It would be easy (but ill-advised) to pass off Hearts Beat Loud as sweet summer fluff, especially given the scope of the film’s synopsis: Widower Frank (played with exceptional gravitas by Nick Offerman) contemplates closing up his record shop in Red Hook, Brooklyn, after 17 years in the business as he sees his daughter Sam (an incredible Kiersey Clemons) prepare to head out to UCLA to study medicine. However, both father and daughter are musically inclined, and in a last ditch attempt at family bonding-through-midlife crisis, Frank cajoles Sam into recording a song, which winds up getting heavy spins on Spotify; the two contemplate their immediate futures, pitting immediate gratification against long-term responsibility.
However, director Brett Haley (The Hero, I’ll See You In My Dreams) avoids trite plotline pitfalls with a highly intelligent script, a sensational cast (which also includes Ted Danson, Blythe Danner and Toni Collette) and, most importantly, a solid set of songs written by his longtime film composer Keegan DeWitt, formerly of the Nashville indie rock outfit Wild Cub. That includes the song that serves as the film’s title, which just a few years ago sounded like a completely different track.
“When Brett first heard ‘Hearts Beat Loud,’ he immediately began talking about turning it into a movie,” DeWitt explains. “But I’ve lived like three lives since I first wrote it in 2011. My initial gripe to Brett about this old demo of the song I had floating around was that there was no chorus, really. I was younger when I first started writing it, and I didn’t care about a chorus back then—it was about capturing the energy of building it with layers upon layers until you reach the crescendo at the end. Then I remember we were at Sundance and it was the morning after The Hero had premiered, and he turned to me and said, ‘Alright, we’re doing Hearts Beat Loud now, let’s go.’ We had a period of two or three months where I had to go away and write some songs for the film. And in a nice way, it brought me back to the way I had written songs when I first started writing ‘Hearts Beat Loud’ the song.”
“Yeah, we go back a long time,” adds Haley. “He’s done all my movies. I’ve been a fan of his solo work and Wild Cub stuff forever. There’s nothing based on the song that’s in the movie, but I did tell him, ‘Hey, I love that title and is it okay if I call the movie Hearts Beat Loud?’ And he was like, sure, let’s try to rework it and create something specifically for the movie from that song and start there. And then he wrote more original songs after ‘Hearts Beat Loud,’ and we kind of just went back and forth on the script, leaving placeholders for him throughout the film. That’s the way I always wanted this movie to feel, with the songs helping tell the story. They weren’t just there to be cool songs or whatever.”
The way by which DeWitt reworked “Hearts Beat Loud” — along with the other songs he had written specifically for the movie — speaks to the intergenerational musical balance between Frank and Sam.
“Sam, she’s influenced a lot by her dad musically,” Clemons explains of her character. “And I think as much as she strays away from being anything like him, they are so much alike. She can’t help but have the same taste in music and the same requirements to be impressed. Also, you have to think about the fact that she’s grown up in this record shop. She’s probably spent her whole childhood there running around listening to all these records, because she has a very educated taste in music.”
“I tip my hat to Keegan,” Offerman states. “He’s so talented and so prolific and, annoyingly, he’s also quite good looking and personable. It all strikes against him. But between his original composition and the collaboration with Brett, I love the way the songs he wrote were crafted to represent me as an old school, simple rock guy and my daughter on her sampler and her keyboards being much more of a contemporary child of electronica. Meanwhile, I feel like Frank has been trying to work that riff into about ten songs across his life. I think Keegan’s songs really achieve that beautifully.”
One aspect of Hearts Beat Loud that guarantees it stands out from any other music-based family film in recent memory is how deftly Haley illustrates the process of home recording and how much it has grown since the days of Sebadoh and Girlysound, coming from the perspective of both characters no less.
“I think the film captures something really special about bedroom recording in general as an art form,” describes DeWitt. “You’re capturing the excitement and passion of building a song like you were building a sculpture or a painting. I feel like so much of popular music now is about mass-producing these hits. That’s why it’s important to consider the way Brett is conveying the making of music, because I started to learn as a 14-year-old with a four-track where I’d start off with some dumb guitar lick but when I added another element to it, I heard some magic in there.”
“A huge part of what I was trying to do was show that you can create all kinds of amazing things in your bedroom or in your living room with a computer and some instrument and you plug in and you can create these amazing things, and a lot of this movie is about that creative process,” says Haley. “And what it means to create art and how you can go about doing that and there’s no level of creation that’s more important than another, like connecting with your daughter and creating this great song.”
One artist in particular whose music is prominently featured in the film is indie artist Mitski, whose means of creating music are very much a composite of how Frank and Sam record in the calm of their own home.
“She’s got a new album coming out this year,” Haley reminds us. “I’m a huge, huge Mitski fan. She’s one of the most talented musicians out there. So it was a real honor to feature ‘Your Best American Girl’ in the film. I think you get a sense from the music that she’s making, what kind of music she’s listening to, and she’s listening to some form of a rock/pop/hip-hop hybrid. There’s a little of that electronic sampling going on, which I think speaks to the youth culture and what Sam was doing in the movie.”
Meanwhile, inside Frank’s record shop (which in actuality is the Academy Records Annex in Red Hook), there is cornucopia of premium indie rock from the late ’90s/early ’00s playing and being sold, and it has Haley’s college CD collection written all over the script. For the eldest end of the millennial spectrum (or youngest members of Generation X), hearing Frank loosely jam on Ween’s “Ocean Man” or seeing him giving Toni Collette the hard sell on the late, great Jason Molina of Songs:Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co. fame inside the shop pings of the sentimentalism that comes with growing old.
“I tried to choose things that I love but also that Nick loves, so it was stuff like Tom Waits and Ween and Wilco,” Haley explains. “Both me and Nick love those bands, but you’ll also see references to Animal Collective and Songs: Ohia. All the new songs that were playing in the background of the record store were from me. I’m such a big music guy that I worked my ass off to figure this stuff out and put a piece of myself within the movie.”
“Brett is a huge, enthusiastic music nerd, as am I,” adds Offerman. “I stopped taking on new stuff a couple of decades ago. Some modern acts will still make it through the filter, but they’re throwbacks like Band of Horses and Bon Iver. But Brett is all over everything, so the music that’s older in the movie like Talking Heads and Tom Waits was right up my alley. But all the stuff that I’m selling, Brett had to explain to me about whom those acts were and I’d listen to them. Everything he played me was just fantastic. My poor old brain reached full level on the gauge. So it was easy for me to sell Songs: Ohia or Sleater-Kinney in the film, because I had soaked them in for a few weeks and now I’ll talk about them all day long (laughs).”
Another intriguing aspect to Hearts Beat Loud is the way by which Haley balances the downstrokes of digital music — with the looming question of whether Frank will close his shop mulling across the story and a flippant exchange he has with a customer in the beginning of the film — by incorporating the importance of this new means of music consumption in our everyday lives as well. And perhaps no aspect of the movie conveys that like the scene when Frank discovers the song he and Sam posted on Spotify made the streaming service’s weekly indie playlist, which, as a testament to DeWitt’s song, is happening in real life right now.
“‘Hearts Beat Loud’ was just added to the Friday playlist and the indie music playlist on Spotify,” proclaims DeWitt. “It’s life imitating art.”
“It’s getting approximately 10,000 streams a day, which is great,” adds Haley. “And that was before the movie was out. I think it’s a great pop song and I think that people, you know, really like the music. I mean, I really like the music; it’s an integral part of the movie and so it was something that I obviously wanted to get out into the world, and I had no idea if we would have a hit record or get it on Spotify. You don’t know these things when you’re making a movie, you’re just trying to make the best movie that you can. Now that things are kind of coming together and people seem to be responding to the movie and to the song, it’s very exciting.”
Haley wanted to make sure that Hearts Beat Loud didn’t present a negative vibe on the digital music market, because he himself cites streaming services as his primary means of song consumption these days.
“Spotify and Soundcloud, they’re giving smaller artists a chance,” he asserts. “That’s how I discover music now, on Spotify. You go to the new indie mix, the same that happens in the movie, and discover these artists that, you know, maybe wouldn’t have an opportunity otherwise. There’s a lot of these young new pop musicians out there, artists like Soccer Mommy and Snail Mail, who had these relatively small operations, but they’re getting play on Spotify. I’m discovering them and going, wow, these are like, for instance, Snail Mail is starting to blow up. People viewing how talented this girl is. She’s like, what 18 or 19 and she just rips the guitar. She’s an incredible songwriter, it’s very exciting. I just think as frustrating as the music industry is, it’s also an incredible kind of a time to discover new music.”
At the same time, however, Hearts Beat Loud does, in the end, gaze upon the record store and the culture that surrounds it with a fondness that avows the relevance of these beloved community hangouts in 2018 as a happy offshoot of the vinyl resurgence.
“There was one night when we were all wrapping up and it was me, Sasha, who plays Rose, and Brett,” reveals Clemons. “And we were in the shop, showing each other songs and albums that we liked. We’d pick up random records and were dancing, and it was cute. Brett was playing us songs from a playlist he made for his wife when they first started dating. I felt like we were still in the movie. It was a sweet bonding experience.”
“You have to embrace what’s coming,” explains Haley. “But I think it’s great that we’ve gone back with music, as vinyl has come back in a big way and people are digging analog sound again.”
“Record collecting is having an artisanal moment,” theorizes Offerman. “You’re going to see less classic record stores and more curated collections. It won’t be the bargain bin place where you could spend a whole Saturday poring through every crate of records. And that’s what the movie’s about. It’s talking about how much of your vibe are you gonna hang onto, and how much will you remain open to moving forward. And there can be beautiful music to come if you allow yourself to open up and receive it.”