For about two and a half hours, American Honey is a dark slog as the protagonist Star (Sasha Lane) drifts through a codeine-fueled road trip that feels like it'll never end; a tense haze soundtracked by Kevin Gates and Juicy J. The chopped and screwed hip-hop that dominates the movie makes the world of Star and her fellow travelers, who go across the country in a van selling magazines door-to-door, feel like a dystopia. But then the clouds open up: the Southern trap music dissipates and is replaced by Lady Antebellum's like-titled "American Honey." Though the entire group has been depicted as rap-loving millennials up until this point, they all welcome the fiddle that courses through "American Honey," and precede to sing along word for word with Hillary Scott's lyrics about purity and a nostalgia for simpler times. It's a beautiful moment of filmmaking—that cathartic release—and it has the rare ability of justifying director Andrea Arnold's decision to make a nearly three-hour film.
American Honey, which was released on Sept. 30, is already being hailed as one of the best movies of 2016. It's bold, beautiful, and wistful, an adventurous on the road look at America's flyover states and the neglected people who inhabit them. And underneath the movie's compelling themes is a brilliant, eclectic soundtrack that acts as a backbone.
Like any other facet of her filmmaking, Arnold took great care assembling the collection of songs that scores American Honey, but chose to let everything come together rather fluidly. "We actually did the road trip," says Julia Oh, one of the film's producers. "They were filming four hours of driving [a day] for seven and a half weeks, and no 20-something kid listens to nothing while they're on a road trip, so we were trying to pick music every single day. Some songs were in the script, but with that much time to film, we realized there was going to be maybe double the amount of songs we originally planned for."
There were also a few clearance issues with some of the songs that were being played live as Arnold filmed scenes. "[We knew we couldn't] get "I'm Going In" by Drake because it's too expensive and he was on tour. And we wanted Fetty Wap's "Trap Queen" in there, but it blew up a [during filming], so by the time we were ready to lock in picture, there was no way we were going to get that song." So, with gaps to fill, Arnold, Oh, and Earworm Music, who helped supervise the soundtrack, took music suggestions directly from their cast, which was mostly comprised of amateur actors primarily from the South. "They were the ones that said Kevin Gates," she says. "Once we figured out what they were listening to, we would try to curate those songs [for the soundtrack]."
The result is a collection of music that's remarkably capable of communicating location and emotion. You feel the dripping moisture of the South as Rae Sremmurd's "No Type" plays, or the recklessness of this group's lifestyle as "Bricks" by Carnage and Migos rings out. And maybe most importantly, you experience the draining feeling of being in a car for eight straight hours—or of coming down from a high—as all of the trap beats blur together. Which allows for moments of epiphany in the form of "American Honey" or Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You."
Unlike many other soundtracks, American Honey also plays back several songs; Juicy J's "Bounce It" crops up like a bad habit. "We're trying to give you the sense that you're actually on this trip with them," says Oh. "Traveling 12,000 miles, you're going to listen to the same songs over and over. I think that repetitiveness also helps you stay in that world." It's a brilliant tactic, one that inspires a reaction of partial relief at familiarity and partial eye-rolling exhaustion. Everyone in the van knows the words to Big Sean's "IDFWU," and that's a beautiful feeling of community—but it's undercut by a realization that they've all subconsciously memorized those lyrics through forced repetition.
So much of American Honey's impact is reliant on a sense of place and feeling. At it's heart, it's a movie about an extended road trip—so much of the movie is confined to the three-row seating of a Ford Transit, and the movie's ability to make the viewer feel like they're in one of those rows is remarkable. Arnold's explorative direction and Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf's magnetic performances certainly contribute to that, but the movie wouldn't be what it is without its music.