It’s Just Ominous Tones

27 Dec

"Oh my god, I totally DO hate my job!"

I was watching Forgetting Sarah Marshall on Christmas with my folks (I know, not exactly family fare, but hey, it’s actually a pretty heartwarming picture, dispite the presence of Jason Segel’s wanger), and, as with the first time I watched the movie, I was struck by screenplay is how Segel’s screenplay absolutely nails all of these little things about the life of a musician.

Top on the list is a short flashback scene midway throught he film, perhaps forgettable to those who have never experienced it, but, like, vividly painful to those who have. Peter (which, I swear, is Hollywood shorthand for “Unassuming Nice Guy”) thinks back to playing a piece from his Dracula puppet-musical for his at-the-time girlfriend Sarah Marshall; he’s sitting at the piano, she’s beside him on a stool, and as he finishes, she, very smilingly and diplomatically, says something along the lines of, “I just don’t get it, just maybe chalk it up to that, and you really don’t need to play it again, and it’s cool, but…” and he says, “yeah, but maybe if you heard it again…”

Oh, man – as anyone who has written a new piece or song and performed a living room debut for their significant other can attest, that little perfectly acted, thirty-second scene spoke volumes about Peter and Sarah’s past, doomed relationship.

Another thing the movie nails is the truth that though Peter’s job writing the music for what is basically CSI:Miami is technically “cool,” it’s actually kind of a crap gig. At one point he drunkenly confesses that “there’s no melody” in any of the music, the gig mostly involves going in every day and laying down a bunch of “ominous tones” for a crappy show about masturbating dog killers.

I’ve never worked directly in the industry like that, but I’ve done enough of that type of work here on the outskirts, and have known enough people who have done it for a living, that I can easily imagine the rut you can wind up in.  The gig pays well, affords a nominal sense of creative agency, and is in one’s chosen field, so it can be really hard to let go of, even if it is, by all objective measures, an unfulfilling, bad job.

For every great show with fantastic music (a friend of mine from school does cues for Pushing Daisies, a show with music that is swinging, creative, and inspired), you probably spend three shows charting someone else’s collection of ambient drones, generic chase beats, or love scene music.  What’s worse, you usually wind up doing it after that awesome show you were working on (say, Pushing Daisies), is fucking cancelled.

In another great scene in Sarah Marshall, Mila Kunis’s character asks Peter if he likes his job, and, in a somewhat rehearsed-sounding way, he replies “Yeah. I mean, yeah.  The people are really great, I get to do music for a living, I’m really lucky.”

And she says, “Oh my God, you hate it!”

It’s another scene that is funny because it rings so true – it’s easy to fall into that kind of trap in a creative field.  There is a risk in aspiring to have a creative job; it’s the gigs at the very top, the ones that really pay the mortgage, that can be the most utterly void of actual creativity.

It’s not that often that a movie gets at the heart of being a modern creative professional – plenty of flicks give you the lowdown on being, you know, a junk-addicted blues singer who tore up the Motown charts in the 60’s, or a metal band who flew to fame too fast. Forgetting Sarah Marshall presents us with something less common: a generous portrait of a real working musician. The film and its characters are all the truer, funnier, for it.

Here’s hoping, too, that if we creative types can keep our standards high and hold out for the right jobs, more often than not we’ll get to have our cake (or, you know, Pie), and eat it too.


Have melody? Come on in! (Ominous tones need not apply.)

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