My first year of college, 1983, was a huge transitional year in my musical awareness. I worked at the university’s music library and I also became a DJ. At work, I was exposed to classical music for the first time, international music like Indian ragas, and contemporary composers like Steve Reich and Edgar Varese. At the radio station, I played music I was more familiar with at first, punk and prog rock were my staples, but I greatly expanded my repertoire every day. At home, I was obsessed with these four albums by Brian Eno:
Listening to them on Hoopla has brought me back to that time.
These albums are pop music and avant-garde at the same time. They contain driving rhythms and multi-textured aural qualities, with glam-rock sensibilities at times, ambient electronica at others. I hear direct influences of David Bowie and David Byrne. I also hear a unique set of songs similar to other music only in what has come after. The vocal timber is what I think draws me the most. Eno’s voice goes from almost sneeringly punk to decidedly New Wave. A frequent contributor to the albums is Robert Fripp, my favorite guitarist of the era.
I listened to these so often, they would be in the soundtrack to my college years if it were a movie, just like in this one: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
In case you need a refresher on the plot, Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cyler) make no-budget films inspired by their favorites. The 400 Blows becomes The 400 Bros. Eyes Wide Shut becomes Eyes Wide Butt. Peeping Tom becomes Pooping Tom. You get the idea. Their lives are changed forever (as is often the case in coming-of-age stories) when Greg’s mom, played with subtle shrillness by Connie Britton, forces Greg to hang out with leukemia-stricken Rachel, played by the adorable Olivia Cooke.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, whose only directing credits prior were episodes of Glee and American Horror Story and a remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, has assembled quite a team for this film. Cyler’s Earl endeared himself to me just as he did in the book. Mann is great at playing dopey and awkward; it makes him relatable. Cooke, who seemed set on becoming this decade’sscreamqueen, shines in her role as the dying girl. With eyes bigger than hubcaps, you can tell exactly what she’s feeling just by looking into them. She’s got a real silent film star quality about her.
The rest of the casting is pitch-perfect as well. SNL alum Molly Shannon gets to flex some dramatic muscles as Rachel’s mom, always with a drink in her hand and warning Greg to never end up like her absentee husband. Nick Offerman is great, albeit underused, as Greg’s tenured professor dad (but I could watch himallday). Jon Bernthal is also good in his role as Mr. McCarthy, the tattooed teacher whose mantra is “Respect the Research” and may or may not have drug-laced soup that inadvertently causes Greg and Earl to trip.
If all that wasn’t enough to entice you, remember that it was filmed in Pittsburgh and as such is peppered with Pittsburgh flair. The Point Breeze house where Andrews grew up is used as Greg’s house. At one point, Earl scoffs at the idea of going all the way to Lawrenceville. Rachel urges Greg to apply to University of Pittsburgh Pittsburgh State University. A boy is seen wearing a yarmulke with the Pittsburgh Pirates logo on it. I figured that had to be a prop made for the movie, but it’s totally a thing.
Jesse Andrews at a recent Writers LIVE event at CLP – Main. He’s such a chill, down-to-earth guy. I wanted to hang out with him and listen to everything he had to say.
It’s clear the filmmakers love movies as much as Greg and Earl. When the duo are looking for new inspiration for a film they’re making for Rachel in a High Fidelity-esque movie store, filmed at Mind Cure Records in Polish Hill, we catch glimpses of obscure films such as Chris Marker’s La Jetée along with more mainstream fare like Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Kubrik’s Paths of Glory on the packed shelves. When Greg finally premiers his film to Rachel it’s a perfect union of visually stunning imagery and moving music. Such an emotionally charged scene would have been ruined if the two had been presented as teens in love throughout.
That Greg and Rachel aren’t presented as star-crossed lovers is one of the things I loved most about this movie. There is no “lifesaving” romance. No grand, sweeping gestures or romantic getaways to Amsterdam. It’s grounded in the world of a weird teenager and his very sick friend; no depictions of manic pixie dream girls (or boys) here. It’s something I’ve been longing to see in cinema since the end of Garden State.
I cannot overstate how refreshing it was that no love story was shoehorned in. Their friendship is more beautiful than any teen romance ever committed to celluloid. It’s also refreshing to see a young adult movie that isn’t set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia; I can only imagine the fun Greg and Earl would have spoofing the current glut of such films.