‘Waves’ soundtrack: director Trey Edward Shults on his dazzling indie drama’s best music moments

From melancholic indie gems by Radiohead to Kanye West's self-aggrandising hip-hop bangers

Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, Waves is a deeply moving and uncommonly audacious coming-of-age story. Set in south Florida, it follows two very different teenagers navigating life in a middle-class African-American household. The first half focuses on Tyler (It Comes At Night’s Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a popular high school senior struggling to meet the sky-high standards of his aspirational father (Sterling K. Brown), who warns him that he’ll always have to work harder because of his colour.

Waves soundtrack
Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Sterling K. Brown in ‘Waves’. Credit: A24

After a properly shocking mid-film tragedy, Waves’ second half pivots towards Emily (Escape Room’s Taylor Russell), the quieter younger sister whose own high school experience is changed irrevocably by Tyler’s actions. She becomes timid and withdrawn until she bonds with Luke (Lucas Hedges), a sympathetic senior with serious family issues of his own.

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It’s an incredibly affecting film whose many moods – sad and romantic, poignant and powerful – are enhanced by a dazzling list of songs featuring the likes of Kanye West, Tame Impala and Radiohead. Here, Shults explains how some key tunes made it onto the Waves soundtrack, a process which even involved him writing a personal letter to Frank Ocean.

Waves soundtrack
Trey Edward Shults, director of ‘Waves’. Credit: Getty

Tame Impala – ‘Be Above It’

“This is one of my favourite tracks and we use, like, every version of it in this film. We use the studio version, a live version and kind of a club remix version. From the first time I heard this song, I was thinking of how it could work in this movie. To me, it just sounds like the inside of Tyler’s head: the lyrics “Gotta be above it, gotta be above it” with that driving beat. That sense of constant forward propulsion, always chugging ahead and trying to succeed, that just sums up Tyler’s world to me.”

Amy Winehouse – ‘Love Is A Losing Game’

“I mean, she’s just an incredible artist and this is one of several songs on the soundtrack that feel timeless to me – another being ‘What A Difference A Day Makes’ by Dinah Washington. For me, ‘Love Is A Losing Game’ speaks to the very heart of the film as well as the specific moment where it comes in. It’s this moment where all the high school kids are having this night together which should be a beautiful experience for them. It doesn’t quite turn out that way, but in that moment it feels like it might.”

Animal Collective – ‘FloriDada’

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“They’re another of my favourite bands. We actually use several Animal Collective tracks in the film and every one has a personal meaning for me. With ‘FloriDada’, there’s the obvious thing that it’s Animal Collective making a song about Florida – I live in Florida, I love Florida, and this is very much a Florida movie. But this song also fits the beautiful chaotic energy of the moment in the film where it comes in: we use the bridge of the song in a moment where they [Emily and Luke] are literally on a bridge. The movie opens and closes on this bridge that goes from Florida to Missouri, and ‘bridges to’ are a definitely a visual motif throughout. This movie is a lot about the dichotomies we have in our lives, and the bridges and connections between them which makes us human. ‘Floridada’ is a song that captures those messy grey areas.”

Kanye West – ‘I Am A God’

“I remember in post-production, my editor and I would say that the first half of the movie is almost spiritually like Kanye, whereas the second half is more spiritually Frank. The ‘I Am A God’ moment in the film, it was just one of those sequences where once the track was in there, it was impossible to replace it with anything else. It’s so on the nose in a really beautiful way, because Tyler literally would be blasting ‘I Am A God’ in his truck after this big emotional moment [in the film] where he kind of takes over from his dad for the first time. But even though Tyler’s listening to the song while driving in his truck, it almost feels like this song is coming out of his head and spewing out to everyone else around him. It just captures his mindset in that moment perfectly.”

Frank Ocean – ‘Florida’

“There are several Frank songs in the film including ‘Florida’ from [his visual album] Endless. You know, I have no idea why it’s called ‘Florida’; I don’t think Frank has ever spoken about that. But there’s this moment in the film where Emily jumps from a tree into the water and to me, in that moment, Frank’s spirit just comes across. It’s just so gorgeous and so undeniable that I knew we absolutely had to use ‘Florida’.”

“But honestly, there’s so much of Frank’s spirit in this movie. There’s a scene where Tyler’s in the bathtub and you see the Blonde album artwork on his phone. I had to shoot an alternative version with the phone flipped over in case we didn’t get the rights to it. When I wrote Frank a letter asking to use his music, I tried to get across how much his music means to me personally, and why his songs are the only songs in the world that make sense in these scenes. We also sent Frank a rough cut of the movie with the letter and after months and months of praying we finally heard back, and thankfully he said yes!”

SZA feat. Isaiah Rashad – ‘Pretty Little Birds’

“This is such an incredible song and we use it in a moment that’s very empowering for Emily. This song, with Emily finally enjoying this long overdue high after everything she’s gone through, is just so gorgeous to me. What Emily and Luke are doing together is beautiful to me, and ‘Pretty Little Birds’ is a beautiful song that kind of underlines that.”

Radiohead – ‘True Love Waits’

“They’re one of my favourite bands of all time; their music really helped me to get through high school. I wanted the soundtrack to almost feel like a mixtape that Emily or Tyler would have on their computer and that would bring us closer to their teenage world. We use ‘True Love Waits’ in one of the final sequences of the movie and honestly, no other song that we tried worked as well. It just feels so spiritually true to the heart of the movie and especially when we get to this moment where there’s a connection between all these characters. Those lyrics – “true love waits”, “just don’t leave, don’t leave” – speak to the soul of that moment and the soul of the movie.”

‘Waves’ is in cinemas now

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