Submarine, the directorial debut from comedian Richard Ayoade, turned ten years old this year, but the hold its soundtrack has on cinematic music is just as strong as ever. The soundtrack is comprised of six original songs written and performed by Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner, who brings his signature philosophising and eclectic lyrics. Together with the film’s cinematography, these songs idealise the mundane as the protagonist, Oliver, makes himself the romantic hero of his own story.
There is nothing as intrinsically teenage as the awkward first relationship, something which is encapsulated in all its toe-curling glory in Submarine. The film follows Oliver (played by Craig Roberts of ‘who stole my Maroon 5 CD?’ fame in The Story of Tracy Beaker) as he navigates his relationship with his classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige). Nothing is done by halves in this film, including the emotional intensity; when you’re watching, you feel at all times like you’re stuck in Oliver’s head, forced to hear all of his fifteen-year-old-boy thoughts and schemes. The soundtrack follows all of this perfectly, letting Oliver’s state of mind bleed through into the lyrics, which is the key to what makes Turner’s music so powerful and so fitting to the film.
The film begins with a panning shot of Oliver’s bedroom, a visual reflection of the character we will soon be introduced to, and the ever-quotable opening lines: “Most people think of themselves as individuals, that there’s no one on the planet like them…” It is here that the soundtrack starts, with a snippet of ‘Stuck on the Puzzle’ – one of, in my opinion, the best songs from the admittedly very short soundtrack (it is not even twenty minutes long, the perfect length for a Main Character Walk round Uni Parks). As soon as the music begins, we know that we are in for a ride; this is not just any teenage boy, but a teenage boy on a mission to romanticise every element of his life and cast himself as the lead in his own movie.
The mix of often-misplaced confidence and half-concealed insecurity that Oliver’s character brings is caught with eagle-eyed precision in the first full song to play, ‘Hiding Tonight’. Turner sings as though he has everything in his life planned out – he’s the kind of guy who boasts “you can leave off my lid and I won’t even lose my fizz” and “I’ll be the polka dots type” – but who also puts all these things off until tomorrow, comfortable in himself for the time being. The sweet message here is undermined somewhat by the position the song holds within the film, as a track on a ‘celebratory’ mixtape given to Oliver by his Dad to mark his first relationship, featuring songs for stages such as ‘Embarrassment’ and ‘Seduction’. It provides the background music to a Skins-esque montage of Oliver and Jordana setting off fire-crackers and burning things on the beach, which is itself undermined by the way Oliver chooses to sum up their relationship so far: “two weeks of atavistic love making, humiliating teachers and bullying the weak”. This sequence makes you squirm in all the ways a teen romance film from the early 2010s should.
It is this constant balance between the heartfelt and the cringeworthy that makes the film so watchable and its soundtrack so listenable. When Oliver and Jordana sit and look out at the ocean together, this cliché romantic scene is subverted by the way she keeps shrugging off his arm – there is still a lingering sense of that teenage awkwardness. The song that plays, ‘Glass in the Park’, explores the hugeness of this moment, as the two work out where they stand in relation to one another. Turner takes this sense of scale to its furthest point by talking about outer space: “paraselene woman, I’m your man on the moon”. He captures the way that when you’re a teenager, everything feels enormous until you look back at it a few years later – for Oliver, the events of the film are ground-breaking, filtered through a subjective, first-person worldview, but as the viewer we know that this isn’t all there is.
No exploration of the Submarine soundtrack can be considered complete until we talk about ‘Piledriver Waltz’, the song so mesmerising it was reworked into a track on the Arctic Monkeys’ own 2011 album, Suck It and See. With lines such as “you look like you’ve been for breakfast at the heartbreak hotel” and “if you’re gonna try and walk on water / make sure you wear your comfortable shoes”, Turner takes us into his own nonsense world, where everything can mean a million different things. There is no better way of summing up what it’s like to be inside a teenager’s brain, stepping into the shoes of an adult but bringing all your adolescent anxieties with you. This is what gives Submarine its magic.