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Soundtrack Review: Enlisting Pop's Wonder Boys

Friday, February 25, 2000

By Scott Mervis

'WONDER BOYS' SOUNDTRACK
(Sony)

3 1/2 stars


Most soundtracks these days showcase the hottest young acts, with no rhyme or reason other than to be a marketing tool for the youth market.

Director Curtis Hanson didn't mess around. He went straight for pop's true "Wonder Boys": Bob Dylan, Neil Young, John Lennon and Van Morrison -- each such a legend that it's actually rare to find them all on one collection.

Hanson needed the music to help flesh out the character of a wily, pot-smoking professor struggling to finish a novel the size of a phone book. He wasn't going to get much depth from Hoku or Blink-182. That's a job for heavyweights, and considering the beat/hippie lifestyle of Grady Tripp, a whiff of the '60s only adds to the overall portrait.

For all the music he's produced, Dylan has been a Hollywood outsider. Maybe, like the Grammys, they're finally coming around to him. Naturally, he was used for "The Hurricane." But Hanson is right to point out that Dylan hasn't played this big a role on a soundtrack since "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" back in 1973.

Dylan saw a rough cut of the film and rewarded Hanson with "Things Have Changed," a new song that sets an almost surreal tone from the opening credits. It may be sung in the craggy style of "Time Out of Mind," but it's more of a loose, acoustic ride down "Highway 61."

"Things Have Changed" mixes millennial paranoia ("been walking 40 miles of bad road/If the Bible's right, the world will explode") with the singer's own nonsensical reaction to desperate times ("Feel like falling in love with the first woman I meet/putting her in a wheelbarrow and wheeling her down the street"). Dylan could be speaking for Tripp, a guy with a dead dog in his trunk, when he hits the chorus: "People are crazy and times have changed/I'm locked in tight/I'm out of range/I used to care/but things have ... changed."

Hanson reinforced the movie's narrative with three more overlooked Dylan gems: "Shooting Star," "Not Dark Yet" and "Buckets of Rain." Another brainstorm is the director's use of Young's "Old Man," speaking with spirit to the mentor relationship between Tripp and his boy wonder. Lennon and Morrison are captured in their graying years reflecting back with "Watching the Wheels" and "The Philosophers Stone," respectively.

Two of the softer spoken '60s folk-rockers, Tom Rush ("No Regrets") and Tim Hardin ("Reason to Believe"), get to stand up with that fab four, as does the wizened Leonard Cohen ("Waiting for the Miracle"), whom Dylan sounds more like every day.

The poetic mood is broken only by two R&B songs, Little Willie John's "Need Your Love So Bad" and Clarence Carter's "Slip Away," cool atmosphere for the bar scenes.

Should the movie fail to hit like it deserves to, it has at least generated a thoughtful collection that gives Dylan his due.


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