There are a lot of things we know about Jonah Hill. He was born on Dec. 20, 1983; he worked at Hot Rod Skateboard Shop in L.A.; he made his film debut in I Heart Huckabees; he’s been nominated for TWO Oscars; he starred in what may in fact be the greatest film since Citizen Kane—a little move called Superbad.
And oh yeah: He really, really, really loves Kanye West.
Jonah said on Jimmy Kimmel that his infatuation with Kanye began when he was 18, when Kanye’s inaugural album, The College Dropout, dropped. Jonah got to hang out and play Connect 4 with Kanye back in 2008. Jonah was at Kanye’s listening party for his new album, ye, which Jonah compared to FUCKING THRILLER. Needless to say, dude loves Kanye.
He loves Kanye so much, in fact, that it seems Kanye influenced one of the key scenes in Jonah’s directorial debut, Mid90s.
Gaining Perspective Through Music
We see filmmakers inspired by musicians all the time—maybe it’s a lyric that speaks to them, or maybe the tone of a song matches a scene they’re trying construct. Like, Wes Anderson loves Sigur Ros, so he uses a Sigur Ros song in The Life Aquatic when it matches the mood he’s trying to capture.
And, like, Paul Thomas Anderson loves Aimee Mann, so he uses Aimee Mann lyrics to express what the characters are feeling in Magnolia.
But sometimes we see a more conceptual use of music in film. One of my favorite examples is Rick Alverson’s The Comedy, which features The Disintegration Loops by ambient artist William Basinski. Here’s a quick Wikipedia entry about Loops:
The Disintegration Loops is based on Basinski’s attempts to salvage earlier recordings made on magnetic tape in the early 1980s by transferring them into digital format. However, the tape had deteriorated to the point that, as it passed by the tape head, the ferrite detached from the plastic backing and fell off. The loops were allowed to play for extended periods as they deteriorated further, with increasing gaps and cracks in the music. These sounds were treated further with a spatializing reverb effect.
Basinski has said that he finished the project the morning of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, and sat on the roof of his apartment building in Brooklyn with friends listening to the project as the World Trade Center towers collapsed. In 2011, Basinski corrected earlier reports where he described recording the last hour of daylight of 9/11 in N.Y.C. with a video camera focused on the smoke where the towers were from a neighbor’s roof, then set the first loop as the sound-track to that footage. Stills from the video were used as the covers for the set of four CDs.
I love listening to ambient music, but in my opinion, nothing compares to watching The Disintegration Loops. With that project, Basinski makes me feel both hope and decay—the prospect of life pit against the inevitability of death. As Basinski’s album slowly deteriorates alongside the World Trade Center, the mixture of emotions inside me gradually build and intertwine, leaving a mess of a human being as it fades into oblivion. When I watch The Disintegration Loops, I’m reminded of what I’m capable of, and how easily it can be stripped away.
So when I first heard The Disintegration Loops looping in The Comedy back in 2012 when I watched it for the first time, I was understandably taken aback. Sure it has slowly become a classic ambient over the years…but used in a film? This was new.
Up until this point, I was an admirer of The Comedy. It’s easy to recognize the generational gap being explored in The Comedy, as Swanson personifies the stereotypes associated with an entire generation and shields himself with irony during his sluggish, alcohol-ridden descent into anonymity. Set to receive a vast amount of money upon his father’s death, Swanson feels the need to create a unique identity, relishing in incredibly awkward situations and driving people’s comfort levels through the roof. Naming the film “The Comedy” even carries its own level of irony, as watching Swanson constantly self-deprecate and dip into depression is anything but funny.
But comprehension and perspective are two very different experiences—and the music created perspective.
As Swanson and his friends merrily rode bikes alongside Basinski’s music, that’s when I gained perspective. Suddenly, the movie carried the tone I knew that song carried conceptually. From that point on it was total and complete immersion that went beyond understanding the finer points of a film. The Comedy became a skulking, breathing example of the uncertainty of life, the imminence of death, and the inescapable past that looms over it all. Swanson’s descent into discovering (or perhaps denying) this fact is as irrevocable as the crumbling of the World Trade Center.
The Turning Point on Yeezus
In Mid90s, there’s a crucial scene that marks a turning point for our main character, Stevie, who has been trying to integrate himself into a group of skateboarders. He stands atop a roof with his new friends, who are all going to jump over this big gap on their skateboards. If you miss the jump? You fall 20 feet to the ground. First Ray makes the jump, then Fuckshit (that’s the name of an actual character in the movie, FYI). And then Stevie takes his shot…and misses it by a long shot. After the gang rushes down to make sure he’s OK, they laugh, slap Stevie on the back, call him a crazy motherfucker, and move on with their days.
Now if you watched that scene and thought it was straightforward and meaningless, I’d get it. But at the beginning of that scene, when Jonah pans up to the roof and this song plays in the background, I gained an entirely different perspective.
As Jonah notes in this interview with Pitchfork, this song, Gyöngyhajú lány by the Hungarian rock band Omega, is featured in Kanye West’s song, New Slaves. And New Slaves is a song on an album called Yeezus. And what many people don’t understand about Yeezus is that it is a narrative album, which means it tells a story that has a beginning, middle, and end—and New Slaves marks the transition to the second act of the story.
Just in case you didn’t know: Chris and I host a podcast called Watching the Throne, where we break down Kanye’s songs line by line. So I could write, like, a million words explaining the story on Yeezus. But I’ll make this as quick as I can:
The first four songs of the album depict a man who seeks to do great things, but instead spends his life doing superficial shit. On the opening track, On Sight, Yeezus lives a sex-and-money-fueled life that leaves him alienated and seemingly emotionless. The next three tracks are Yeezus trying to break free from that desolation, to position himself as a leader, to make a connection with the people around him, to start a social revolution. But Yeezus fails to inspire anyone and start that revolution on New Slaves, which means he then turns to romance to fill his emotional void on Hold My Liquor. If he can’t connect with people? He’ll turn to the women in his life to feel what it’s like to be human again. And at the very end? He finds his Kim Kardashian—the woman who will break him free of the issues he’s struggled with.
Throughout the album there’s plenty of sex, tragedy, regression, and growth, but let’s focus on that middle portion. For this character journey to work effectively, Yeezus needs to makes that transition from “next-level leader that stands above everybody else” to “broken human being who needs love to become whole again.” That transition between New Slaves and Hold My Liquor has to artistically capture this key turning point in the story—and Kanye does that by sampling Gyöngyhajú lány.
At this point in the song, the production goes from manic to calm and reflective. The warm music of Omega fades in as Kanye sings:
I won’t end this high, not this time again
So long, so long, so long, you cannot survive
And I’m not dyin’, and I can’t lose
I can’t lose, no, I can’t lose
‘Cause I can’t leave it to you
So let’s get too high, get too high again
This is a clear indication that Yeezus is attempting to run from his problems by getting high. And those lines are followed up by these lines (spoken in Hungarian) from Omega:
One day the sun, too tired to shine
Slept in the deep, green sombre lake
And in the darkness, the world did ail
Until she came, for all our sake
With this context, we know that Yeezus isn’t just lonely and looking for somebody to hold him for one night—he needs the right woman to save him. He’s lost, broken, completely alone. And the person that will free him isn’t just some ordinary woman, but instead a divine figure that rises from the darkness that shrouds Yeezus and gives his life meaning. At this point, Yeezus goes from a sad story to an ethereal tale—this is how much Yeezus needs this romance to work out. When you have that context, the romantic journey of the album after New Slaves carries that weight.
The Turning Point in Mid90s
So now that you have that perspective, think about the rooftop scene from Mid90s again. We know Jonah adores Kanye; we know from an interview with Pitchfork that when Jonah was a teenager he used to research every sample used on the records he loved; we know Jonah is a storyteller who is making his directorial debut. Based on all of that, I think it’s safe to conclude that Jonah understands the narratives on Kanye’s albums, including Yeezus, right? Which means that he probably knows what those Hungarian words actually mean? Which means that if he uses that Omega song in a movie, then that song should carry the kind of weight it carries on Yeezus?
If we think of that Omega song as a signifier of a key turning point for Stevie, just as it’s a key turning point for Yeezus, then maybe we watch that scene differently. After Ray and Fuckshit make the jump, Ruben attempts the jump as well, but hesitates at the end and chickens out—and that’s when Stevie takes his turn. After Stevie spectacularly fails, the group rushes down while expressing genuine concern for his safety, as opposed to the distanced joshing they’ve used around the newcomer. And when Stevie’s shirt isn’t enough to sop up all the blood, they make Ruben—the kid who chickened out—give Stevie his shirt. Again, this could all be a normal, humdrum scene…or this could mark a turning point where Stevie replaces Ruben, where Stevie goes from some random kid to an integral member of the group, where Stevie overcomes his social anxiety and finally takes the “leap” that will allow him to become his own person.
If this scene meant to carry more weight than it appears on the surface, then perhaps the Omega song doesn’t just alter how you watch this scene, but completely reframes how you view the entire movie. While Mid90s is about a kid trying to be part of a “cool” group, it’s also a coming-of-age tale about a teenager trying to find his identity. Stevie idolizes his older brother’s shoes, clothing, and music because those things mean his brother has found his own personality, and Stevie wants to be part of an environment where he can do the same thing. Which means he’d do anything to become part of the skater group, including spending hours at night learning to do an ollie, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, lying to his mother—and trying to jump a gap on a rooftop.
Just like the woman prophesied at the end of New Slaves is meant to save Yeezus, I like to think Jonah used that song to convey how much this jump meant to Stevie. Making that jump would cure all of his problems, would allow him to find himself. Even though he missed, and fell, just like Yeezus with the revolution, it turns out the leap was worth it. For his sake, this jump was everything.