Whether it’s cheesy pop, hype-inducing beats, or melancholic tones, movies and music often go hand in hand. But occasionally a soundtrack comes along that feels like more than just songs. Into the Wild is one such example.
Adapted from Jon Krakauer‘s book of the same name, Sean Penn‘s beautifully filmed Into the Wild tells the true story of Chris McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch. After graduating from college in 1990, headstrong Chris took to the road to lead a life of solitude in the Alaskan wilderness. Tragically, just two years later, his body was discovered in an abandoned bus, reportedly having died from starvation. Needless to say, this movie alone is enough to have plenty of emotions creep in. However, Eddie Vedder‘s soundtrack makes you experience it on a whole other level. Unlike many other soundtracks, this one was written specifically for the movie. In fact, it was actually a request from Penn himself. Vedder, who at the time was known as being the frontman of rock band, Pearl Jamhonored Penn’s request and Into the Wild became his debut solo album. And it’s through this careful thought into the soundtrack that makes every song feel like a perfectly crafted gem.
The starting melancholic mood of “Long Nights” sets the tone for Chris venturing into the vast Alaskan landscape. “Have no fear for when I’m alone, I’ll be better off than I was before.” These lyrics let us feel the optimism Chris holds, yet the apprehension of the unknown. Of course, this is simply a glimpse of what is to come. Rewind to a couple of years beforehand, where we see Chris graduating from college. And this is where it all begins.
Having fulfilled his “duty” of study, he is ready for something greater. Desperate to break free from the shackles of everyday life, he donates all his savings to charity and ventures out to the open road, not a word to his family. As we see him speeding (well, the equivalent for a rickety car) past the skyscraping structures of civilization, “Hard Sun” starts up. His “rubber tramping” journey is just beginning and so too is the viewer’s journey. This upbeat rhythm is the ideal accompaniment to the beginnings of adventure. As Vedder’s voice builds power, it can be seen as echoing the adrenaline building in Chris.
But as Chris’s journey evolves, encompassing several meaningful encounters with a hippie couple, a helpful farmer, and a lonely older man, the songs also begin gaining more layers. “No Ceiling” gives us lyrics such as, “I’ll keep this wisdom in my flesh. I leave here believing more than I had. ” And “Guaranteed” sheds light into his burning desire to escape, with the lyrics, “Everyone I come across in cages they bought.” But one of the most moving songs comes at the halfway mark. And that is “Society.” Cue Vedder’s deep tones again, throw in some truly poignant lyrics, and you have a little slice of magic. This tune, co-written by Jerry Hannan, perfectly enhances the visuals of Chris’s new reality. But what makes it all the more powerful is the stark contrast to the scene beforehand. As we watch Chris gazing through the window of a bar, we see all that he is running from. On the other side of the glass is a businessman, a strong reminder to Chris of everything he does not want to become. Vedder’s vocals provide the inner voice for Chris. “We have a greed, with which we have agreed” and “Society, you’re a crazy breed. I hope you’re not lonely without me, ”he sings, as we see Chris hunting for his next meal in the wild. As the majestic setting of the Alaskan mountains provide the stunning visual backdrop, Vedder’s hauntingly powerful vocals pierce through the ears. This song brilliantly highlights Chris’s internal struggles and is certainly one to linger in the mind long after it ends.
While this song may be a standout, there are many more pearls of wisdom in Vedder’s lyrics to come. As the movie regularly jumps back and forth in time, it allows for the soundtrack to follow less of a structure too. Without this boundary, the music can be bringing you to tears one minute and providing a sense of hope the next. And with so many quiet, reflective scenes free of dialogue, the songs become almost a necessary part of the plot. Whether it’s the call to action feel of “Setting Forth” or the serene sounds of “Tuolumne,” we are often guided by the soundtrack. One that is particularly noteworthy is “The Wolf.” Simply an organ piece with some strange wailing noises (courtesy of Vedder), it superbly translates the feel of the wild.
As Chris stands atop a snow-capped mountain admiring nature’s beauty, it begins to feel like an immersive experience for the viewer. However, in contrast to many of the songs that build Chris’s journey, the understated score that runs alongside scenes with his parents, played by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, is equally moving. This could be said to represent the unspeakable nature of the torment they are going through, not knowing where their son is. Unlike the stream of words that can be put to Chris’s emotions, their type of emotions often can not be explained.
And this is ultimately what makes the music in Into the Wild so stirring – the fact that it is based on a real-life tragedy. These songs aren’t simply musings for a character, they are impactful insights into the pivotal moments of a young man’s life. One of the most tragic aspects of Chris’s story is that he comes to realize “happiness is only real when shared.” This heartbreaking sentiment that Chris writes into a book is one of his final thoughts before his life is cut short. All the poignant lyrics of Vedder’s music was ultimately leading up to this final awakening. Chris got what he needed out of this experience and was ready to return to civilization.
While many movies are uplifted by song, Into the Wild‘s soundtrack is something truly dominant. These are not just a selection of melodies dispersed throughout scenes, but instead, deeply affecting support for the story itself.