Home Arts & Entertainment Moments Defined by Music: “The Greatest Hits” Filmmaker & Stars on the Power of Songs

Moments Defined by Music: “The Greatest Hits” Filmmaker & Stars on the Power of Songs

by Art U News

By Kirsten Coachman

In 2018, my best friend and I were in a Lyft, and the driver had on the local pop music station. Among the songs blaring in the car was “The Middle” by Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey. The song made a lasting impact, as throughout the day, we would randomly sing the start of the chorus: “Ooh, Bay-bay.” Anytime we hear the song now, wherever we are, we’ll send each other a reminder of sharing that pop-tastic Lyft. 

It’s moments like these that demonstrate how powerful music can be in our lives: It can intertwine with our memories. In “The Greatest Hits,” the newest film from writer-director Ned Benson (“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby”), sound engineer Harriet (Lucy Boynton, “Sing Street”) is grieving the death of her boyfriend Max (David Corenswet, “Pearl”) and is brought back in time to specific moments from their shared past when she hears certain songs. To avoid accidentally hearing a song outside of her home, she wears headphones and listens to songs on her self-curated “safe” playlist. As the second anniversary of Max’s death approaches, Harriet meets David (Justin H. Min, “After Yang”), who needle drops into her noise-canceled world. 

Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

“It’s been a long and winding road on this one,” Benson commented to Art U News during a recent press tour stop in San Francisco along with the film’s stars, Boynton and Min. The writer-director first had the idea for the film in 2008 after reading neurologist Oliver Sacks’s “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.” “I wrote a draft [of the film] in 2009 and then put it away and made another movie and wrote a bunch of other movies for other people and was doing commercials and things like that.”

After impending film projects in 2016 and 2018 did not come to fruition, and the COVID-19 pandemic kept people indoors and socially distanced, the director was advised to revisit his script. “Someone I worked with was like, ‘Why don’t you pull that off the shelf and take a look at it?’ And really, it kind of spoke to this idea of the isolation that I think we all shared during that time,” said Benson. 

In reading Benson’s final product, Boynton and Min were both taken by the words on the page. 

“When I read it, what struck me the most was that you could take the sci-fi element out of it, and the film would play the same,” said Boynton. “I think I realized I have the exact same relationship with music that Harriet does. Slightly less tangible, but I really do use it, as Ned has referred to it, as like a kind of nostalgia machine.”

“You see a number of scripts in this industry as an actor, and there are a few that just really immediately move you on a sort of deep soul level,” added Min. “And this was one of those scripts. It was a page-turner, and I was just curious to see what would happen and how these relationships evolve and grow.”

Benson states that he didn’t want to think of Harriet going back in time “too much in a sci-fi manner” when she does return to a moment with Max. But a rule the director did put in place is that the character can re-experience the past for the length of that song. 

“I thought about it as someone who’s so profoundly and emotionally affected by music that it kind of takes hold of her,” explained Benson. “At first, it feels like an affliction, but then I think as we move towards the climactic moments of the movie—without giving too much away—it just shows how powerful this emotional experience is for her. Like our emotions can get the best of us in this insane way, and it could be powerful enough to really change something if you want to.” 

Lucy Boynton and David Corenswet in “The Greatest Hits.” Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2024 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

Harriet’s ability to feel music so deeply while she grieves feels relatable and demonstrates that it is not a one-size-fits-all. She has set up emotional guardrails to get her through her days, aiming to only give into these songs from her past on her own terms. Though David’s presence offers a form of peace as they find common ground in their shared love of music, it’s not a fix-all. With both characters going through it throughout the film, the actors discussed their film’s depiction of grief and the lighter moments that come and go both onscreen and in real life. 

“It was such a meta kind of experience because that is what grief is—where it’s like you feel so encased by it and dictated by it a lot of the time,” said Boynton. “And then you do have these moments of reprieve, and that can often feel quite guilty. And I think that’s exactly what Harriet’s journey was like—having these genuinely joyful moments and then wondering if that’s a betrayal in some way.”

Boynton added: “It was interesting when the schedule would kind of align with that in a way that you would have these joyful moments, and we’d come back to the more solemn scenes. And so it really allowed you to live that experience as well; [it] mirrored what Harriet was going through. 

“Some versions of grief that I’ve seen depicted in media do sometimes make it feel like an on-and-off switch, like a before, and then suddenly something happens, and you’re better,” said Min. “And the thing that I love about our film and the script and the thing that Ned created is the messiness of grief. … It is a constant push and pull and coming in and out and feeling joyful in one moment and then potentially feeling guilty about that joy and then being pulled back into the grief. And that’s just life, you know? And I love that you can sort of see all of that humanity in the film.”

Lucy Boynton and Justin H. Min in “The Greatest Hits.” Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2024 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

Among the film’s lighter moments is a scene where Harriet and David are out with friends doing karaoke. The actors admitted that the discomfort their characters experience as they sing their rendition of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” was a legitimate feeling for both of them during filming. 

“I think we both knew that the point of the scene was not to showcase anyone’s singing ability,” said Min, laughing. “I think when you’re afraid as an actor, you can use that as fuel because fear is such a genuine human experience.”

“You never want to see someone crush a karaoke scene,” explained Boynton. “You kind of love all the missed notes and the messiness. I didn’t realize how much messiness would ensue. But that’s why I love now watching that scene, as excruciating as it was and is, you just see this vulnerability and joy between [Harriet and David], and it’s like we were mentioning, it’s one of those rare moments where you see them just let go. And I think it offers the audience such a sign of relief and reprieve from the heaviness.”

“You should have seen my face looking at the monitor,” remarked Benson, “I was grinning at these two, just losing it. But it was so fun.” 

Lucy Boynton in “The Greatest Hits.” Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2024 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

In addition to 10cc, the film features music from Roxy Music, Nelly Furtado, Lana Del Ray, Phoebe Bridgers, Jamie xx, among others. 

“A lot of the music that was actually in the film was already written into the script,” said Min. “And I don’t normally ever really do this, but I felt compelled to turn on some of the music while I was reading the script, and I could really sort of visualize it. And I had such a deep connection to it.”

But what about the trio’s own greatest hits? When asked what newer songs or artists would be in contention for their own respective greatest hits, Min shared that singer-songwriter Bruno Major is an artist that he’s been getting into recently. 

“He has a song called ‘Home’ that has been on repeat. It’s not super new, but it was a new song to me,” said Min. “And being on the road all the time, as an actor, there’s something grounding about that song, ’cause it is about finding home wherever you are.”

Benson offered up singer-songwriter-music producer Jack Antonoff as his personal pick. 

“I think Jack Antonoff is just singing some amazing music right now,” said Benson. “Whether it’s with Lana Del Rey or Taylor Swift [or] his own band (Bleachers). I think he’s a very special producer and musician, so he’s definitely hitting me in the right way. I’m a big fan.”

Justin H. Min and Lucy Boynton in “The Greatest Hits.” Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2024 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

After scrolling quickly through a playlist on her phone, Boynton also shared her artist selection. 

“Jade Bird. I love Jade Bird,” she said about the singer-songwriter. 

The pick prompted a final anecdote from Benson, who shared that earlier this year, the night of their screening at South by Southwest (SXSW) 2024, Boynton and her boyfriend had mentioned wanting to see Jade Bird play that evening at the festival and that they should all go. 

“We get all geared up, and we’re like, ‘Oh, we’re going to go see Jade Bird,’” said Benson, recalling the night. “And they, like, run off, and then they texted us that Jade Bird actually played two years ago.”

“It was the same day in 2022,” explained Boynton. 

“So they tried to go back in time,” said Benson.  

Boynton mentioned that on the car ride back to meet up with everyone, she knew her director and castmates were never going to let her live the moment down. 

“I’m still not letting you,” joked Benson. “But she did try to time travel back to a Jade Bird show.”

“She’s just that good,” said Boynton, “that I’m trying to go see her in Austin in 2022.”

“The Greatest Hits” is now streaming on Hulu.

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