The Reality Bites Soundtrack at 20: The Good, the Bad and the Totally '90s
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Reality Bites, Houston's cinematic "'90s moment" starring Ethan Hawke's grunge locks and Winona Ryder's doily dress. It's a flawed film, and rather unsatisfying at times, but it's hardly without its charms -- quite like Houston itself, one might say.
Today, it's remembered fondly by many not so much as a classic love story or intimate portrait of life in our city, but as a perfect, time-capsule snapshot of our mass-culture conceptions of success, love and self-expression in the early '90s, before the whole decade lost its damn mind towards the end there.
But hey, we here at Rocks Off ain't film critics. What about the tunes?
Music played a pivotal role in many of the movie's most memorable scenes, and if there's one thing we remember about the '90s, it's that the music back then was pretty good. The Reality Bites soundtrack must be chock full of grungy Gen-X touchstones and Lollapalooza favorites, right?
Well, no, not really. Like the film that spawned it, the soundtrack is kind of a mixed bag. Most of the songs included in the film weren't even recorded in the '90s, and the best stuff from the movie didn't even make the soundtrack album. It was a hit anyway, selling 1.2 million copies and climbing to No. 13 on the Billboard 200. It even managed to spawn a No. 1 hit single. In short, the CD was more popular than the movie.
There's no grunge on that record, or gangsta rap either. Stiller didn't set out to make a "Generation X" movie. So what was it that people were handing over fistfuls of cash to hear back in '94? To figure that out, let's step inside our time machine and travel back to our favorite, grimy coffee shop, fire up a cigarette and carefully examine the good, the bad and the totally '90s from the Reality Bites soundtrack.
In the film, Ben Stiller's character, Michael Grates, is a successful young executive for a hip, MTV-style music channel called In Your Face TV. For '90s reasons, this more or less makes Michael the villain of the piece, rather than the coolest, most well-laid guy in the movie. (Doesn't help that he looks and acts a lot like Ben Stiller, we guess.)
Although In Your Face mostly serves as a vehicle for cultural satire in the film, it also happens to deliver the best music in the whole damn enterprise. When Winona Ryder's character, Lelaina, is investigating the cable channel, she's treated first to the alternative hip-hop stylings of Arrested Development, possibly the greatest non-gangsta rap group to emerge from hip-hop's Golden Age. "Give a Man a Fish," the track featured in the film, was one of many good ones from their smash 1992 debut, 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of... That record, the only Arrested Development album you need concern yourself with, was good enough to win two Grammys and nab the group top year-end honors from Rolling Stone and the Pazz and Jop Critics' Poll.
Up next in the In Your Face rotation? Sepultura's "Arise," the title track from the Brazilian metal legends' 1991 thrash masterpiece. Ironically, this song couldn't be heard on the real MTV at the time, since the video, featuring some freak in a gas mask nailed to a cross in the desert, was deemed "too controversial" by the network and banned from airplay. Irony was big in the '90s.
Even Lelaina's precious documentary, which Michael sexed up into an awesome Real World-style montage for In Your Face that declared Pizza Hut (of all fucking things) to be the solution to all of life's problems, had some quality jams attached. The choice of Salt-N-Pepa's "Let's Talk About Sex" was perhaps a tad on the nose for the reality doc's relationship portion, but we'll allow it, since that frank and danceable bit of safe-sex proselytizing was practically the most '90s thing ever written and performed. Why Salt-N-Pepa aren't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is inexplicable.
Did any of these bitchin' tunes make the Reality Bites soundtrack album? Ha! Nah. RCA had to leave plenty of room for these gems:
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