5 songs that changed Waves director Trey Edward Shults's life

The director's 3rd film takes inspiration from, and features music by, Frank Ocean, Kanye West and more.

The director's 3rd film takes inspiration from, and features music by, Frank Ocean, Kanye West and more

Director Trey Edward Shults' latest film, Waves, stars Kelvin Harrison Jr., Sterling K. Brown and Vancouver actor, Taylor Russell. (Getty Images, Elevation Pictures/graphic by CBC)

It's easy to understand how early reports about director Trey Edward Shults's third feature, Waves, inaccurately described the film as a musical. Although its stars Kelvin Harrison Jr., Sterling K. Brown and Canadian rising star Taylor Russell never break out into song or synchronized dancing, music plays an integral role in this story about a Floridian family that is torn apart by tragedy. 

Shults, who broke out in 2014 with his family drama Krisha, describes Waves as a "soundtrack film," where songs aren't simply an element that gets tucked into the background but are there to "put you into the world of the film; it's the ebb and flow of the entire thing." In fact, if you take out all 40 or so tracks from Waves (an additional score was provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), Shults argues that the chronological playlist can tell a linear story on its own. (Other artists featured in Waves include Animal Collective, Amy Winehouse, Kendrick Lamar, SZA and Chance the Rapper.)

"You can't imagine these types of movies without the soundtrack," he continued, citing Dazed and Confused and Boogie Nights as examples of soundtrack films that inspired him. 

Waves is a tense and at times heartbreaking exploration of grief, familial pressures and the messy melodrama of being a teenager told in two parts through a son and a daughter's perspectives. It's a story that was inspired by Shults's own teenage upbringing but was further shaped by Harrison Jr.'s input.

In writing this film, Shults's took the music one step further and broke a cardinal rule of filmmaking: he embedded the songs into the script. It's a bold move that many may advise against in case they can't legally clear the tracks (or use an artist's album cover in a scene), but certain albums were such guiding forces for Waves — such as Frank Ocean's Endless and Blond, and Kanye West's Yeezus and The Life of Pablo — that it's unclear which direction the film's story would've gone in without the influence of those artists. 

Waves director Trey Edward Shults talks film soundtrack

2 years ago
Duration 1:10
Waves director Trey Edward Shults talks film soundtrack

And by the time Shults and his cast were given a rousing standing ovation at its Toronto International Film Festival premiere back in September, they still hadn't cleared certain Ocean and West elements. "We didn't have the [Life of Pablo] poster in [Harrison Jr.'s] room and the Blond album cover, too," he remembers, pointing out a scene (that's since been re-inserted) where a character's phone showed the Frank Ocean cover art. "We had to flip the phone over." 

Luckily for Shults, everything was cleared shortly after its festival run, with some time left before it hit theatres. (Waves opens in select theatres today, and will be in theatres across Canada on Dec. 6.)

"I just feel crazy blessed and still a bit surreal that we actually got the dream soundtrack and didn't make any compromises," he says, sighing with relief. 

Speaking to Shults ahead of Waves' release, we asked the director for five songs that have changed his life over the years. 

'How to Disappear Completely,' Radiohead 

"That was a big song for me in high school. It got me through some things and made me feel less alone. Radiohead had been around for a while, but I first dove into their music around freshman year of high school. I used their song 'True Love Waits' in Waves."

'All You Need is Love,' The Beatles

"This song reminds me of my family. On my mom's side of the family, I was raised by a lot of strong, powerful women, but they're hippies at heart and the Beatles were very big for them."

'Hey Mama,' Kanye West 

"I remember making a short film for my mom on Mother's Day and using that song with all this home video imagery of us when we were younger. I'd be nothing without my mom, this amazing woman that raised me and made me the person that I am, and that was my tribute video to her."

'Siegfried,' Frank Ocean

"This is in Waves. [The Blond] album came out when [Kelvin Harrison Jr.] and I were making our last movie, It Comes at Night, and we were driving around on weekends and I was dreaming about making Waves. This is also such a personal album for me and my girlfriend. I don't think it's too early to say, but I think Blond is one of the best albums of all time. It's certainly one of my favourites and 'Siegfried' is one of my favourite songs ever. I can't imagine what the movie would look like without that album even though, shockingly, we have even more Endless tracks than Blond. Frank changed my life. He's one of the greatest living artists."

'Wild is the Wind,' Nina Simone

"Her version of this track is just one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard. It moves me to my core soul. If I ever need to get to a place, this is the song for me." 



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