Broken Social Scene and It's Kind of a Funny Story

Scott Macaulay profiles Canadian indie heroes Broken Social Scene, the band who scored Focus Features' It's Kind of a Funny Story.

In It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a troubled 16-year-old impulsively, and with an adolescent’s flair for drama, seeks escape from his woes by checking into a psychiatric hospital. Of course, he’s got nothing on some of its truly troubled residents, but as the film demonstrates with real warmth and humor, the oddball community he submerges himself within is a healing one. In the end, Craig gets by with a little help from his friends.

To score the film, directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden turned to the Canadian rock group Broken Social Scene, and their collaboration was a fitting one. Of course, Fleck and Boden had long been fans of the band, using their songs to score their debut feature, Half Nelson. But, also, Broken Social Scene’s entire operation is built around free-spirited collaboration, male-female interplay and the rejuvenating powers of community — the very themes that emerge throughout It’s Kind of a Funny Story.

Co-founded in 1999 by Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew, Broken Social Scene’s albums and performances feature giant rosters of collaborators, redrawing Toronto’s alternative music scene as a giant house party. In a 2003 interview with the website Pitchfork, Drew says of the band’s relationship to the Toronto community, “It's a ‘we.’ There are filmmakers, photographers, musicians, and we're trying to take our 32-block radius and really go at it together.” Broken Social Scene releases can range from rosters of three or four up to 14, and the additional members hail from such bands as Stars and Metric and also include the singer-songwriter Feist. In addition to two “Broken Social Scene presents” side-project records, the group has released five albums, including this 2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record, a rollicking, dreamy, unabashedly eclectic collection of songs that finds the band grappling with big adult issues (heartbreak, betrayal, and world politics in addition to the equally necessary and simple need to be good to your friends) while retaining the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink instrumentation and impulsive genre-hopping of their most memorable work.

Or, as member Charles Spearin summarized in a 2010 Pitchfork interview, “The cover of the record really summarizes it nicely. There are all these people gathered around this mysterious thing blasting out of the ground, which to me is forgiveness. It's not a religious kind of forgiveness, it's just that thing everybody needs. During some shows Kevin gets everybody to yell, ‘I'm sorry,’ because everyone has something to be sorry for. It's about that sense of release and not holding in all the tension. The world needs to exhale right now.”

Speaking of his initial attraction to Broken Social Scene in a 2006 Filmmaker Magazine interview, Fleck commented, “We wanted [Half Nelson] to be very naturalistic, but I also like movies that have moments that don’t necessarily take you out of the film but add another dimension, another color. Broken Social Scene is a favorite band. Anna and I listened to some of their music when we were writing, and we wrote some of their music into the scenes. We played some of their music on-set when we were shooting to set a vibe, and we used it as temp when we were cutting it. Then we flew up to Toronto and showed the band the movie, and we were fortunate enough that they liked it and let us use a lot of their music.”

Among the songs included in Half Nelson’s soundtrack was fan favorite “Shampoo Suicide” from the band’s second album, You Forgot It In People, that added warmth and conflicting emotions to one of the most shocking scenes in the film. Other songs included in Half Nelson were from the albums Feel Good Lost and Beehives. Remembers Canning in an interview conducted as the band was finishing the Funny Story soundtrack, “I got a VHS copy of the movie and heard all these Broken Social Scene songs in the film, and I was like, “Who are these people?” I was very flattered. We loved the movie Half Nelson so much.”

For It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Boden and Fleck went back to the band, this time not to license songs but to commission an original soundtrack. They started, however, with one piece of temp score. “When we first saw the film,” says Canning, “they had already used one cue, ‘No Smiling Darkness’ from the [EP released after] the Broken Social Scene self-titled record. We released five extra songs, and I kind of forgot [about this one]. I heard it in the score, and I was sort of surprised — I didn’t even remember that we released that piece of music! But it worked well, and that anchored where we went [with the scoring].” Adds Drew, “It really set the tone for the kind of music they wanted to hear in the movie, which flowed nicely with the kind of music we’d make anyway. It has this real Beehives-feel to it.”

Explaining the band’s film scoring process, Canning continues, “We just make music based on the theme of the film and then put it up to picture after the fact. We do the broader strokes first — capture the feel of the film and then take a look at specific scenes. Then you start to get an idea for where you are going.”

Perhaps because It’s Kind of a Funny Story is for Focus Features, a mini-major studio, or maybe simply due to the mature inclinations evidenced by Forgiveness Rock Record, but Canning says that the band adopted a more business-like approach to this score. “After every session, I would always send [Ryan and Ann] an email, like a ‘Monday report,’ and I try to be real organized,” he said during post. “I give them a run down of the cues [we recorded]. It’s been fun approaching it in this ‘let’s be pro about this situation’ [way].” Adds Drew, “[The scoring process] was pretty easy — communicating with Ryan and Anna, they have a great sense of what they want.”

Of their favorite scenes, both musicians cite one in which Craig and his hospital-crush, Noelle (Emma Roberts), race through the hospital corridors disguised as doctors and share a heartfelt moment on the roof. “That was the one scene in the ballpark of The Breakfast Club, and we did a cue for it,” says Canning, “but it got moved so now it’s the ending credits. It’s a song called ‘Not At My Best,’ and it was one of the songs under consideration for the latest Broken Social Scene [album]. Lisa [Lobsinger], Drew and I worked on that song — it gave us a chance to finish it.”

Drew cites another scene as a favorite, the one “where [Craig] is coming out of his dark moments, is coming down the hallway, and somehow you get the feeling that he’s realizing that there is a lot more to life. Lisa did this wonderful vocal tape — it’s just this nice, sweeping score that works with the particular vibe [of the scene].”

But Drew says his favorite scene of all is one that many viewers will cite as their favorite too: a heart-to-heart between Craig and fellow patient Bobby (played by Zach Galifanakis) in the hospital gymnasium. “For me it was a touching moment,” he says, “when Bobby is mentoring [Craig] and giving off fatherly advice. He is trying to present life as something positive and open as opposed to being dark and intimidating.”

But, reminds Canning, “There’s also no score in that scene.” He continues, “I like the no-score scenes. Not because there’s less for us to do, but [because] not every scene needs a big underscore.” Indeed, while Canning cites composers like John Williams and Ennio Morricone, maestros whose music embraces large-scale emotion to move audiences, as favorites, he also cites quieter works, like Ry Cooders’ score for Paris, Texas, or the melancholic songs Yo La Tengo created for Adventureland, as particularly inspiring soundtracks. He also names David Shire’s pensive cues for All the President’s Men as among his favorite film music. “I like the real ‘reserved-ness’ of [that score],” he says — “the way the horn swells hit you very hard. There is so little score being used [in that film], and sometimes those are my favorite films — where the less score used the better.

In the end, says Canning, it’s the film’s avoidance of melodrama, the ease with which it finds the hopeful in Craig’s life, that endeared the film to him. “I really enjoyed the film,” he says. “I liked the arc of the story, and I liked how it addressed Craig’s problems with just the right amount of delicacy while not being too silly about it. [It wasn’t] over-dramatic. I don’t think there is anything worse than having a teen going through problems and then you get some morbid score, some heavy strings. [The film] is just a simply told story, and I think it’s done with a bit of grace and poise.”