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‘Up in the Air’ Sounds Great, Too

Hank Williams didn’t fit, but director Jason Reitman went from Detroit soul to acoustic folk for the music in his new movie.

I’ll write more about the film “Up in the Air” soon; for now, suffice it to say that it’s a restrained, timely, resonant work that lives up to the considerable buzz it’s been acquiring lately.

But before I get into that, I want to say a little about the film’s music, which grabbed me right off the bat. A few years ago, I was listening to KCRW when I heard a tough, funky version of “This Land Is Your Land”; determined to buy it, I went to the radio station’s website only to find that it was from an album that wouldn’t be coming out for a couple of months.

So I forgot about it  … until last night, when the opening credits of “Up in the Air” featured that same song, from a New York-based band called Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.

At a post-screening reception, when I told director Jason Reitman (right, with George Clooney) that he’d rescued a song I loved but had forgotten about, he immediately started enthusing about Jones, and about other artists on the Brooklyn-based Daptone Records label, which records new soul, funk and gospel music with the feel of classic low-tech, down-home recordings from Detroit labels of the 1960s.

But he also admitted that he’d initially planned a different opening-credits song for his film: Hank Williams’ mournful “Ramblin’ Man.”

The Williams song certainly makes sense as an introduction to George Clooney’s character, a corporate "termination engineer" who travels around the country firing people.

You couldn’t get a more artful description than this initial verse:

"I can settle down and be doin’ just fine
‘Til I hear an old freight rollin’ down the line
Then I hurry straight home and pack
And if I didn’t go I believe I’d blow my stack"

“I always thought that would be the opening song, but it turned out to be too sad and downbeat,” Reitman said after the screening at ICM in Century City.  “So I put ‘This Land is Your Land’ in there, and it seemed to fit.”

Reitman’s last film, "Juno," helped propel indie-rock tunes like the Moldy Peaches’ "Anyone Else But You" onto the charts, and gave the Rhino Records label its first No. 1 album ever.  The new soundtrack also is coming out on Rhino — which, in a sad reminder of just how timely Reitman’s theme is, recently fired 40 employees.  

But unlike "Juno," whose key songs were all previously released, "Up in the Air" figures to have a contender in the Oscar best-song race. “Help Yourself,” a gentle, acoustic and quietly inspirational ballad by Brad Smith (who records as Sad Brad Smith), plays behind a few emotional moments about two-thirds of the way into the film.

Given the way the music branch nominates original songs – they vote after watching the sequences in which the songs appear – that means it’ll at least get a proper amount of attention and respect.

A different song, though, has gotten the lion’s share of attention: it’s the title track, written by an unrecorded, unemployed St. Louis musician who handed a cassette to Reitman after the director did a Q&A at Webster University.

Reitman found a tape deck, listened, liked the song and put it in his movie – and now the musician, Kevin Renick, is in a movie he didn’t even know existed at the time he decided to write a song called “Up in the Air.”

Renick’s journey makes for a terrific story, albeit one that disqualifies the song from Oscar contention – after all, songs have to be written specifically for the movie in order to be eligible. Its placement in the film also takes it out of the running: An end-credits song is eligible for a nomination only if it’s the first piece of music heard during the credits, whereas Renick’s song comes midway through the credits, after an old Graham Nash track.

Then again, I doubt the guy was thinking about an Oscar nomination when he sat down to write a song about being laid off. Chances are he’s happy enough that Reitman gave him a listen.