The new film from Mike Mills, 20th Century Women, is remarkable for a number of reasons. Well drawn characters, incredible performances, the gorgeous manner in which it was shot, etc. To my mind though, the very best thing about it is its use of lovingly selected “pop” songs. Set in 1979, the music from the era that it features offers up a treasure trove of far too often overlooked punk and post-punk gems.
20th Century Women goes beyond just featuring a bunch of awesome tunes though. It’s characters deeply love music, and know how to talk about it. From Jamie, the 15 year old boy at the center of the film who partially defines himself by being a major Talking Heads fan, to his 55 year old mother, Dorothea, who shares a similar passion for the Standards she grew up with.
All of this adds up to one of the most lovely scenes I’ve ever witnessed of film characters listening to, and talking about music. The aforementioned (single) mother rents a room in her house to a 20 something woman named Abbie who was deeply embedded within New York’s early punk scene. Abbie is sharing “Fairytale in the Supermarket” – a seminal yet deeply amateurish song from English post-punk group The Raincoats – with Jamie. Dorothea wanders in to examine the strange sounds. She immediately recognizes that this music is not for her, but instead of stating that, or demanding that the kids turn it off, she asks what it is. Then she takes a beat with it to listen further, sitting on the bed, lighting a cigarette. From a place of what appears to be genuine curiosity (and perhaps a little bit of concern) she asks Abbie; “They do know they’re not very good, right?” Abbie explains that yes, they know, and that’s the point. It’s about expressing what’s on your mind in that very moment through your limited vocal skills, limited experience with instrumentation, and limited means for production/distribution. That rawness and urgency comes through loud and clear to the listener, and that’s what makes it so exciting. Essential even. “Fairytale in the Supermarket,” is one of a myriad of important female post-punk “anthems.” It joins The Slits’ “Adventures Close to Home,” X-Ray Spex “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” Delta 5’s “Mind Your Own Business, and countless others all dealing with the juxtaposition of frustrating limitations vs. desire for new opportunities that go hand in hand with, well, being a 20th century woman.