adolescent goofballs, sensitive types, skaters, and were a gateway to punk rock. Blink-182 is the reason that I, and so many of my peers in my town, picked up instruments and started bands. “Anthem Pt. II” was the angst-filled anthem of my youth. 

Vampire Weekend – “One (Blake’s Got A New Face)”

Flash forward to high school. At this point I was obsessed with music just as much as Mason was with photography. I spent most of my time listening or writing songs in notebooks or with my friends. However, I was mostly still listening to bands like Blink and their contemporaries, emotional bruisers like Taking Back Sunday, Bayside, and Motion City Soundtrack. Then, the summer before my sophomore year, everything changed. My friend and I were killing time at the local mall like usual, when inside of a Hot Topic (again, we were young) we found ourselves mesmerized by the music playing on the speakers, dancing around the store. Hot Topic usually played hardcore music, but this song was using strings and incorporating rhythms, beats, and melodies that I hadn’t really heard before. We rushed the counter to get the name of the band, then made a mad dash to the record store and bought the self-titled debut from Vampire Weekend on the spot.

So many nights that year were spent cruising around our boring town, just as they do in the movie, getting lost in the African-influenced indie pop, which the band described as “Upper West Side Soweto.” The genre bending expanded my musical palette and my tastes and I started seeking out more than just the pop punk songs on my iPod or the classic rock that I was raised with, branching out and finding indie artists and bands that I probably never would have found if I hadn’t been turned on to Vampire Weekend.

The record was so inspiring that my two friends and I holed up in a basement that year and started a new band, using Vampire Weekend as our main influence in those early days. Whenever I hear those songs now, I think of my best friends and how excited the music made us, how it helped us feel creative and different in a stifling suburban town without much going on culturally. 

If you’re interested in listening to the entire soundtrack for Boyhood, you can check it out below: