Music

Scott Pilgrim turns 10: how the cult film gave fans a perfect snapshot of Toronto's indie music scene

The movie based on Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novels featured some of the city's biggest indie acts.

The movie based on Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novels featured some of the city's biggest indie acts

Edgar Wright's film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was supposed to be a hit when it came out 10 years ago. Instead, in the years since it failed at the box office, it has transformed into a cult classic. (Universal Canada)

"You guys doing anything fun while you're in town?"
"Fun? In Toronto?"

August 2010 felt like the perfect confluence of Canadian indie-rock culture. On Aug. 2, Arcade Fire, the Montreal band that put its hometown on the music map in 2004 with its breakout album Funeral, released its highly anticipated third record, The Suburbs. It went on to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200

It was the apex of a decade that saw many Canadian acts including Broken Social Scene, the New Pornographers, Wolf Parade and Metric breaking through internationally, and the cherry on top came the following year when, in February 2011, The Suburbs won the Grammy Award for album of the year. It was a culmination of a growing critical consensus around Canadian music, a rising star that also happened to catch Hollywood's eye. If a film blended in that music and culture into its foundation, it, too, could be poised to ride that wave of success, right? 

On Aug. 13, 2010 Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was released. A film adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim, the Edgar Wright-directed film was projected to be a hit. Michael Cera starred as Scott Pilgrim, a boy who falls for the new girl in town (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but must defeat her seven evil exes in order to date her. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World combined an eye-popping and fantastical comic book style with tried and true elements of musicals, action blockbusters, coming-of-age dramas and rom-coms — all set in the city of Toronto. 

A flop-turned-cult hit

But, in its opening weekend, the film debuted at no. 5 and only earned $10 million, nowhere near the $85 million production budget that went into making it. By commercial standards, it was deemed a flop. Some claimed it was too Canadian, others argued that having Cera anchor the film was a mistake. It would initially seem as though Hollywood made the wrong call altogether and that the film's financial failure, much like the "Who is Arcade Fire?" comments that greeted the band's Grammy win, was a sign that perhaps critical consensus was out of sync with mainstream taste, and that the popularity of Canadian indie rock, among other elements of the film, wasn't enough to bolster a film to worldwide profit.

But almost immediately after its theatrical run wound down, the film formed a cult following (not without the help of a ceaselessly enthusiastic Toronto fanbase). Now, 10 years later, it's being heralded as a film that was ahead of its time, predating the mega success of box office-smashing superhero films (the Marvel cinematic universe launched in 2008, but took some years to really take off) and acting as the launching pad for some of film and TV's biggest stars now (Brie Larson, Aubrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick). 

The film is also a neat snapshot of that indie-rock era. Written between 2004 and 2010, O'Malley's books were loosely based on his time living and playing music in Toronto. "I was in a bunch of bands," O'Malley told Weird Girls. "I always play music on and off; comics kind of took off more than music, but I've always enjoyed music." That part of his life, and his experiences lugging band gear across the city's vibrant music scene, had one of the biggest influences on Scott Pilgrim

Protagonist Scott (who is named after a song by '90s Halifax band Plumtree) is a bassist in a band called Sex Bob-omb, and most of the series' adventures revolve around a series of battle-of-the-band gigs that would also double as battlegrounds for Scott and the villainous exes of Ramona Flowers, the object of his affection/obsession. 

When time came to translate Scott Pilgrim from the page to the big screen, Wright had a sturdy blueprint for its visual identity. But how would they bring the sound of the series' universe to life?

Creating the sound of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

The answer was a mix of local and international talent. Behind the scenes, Sloan frontman Chris Murphy was tapped as the musical director, teaching and guiding actors through performing as musicians on-camera. (Mark Webber and Alison Pill, who play two-thirds of Sex Bob-omb, had never picked up an instrument in real life prior to shooting the film.) For its soundtrack, Wright called up friend Nigel Godrich and Beck to helm Sex Bob-omb's scrappy garage-rock anthems, giving the band just enough of a polish so that the performances were enjoyable to watch, but also sloppy enough to be believable that a group of twenty-somethings could throw them together. 

Local indie-rock heroes Broken Social Scene and Metric were also brought onboard to round out the sonic identities of other featured fictional bands: Crash and the Boys, and Clash at Demonhead. 

Clash at Demonhead, particularly, was inspired by Metric, a fact that singer Emily Haines has called both flattering and insulting. "It's sort of like a nightmare version of us," she told TIFF. When the band members were first approached by Wright to contribute a track to the film, the synth-rockers pulled up "Black Sheep," a track that missed the cut for their fourth studio album, Fantasies, but felt like the perfect fit for the Brie Larson-fronted Clash at Demonhead, a Toronto outfit that has gained international acclaim. (According to Aubrey Plaza's Julie Powers, Clash at Demonhead opened for the Pixies.) 

"When I had finally heard, in the film, her version of it," Haines recalls, "I think she did a great job, it's completely different from me ... I only wish I could be as badass as the characters he created. I'm glad that we inspired him, but that it wasn't too close to us."

Larson's band takes the stage at Lee's Palace, one of the only real music venues featured in the film, shining a light on the physical scene in Toronto (The Rockit was also featured but because it closed in 2005, they had to recreate the entire set.) Even restaurant chains like Pizza Pizza and Second Cup were cleverly shot in the same neighbourhoods to maintain a geographical continuity that most films shot in Toronto rarely abide by — that's if Toronto is lucky enough to get to play itself, another anomaly. 

Broken Social Scene's contributions were slightly different from Metric's. Their songs for Crash and the Boys, one of Sex Bob-omb's battle-of-the-bands opponents, were a far cry from the anthemic rock songs the band is best known for. So instead, members Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew created something that was heavier than what they would normally produce, with instruments thrashing up against each other in short, powerful bursts — literally so short that, in the film, Scott's roommate Wallace heckles them from his seat: "It's not a race, guys."

Throughout the film, Wright ensures that every corner of the screen and its setting honours the city it takes place in. For Wright, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a love letter to O'Malley's heartfelt comics, but the film is also a love letter to Toronto. Characters are spotted reading issues of alt-weeklies Eye Weekly and Now Magazine; Scott and his pre-Ramona love interest, Knives Chau, frequently shop at the record shop, Sonic Boom; Ramona has a New Pornographers album cover in her living room. Haines, whose voice doesn't technically come up during the Clash at Demonhead performance (all the actors recorded their own vocals, which were used in the film), can be heard later on as Broken Social Scene's "Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl" is played in the background in one pivotal scene. These are all Easter eggs lovingly planted for true Torontonians to see — and to feel seen. 

How has the film aged?

Of course, Toronto is made up of many thriving music scenes, from punk to hip hop. (It is, after all, the home of the biggest hip-hop artist in the world.) So Scott Pilgrim's representation of the city's indie-rock scene is fairly narrow and, quite notably, white. But that, too, is reflective of how indie rock, as a genre back in the early to mid-2000s, was mostly dominated by white acts. Even a scan of the audiences in the film show a mainly white demographic, further alienating a character like Knives who is often referred to as just a "Chinese schoolgirl" in the film. 

But I can relate to Knives. As someone who fits her description — a Chinese-Canadian who was born and raised in Toronto — and who attended many shows at Lee's Palace and various other venues across the city, being one of a handful of non-white concert attendees is a very real experience. And the film, whether it was deliberate in its representation or not, was honest in its depiction of those spaces instead of leaning into Toronto's prominence as one of the most multicultural cities in the world. 

Underneath all the portals and superpowers, though, Scott Pilgrim is a perfect snapshot of the Toronto music scene in the 2000s. From the iconic landmarks to the less talked about lack of representation, Toronto's indie-rock scene provided the film with a grounded and lived-in foundation atop which Wright built a colourful, fantastical world. And in the 10 years since it came out, the film has already aged into quite a time capsule: Sonic Boom has since moved locations twice; the Lee's Palace interior will definitely throw off tourists who come in hoping to grab a beer at the back bar, which has been redesigned (and which was, at the time of filming, leading the crew to recreate the original layout); the Rockit is now on a rapidly growing list of venues that have shuttered. 

With those community-oriented spaces growing more vulnerable every day due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Scott Pilgrim's valorization of music venues reminds us of the importance of these places and why we must continue to help keep them alive, however possible. Watching scenes of crowded parties and fans standing shoulder to shoulder will definitely elicit fond memories of communal gatherings, but as a whole, re-watching Scott Pilgrim makes us miss live music the most, eager to reignite the scene with loud, buzzing bands.

Until the next time we're allowed to step into Lee's Palace, though, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the next best thing: a dream-like universe that we can continue finding comfort in. 

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