My wife and I stumbled out of a Manhattan theater in stunned silence. In San Diego, so did my 22 year-old stepson. So has everyone I've urged to see "Into the Wild".
The film is the story of Christopher McCandless, who graduated from college (Emory, '92), then left civilization behind to experience life without constraints. His death in Alaska few months later made him a worthy subject for Jon Krakauer. But the story he tells in his book, "Into the Wild," is even better inspiration for a film, especially when the writer-director is Sean Penn.
Think what you will about Penn --- the guy has guts to spare. He stands up for what he believes and he doesn't mumble when he offers unpopular ideas. And in his acting, as in his life, he's always searching for the authentic --- just remember that scene in "Mystic River" when he tries to bull his way through a wall of cops to get to the body of his murdered daughter.
So his movie does not touch hardcore New Yorkers and West Coast surfer/law students and all kinds of people in between because we share a love of raw Nature in Alaska --- Penn didn't make a movie about a kid who stepped out of civilization with just a bag of rice and a book about edible plants to get him through. Nor did he make this film to ask us to decide: "Chris McCandless --- was he an idiot?" The questions he asks in this movie are much larger: freedom, identity, community. That is, the questions obsessing us just below the surface of our most ordinary days.
We watch this long movie that has an ending we already know with something like obsession because Chris McCandless carries our proxy. At one time or other, we all want to walk out of the familiar. And, far more often, we think of "freedom" nostalgically --- as something we once had.
But Chris McCandless....he's going for it. And the film goes it for it with him --- it's about stepping through doors, moving through landscape, seeking an ever-widening sky. And then there's the Eddie Vedder soundtrack music, which is even more expansive and exuberant.
This is not "soundtrack" music, a grab bag of songs cobbled together to provide a revenue stream. This is Eddie Vedder, usually the leader of Pearl Jam, here solo, with stripped-down instrumentation and blunt lyrics:
I knew all the rules
But the rules did not know me
Imagine that in Vedder's baritone --- singing so truthful it merges with the quest of the movie. The words progress from leaving the known world ("Society/You're a crazy breed/I hope you're not lonely/Without me") to motion ("Gonna rise up/Turning mistakes into gold") to a message so primal it's really chanting ("I am...I AM").
I've read a bunch of civilian reviews of Vedder's soundtrack, many saying something like this: "It's simply awesome. I can't find the words to describe how it affected me at a soul level." Oddly, though I usually have words pouring out of my fingertips, I'm at a bit of a loss myself. I mean, this CD is just 30+ minutes long (and it repeats one song). Pearl Jam's nowhere to be found. And yet "Into the Wild" is stuck in my player. Or, rather, re-player --- it can pump me up all morning if I'm not careful.
Is it depressing? Not in the least. This is traveling music --- highway travel and interior journey --- that has an uncanny ability to re-create the feelings you have when you've broken free of the pack and the road is clear. Death may await, but not here. This is about the glory of risk, the sweetness of freedom, the crisp breath of purity.
Do you need to have seen the movie to love this music? Not at all. To hear the music is to see the movie. Or, more correctly, your movie, the film in which you star and sprint and soar and roar --- music as great as you are in most glorious moments.
Beware: Repeated listening could cast a spell on you. And that spell could make you very sane.
[originally published in HeadButler.com ]