Roger Neill on the Sonic Time Travel of ‘Valley Girl’

We chat with the composer about inhabiting the headspace of the characters to achieve an authentic sound.
Valley Girl Trailer Shot

Welcome to Keeping Score, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful composers in the industry.

It’s one thing to report on a subculture from within its trenches and a totally different thing to comment on it after a significant amount of time has passed. The original Valley Girl is a goofy romantic comedy loosely inspired by Romeo and Juliet but more in the spirit of Frank Zappa’s satirical tune that gave the 1983 movie its name. Director Martha Coolidge delivered something that was simultaneously loving and mocking. As its audience grew from a burgeoning home video market, Valley Girl secured the hallowed status of a cult classic.

Nearly forty years later, director Rachel Lee Goldenberg returns to the mall as an act of celebration and veneration. Rather than merely offering a retread, her remake of Valley Girl embraces its MTV nostalgia by allowing its characters to erupt into song and dance. If we’re going to live in a world of memory, why not let these teenagers inhabit their music video fantasies properly? They got the beat, let them do the pony.

Amy Talkington carefully curated her screenplay with a selection of specific songs used to accentuate the drama, the romance, and the comedy, as well as the time and the place. There are the obvious choices (“Melt With You”), and there are the not-so-obvious choices (“Be Good Johnny”). The challenge was finding a composer who could bring a fresh perspective to the Day-Glo decade without falling into absurdity or skeptical scorn.

Roger Neill is no stranger to sonic time travel. For Mike Mills and 20th Century Women, he rewound to the late 1970s, establishing a balance of vitality and reminiscence without shattering the sensibilities of the era. His philosophical approach was to find a sound that could have been heard within the decade in question but arranged in a way that only comes with hindsight. This mission continued in Valley Girl.

Forcing a retro experience offers little satisfaction beyond clique reinforcement. Films cannot live on citations and high-fives of recognition. As a composer, Neill has to deliver on a genuine emotional exchange between character and audience. Valley Girl contains plenty of winks, but by the climax, it’s the authentic warmth that binds us to the narrative.

“It starts with the sounds and the instruments,” he says. “There’s one particular guitar that I bought for Valley Girl. It’s a six-string baritone electric guitar, a Fender VI. It’s a sound I associate with The Cure and The Psychedelic Furs and some other bands from that era.”

Before he put pen to paper, Neill put fingers to strings. The Fender VI dropped the composer into 1983. He imagined a score that could have arisen in that decade but was merely waiting on him to bring into reality.

“I used that guitar,” he continues, “and the sounds that I got from it were as if I was a contemporary composer composing the most modern, cool sounding, forward-thinking score I could, but imagining that I was doing it from 1983. The idea being, you’re not working with the compositions of 1983, but more of the sounds and the instruments of 1983, and balancing the new with the old.”

If Neill were indeed working on Valley Girl in 1983, he would want to make something that did not sound like everything else. Therefore, his Valley Girl could not attempt replication. The tools of the era were necessary, but the arrangement had to be of today. Too often, period scores fail due to their love of the time they’re mimicking.

“When you start a film project, you just write freely,” he explains. “Then, you try to limit yourself. We’re not going to do that. We’re not going to do this. Let’s use these tools and these harmonies. Here are our chord progression and melody. This fits.”

Once the boundaries are formed, Neill is free to go wild. At this point, he reevaluates the script and dissects the characters. In them, he’ll uncover the movie he wants to make.

“Eventually, you come up with the sound,” he says. “Usually, about a third of the way through the composition process, you’re like, ‘Okay, now I know what the movie is. I got these six or ten cues, and this is the movie. It’s these sounds. It’s these gestures.’ And that gets me there.”

Neill’s music must live alongside some of the most iconic pop songs of all time. Intimidation cannot stand as he’s the vessel passing the characters from one song and dance number to the next. His collaboration with music supervisor Andrea von Foerster is crucial and required another unique headspace to maneuver.

“This is a weird analogy,” says Neill, “and it just came to me, and it might be awkward, but it’s like I’m an actor in a movie, and half of the movie is done in flashbacks. I play the actor cast in the past, and another actor plays me in the present day. We’re doing this similar journey, but I’m putting my own stamp on the part. That’s my responsibility.”

He adores the songs. They defined his youth like they define Valley Girl. Yet, he cannot get lost in his love for them.

“I’m working in concert with these other elements,” he says. “I’m trying to maintain a through-line with the music. My work and the songs go hand in hand, but you also have to have a reason for the score to exist at all. It has to have a personality and a character, and contribute to the emotional arc of the story in a way that’s unique to the score.”

Neill appreciates the time to talk about his corner of the industry, but he wants to make sure that the audience views his gig along the same lines as they would any department head. Composers are often segregated as tacticians who come into the project late in the game and work their magic in solitary. He views the job like every other collaborative element.

“I was watching a masterclass on some scores this weekend,” he says, “and I was surprised that this person speaking talked so little about the craft of filmmaking itself and just concentrated on the music. For me, what I love about working on films is the close relationship with the director. It’s a collaboration. You’re right in the thick of storytelling, helping these characters along their journey, breaking it down moment by moment, gesture by gesture.”

A composer is a storyteller. Neill shapes emotion and personality as much as any screenwriter or actor. That is where his responsibility ultimately rests.

“I really feel as much as a filmmaker and a storyteller as I do as a composer,” he says. “I don’t know if all film composers feel that way; maybe they do, but that’s how I feel.”

Valley Girl is now playing in select drive-in theaters as well as VOD.

Brad Gullickson: Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)