Today’s story actually begins over two centuries ago in the late 1700s. Jane Austen was a writer who created some of the most important literary works of her time including Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and a book simply called Emma. Austen’s books are known for the way they examine the lives of female characters at a time in history when women were essentially expected to remain genteel and subservient to their male counterparts. Her stories were set in upper class settings and were populated with characters who lived in opulent homes, wore the finest clothes but tended to act with far less character and polish in their social interactions. Having her main female characters undergo a personal metamorphosis over the course of a story became one of Austen’s literary calling cards. For these reasons, many consider Jane Austen to have been a feminist writer. Thus, it is not the stretch that it may first seem to realize that Austen’s book Emma is actually the inspiration behind one of the great teen movies of our own time, Clueless. This post is the story of the similarities between the storylines and characters in Emma and in Clueless, as well as an examination of how music was used to great effect to create depth to the characters who appear in this movie. So hang on to your hat (which, of course, perfectly matches the rest of your outfit) because the story of Clueless begins now.
In Emma, Jane Austen created the character of Emma Woodhouse. Emma is beautiful, rich, happy and carefree. In addition, Miss Woodhouse is self-absorbed and has a disproportionate sense of confidence in her ability to arrange social and romantic matches between those who occupy her social circle. In Clueless, we find a character named Cher Horowitz (who is played by a relative newcomer at the time named Alicia Silverstone). Cher is obsessed with fashion and her appearance, comes from a very privileged background, is happy and carefree due to her own lack of awareness of the world around her and, like Emma Woodhouse, has a strong belief that her ability to manipulate the social lives of others is a way in which to guarantee that her own life stays as problem free as possible. In both the book and the movie, the lead characters engage in various match-making scenarios which, in turn, begin a process of self-discovery for both that allow these young women to grow and evolve into more mature, empathetic and caring versions of their former selves. Having a superficial character experience a personal epiphany is a rather standard and timeless technique that works by making them likable in the end. If such a personality turn can work for The Grinch up on Mt. Crumpit, then it can work for Emma Woodhouse in Emma and for Cher in Clueless, too. And it does. The settings for both stories are reflective of the time period in which their stories take place. For example, in Emma, most scenes take place in mansions or country estates. In Clueless, most scenes take place in a school, at shopping malls or at teen parties held in cool southern Californian homes which is, I suppose, where you would expect characters such as these to be. Finally, in spite of the many travails that happen along the way, there are happy endings involved for all. These happy endings resonate deeply within each character and stand in contrast to the superficiality with which they lived their lives at the beginning of their respective stories.
While Jane Austen’s novel may have acted as the inspiration for the movie, the storyline of Clueless stands on its own as a time capsule of sorts to the era of Valley girls and 80s/90s mall culture in sunny California. One of the ways that this is achieved is through the judicious use of music throughout the movie. The Clueless soundtrack is a stellar collection of original music and cover songs that give a thorough picture of the times in which the movie takes place as well as the inner workings of each character’s mind and emotions. A simple example of this is how the movie begins. Kim Wilde’s hit song “Kids in America” (as covered by Cali punkers The Muffs) blasts out as scenes of teenagers at school, in cool cars, etc., fill the screen. Very quickly, we transition to the bedroom of main character Cher Horowitz (Silverstone) who is using a computer database of her clothing options to coordinate her outfit for the day, all the while David Bowie’s song “Fashion” plays in the background. Later on in the movie, a character named Tai (played by the late Brittany Murphy) is given a make-over by Cher and, much to Cher’s chagrin, starts to become even more popular than she is. The scene that brings this point home takes place at a house party in which Tai becomes the centre of attention while Coolio’s great rap tune “Rolling With My Homies” plays out. It is during this scene that Cher comes to the unspoken realization that there must be something wrong with how she is living her life. It is at this moment that she starts down the path to her own spiritual reawakening. Seeing her creation (Tai) become popular for superficial reasons convinces Cher to change her own ways, and yet, as an audience, we learn this all via the soundtrack that accompanies the scene. Finally, music is also used wisely throughout Clueless to help differentiate between characters and their various personalities. The biggest example of this occurs between Cher and her stepbrother played by Paul Rudd (in his debut role). Whenever Cher is onscreen, the background music tends to reflect her personality and as such it tends to be light and airy music with an emphasis on appearances and fashion. Whenever Paul Rudd appears on screen, his music is from the 1980s (as opposed to Cher’s 90s tunes) and tends to be more oriented toward songs about emotions and other deeper ideas.
The song I chose to highlight from this soundtrack is “Supermodel” by Jill Sobule. It is a great song that, on the surface, appears to be about taking delight in being beautiful and being adored by others because of it. However, this song is really a snide critique of the pitfalls of judging others because of superficial features such as hair colour, body type or fashion sense. In the end, Sobule concludes the song with some ad libbed lines about achieving her supermodel looks because she hadn’t eaten for days. The funny thing about Jill Sobule as a singer is that her professional outlook on life is the exact opposite of what is being espoused in this song. She is not a supermodel and does not sell herself as an artist because of how she looks. Sobule has maintained a career in the music business that is several decades long by now. She is a survivor because of the artistic integrity with which she conducts herself. Sobule has stated that after the Clueless soundtrack was released and the movie became a hit, she had many offers to record “Supermodel-II” and repeat the same formula again because, obviously, it worked the first time on the soundtrack. To her credit, Jill Sobule opted to write songs that she wanted to write. This strategy has meant that she has had an under-the-radar career since then but she is ok with that. Her only other semi-hit song was a tune called “I Kissed a Girl” which she released several years before Katy Perry had her own hit with a song with the same title (but different lyrics). Jill Sobule decided that her personal happiness and self-respect mattered more to her than formulistic Pop success. It worked out for her just as it did for Cher Horowitz in the movie Clueless and for Emma Woodhouse in the book Emma. The personal and professional story of singer Jill Sobule is echoed throughout the other songs and artists who appear on this movie soundtrack album. This attention to detail in matching personal elements of the singers/bands with the story arcs of the characters onscreen and the settings/cultural times in which the movie is taking place all contribute to the fact that Clueless is not only a great teen movie but that it is also one of the best music movies out there. The manner in which music is interwoven throughout the storyline of Clueless and how it helps contribute to the atmosphere of the movie is what also helps elevate this film above the laundry list of other teen movies made in the 1980s and 90s. With a musical roster that includes Radiohead, Counting Crows, Jill Sobule, Beastie Boys, World Party, Coolio, The MIghty, Mighty Bosstones, Luscious Jackson and many more, it is easy to see why this soundtrack is so solid.
As light and fluffy a movie as Clueless may appear at first blush, it is actually a movie that stands the test of time and still appears fresh all these years later. There is something about the universality of redemption stories that just seems to work. But in the end, it is the attention to detail that can be seen in how something as seemingly inconsequential as background music is used that makes Clueless the classic of its genre that it is. If you have watched the movie, too, then feel free to let me know in the comment box below how you liked it. What did you think of the soundtrack? Can you believe that this movie was based on the literary classic Emma by Jane Austen? Take care everyone. As always, thanks for reading my work. I appreciate your presence here on my blog.
The link to the video for the trailer to the movie Clueless can be found here.
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