May 8, 2012


R.I.P. Maurice Sendak: "Wild Things" Soundtrack Revisited

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This is just sad: Maurice Sendak, the brain behind the Where the Wild Things Are children's books, died on Tuesday (May 8) at home in Ridgefield, Conn., from complications following a stroke. He was 83. R.I.P.

If you were born after the 1963 release of his first Wild Things book, chances are they were an integral part of your childhood. They were to mine. The off-kilter plot lines—far darker than your average Berenstain Bears book—and classic monster images are burnt into the back of my brain forever. Those books and illustrations seem to capture the limitless curiosity, sense of adventure and longing for independence of many youngsters around nine years old—the same age as the book's protagonist Max.

In 2009, Spike Jonze's remake of Wild Things, sourced from a screenplay he penned alongside author Dave Eggers, hit theaters. It was a long and arduous road to its premiere. It was first developed in the 1980s as a Disney film, then transferred between studios for years. Finally, Sendak picked Jonze to direct and work began in Australia, with Jim Henson's Creator Shop fashioning the animatronic suits for the Wild Things characters. It was delayed due to clashes in artistic vision multiple times. Rumors surfaced online that test screenings had some children in tears. 

In 2008, the president of Warner Brothers, now handling the film, said, "We'd like to find a common ground that represents Spike's vision, but still offers a film that really delivers for a broad-based audience. No one wants to turn this into a bland, sanitized studio movie. This is a very special piece of material and we're just trying to get it right." 

In my opinion, they got it right. Sure, some reception was lukewarm, but I loved it. The film played to the same parts of the imaginative, limitless young mind as the book. And so did the soundtrack, composed by Jonze's ex-girlfriend Karen O and a collection of her friends/collaborators, including Bradford Cox of Deerhunter and members of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Dead Weather, the Raconteurs and others. This group, aptly, was dubbed the Kids.

When I heard of Sendak's death Tuesday morning, I immediately put on this album. When it dropped in 2009, I became obsessed. It was simple, tender, sometimes fitful, and it played, again, to the same emotions as the book. Although a different art form, it stuck to Sendak's original vision. It chased the spark of youth.

I fell in love with songs such as "Hideaway," "Food Is Still Hot," "Igloo," "Cliffs" and a version of Daniel Johnston's "Worried Shoes." They all looked at the world from the same young, inexperienced eyes, making sense of the big, confusing world as a child would. But they were packed with the same verve as a kid sprinting into the woods.

Karen O said the band limited themselves to toy and children's instruments, with each song sounding like a pixie-dusted nursery rhyme from Neverland, played with acoustic guitar, plastic xylophones and triangle symbols. There are handclaps, whistling and group sing-alongs. The melodies are as memorable as "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star."  They're universally understandable; they're the soundtracks for naps and play time. But in no way can they be tossed off as "kid's stuff." Never does it feel pandering; each song is artful and mature, and some have darker, sinister undertones, like the movie. Which is Wild Things' genius: It doesn't censor kids, or treat them too fragile.

Instead, it presents them with an entertaining story they can understand, but with adult/real world consequences. There's no simple problem-resolution in the plot. It's rife with emotion and nightmarish alternate reality. Little kids hate not being able to do "big kid's" stuff. And by not telling them, "Close your eyes," Sendak and Jonze (and O) offered them a place for their imagination and emotions to flourish, and I think therein lies the magic.

These songs found a place inside me and helped me understand the book and Jonze's film re-creation as an adult. The movie ignited the child inside me—the kid who built forts and played in the forests and lakes of rural Washington State—which has since been dulled by the 9-to-5 grind. But afterward, as the credits rolled, I wanted to go home, like the film's protagonist Max, to the comfort of my previous life and my family. I had come to New York, a city of monsters that sometimes threatens to eat you alive, and I wanted the simplicity of things the way they once were. 

The feeling passed, obviously. But it's good to know that that part of yourself hasn't died. It's hidden in plain sight, and it took a moving story like Sendak and Jonze's to unearth it. Sendak stirred the spirit of youth and inspired others to do the same. Sendak is gone, but as long as the human race exists, what he strived for, and accomplished, will never fade: The desire to rediscover the kid in all of us.