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Once Upon a Time in Film Scoring
Stand by Me
Sean Woodard

STAND BY ME (1986)

The cast of Rob Reiner's Stand by Me (Image © Columbia Pictures) 

The cast of Rob Reiner's Stand by Me (Image © Columbia Pictures) 

When people hear the phrase “stand by me,” they’ll most likely recall the classic Ben E. King song or the 1986 Rob Reiner film which shares its name. Adapted from Stephen King’s novella The Body, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay and has been cited in multiple publications as one of the best coming-of-age dramas. It is my favorite film and one of my main influences on becoming a writer.

What is particularly potent about the film is its emotional core. Following a group of four boys on a search for the body of a missing kid their age, Stand By Me explores friendship, death, and growing up in an honest fashion, where the tinge of nostalgia doesn’t override the immediacy and relatability of its themes.

Rewatching it recently, I noticed for the first time how music is used economically in the film. While radio hits of the era are scattered throughout, a minimalistic score rarely punctuates the action. This allows for the film to be carried mainly by the strengths of the writing and the natural performances of its leads.

At the opening of the film, we are introduced to the film’s narrator, an adult Gordie LaChance (Richard Dreyfuss). He sits in his car and reflects on the death of a childhood friend. Here Rob Reiner’s shots are very minimalistic. He includes an establishing shot of the exterior of the vehicle parked along a country road. Next we see Lachance in the car followed by a close-up of a news article. The newspaper grounds us in the setting — in Oregon on September 4, 1985. The story is buried on the third page of the local section, hardly breaking news. The headline, “Attorney Chris Chambers Fatally Stabbed in Restaurant” connects the deceased attorney to LaChance in a matter of seconds as the camera shifts back to him. Two boys ride past on bicycles and we see them disappear down the road from LaChance’s point-of-view. This moment provides an opportunity for him to reflects on a weekend from his childhood. As LaChance begins his voiceover narration, the scene dissolves to show his younger self (Wil Wheaton, Star Trek: The Next Generation) in a Castle Rock store buying a detective magazine during Labor Day weekend of 1959.

Composer Jack Nitzsche’s (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Starman) score is mainly synthesizer-based, yet features other instruments like bass guitar, horns and strings over the course of the film. The music is most effective use when it serves as a form of connective tissue, emotionally linking the present with the past. During the opening scene, the score mirrors the melody of Ben E. King’s song, but with a slower tempo. This sets a melancholy mood, matching the story elements introduced and Lachance’s emotional state.

We hear the sound of a radio jockey leading into the song “Rockin’ Robin” as young Gordie joins his friends in their treehouse. Chris Chambers (River Phoenix, My Own Private Idaho) and Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman, The Lost Boys) play cards and smoke. A transistor radio is tuned into the music station. Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell, Kangaroo Jack) soon arrives to tell them he overheard his brother Billy and his friend Charlie talking about how they came across the body of a missing teenager named Ray Brower after stealing a car. The boys then decide to set out to find the body and be labeled heroes by the local news.

The inclusion of classic 1950s Rock ‘n’ Roll helps establish the childhood of Gordie’s youth. Not only do we hear hit singles while the boys are on their journey, but also when the Cobras gang commits small-time acts of vandalism and unknowingly race the boys to find Ray Brower’s body. Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” comes over the car radio while they play mailbox baseball. While racing down the highway to the sounds of “Get a Job” by the Silhouettes, Ace Merrill (Kiefer Sutherland, 24) plays chicken with an oncoming truck, causing it to serve out of the way to avoid an accident.

During their journey, the transistor radio helps them pass the time as emotions fly and general moral declines. At one point, the boys march along the train tracks belting “The Ballad of Paladin” from the television Western, Have Gun — Will Travel:

“‘Have Gun — Will Travel’ reads the card of a man / A knight without armor in a savage land / His fast gun for hire heeds the calling wind / A soldier of fortune is the man called Paladin // Paladin, Paladin / Where do you roam? Paladin, Paladin / Far, far from home.”

The lyrics suit the boys’ quest in a way. They are setting off into the unknown with only the shirts on their backs and minimal supplies in search of Ray Brower, leaving behind the comfort of their homes behind. Along the way they face many hard truths that signal the transition from childhood to adulthood.

We witness the largest representation of change through the onscreen relationship between Gordie and Chris.

After his brother Denny (John Cusack) is killed in a jeep accident, adult Gordie states, “That summer at home I had become the invisible boy.” While packing his things, Gordie searches for his canteen in Denny’s room. As he enters, a musical phrase cues Gordie’s recollection of when Denny gifted him his Yankee’s cap. To set apart this flashback from the rest of the film, the scene is lit in a golden hue. An unobtrusive piano melody plays over the scene. The memory and the music is then cut short by the sound of his father’s voice.

As Gordy leaves the room, his father asks him, “Why can’t you have friends like Denny’s?”

“Dad, they’re okay,” Gordie replies.

“Sure they are. A thief and two thieves?”

“Chris isn’t a thief.”

“He stole the milk money at school. He’s a thief in my book.”

Later in the film when Gordie is purchasing food for the group, the shop’s owner recognizes Gordie and begins talking about how great a football player he was. The conversation visibly upsets Gordie, who becomes quiet. As the owner drones on, a brief series of musical notes in a minor key is used to transition to another flashback. At a family dinner, Gordie’s father speaks to Denny about the upcoming football game, but ignores Gordie. Denny interrupts his father to ask him if he’s read Gordie’s latest story. Flustered, their father changes the subject. Denny then turns to Gordie and says he really enjoyed it.

Because Gordie is ignored by his parents, Chris steps in to serve as a surrogate brother and father to him. Throughout the film as they comfort each other about their fears and worries. Chris encourages Gordy to take the college-prep courses and not give up writing. In return, Gordie listens to Chris say how he wishes he could move somewhere else and escape his family’s bad reputation. It is important to note here how any use of music would probably make these scenes come across as melodramatic; the actors’ raw emotions are strong enough on their own.

When the boy’s finally find Ray Brower’s body, they are confronted by the horror of what they are about to witness.

Adult Gordie states, “None of us could breathe. Somewhere under those bushes was the rest of Ray Brower. The train had knocked Ray Brower out of his Keds like it had knocked the life out of his body. The kid wasn’t sick. The kid wasn’t sleeping. The kid was dead.”

A horn plays a mournful melody as the brush is moved aside to reveal the body. As Reiner moves from one close-up to the next of each boy’s silent reaction, the music carries all their unspoken emotions in that brief moment.

The film’s theme comes full circle when the boys trek home and adult Gordon notes how their hometown appeared smaller. As the boys say goodbye, he describes how each one disappeared from his life over the years: “Friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant.” Nostalgia and perhaps a sense of regret permeates the scene as Gordon recalls how he never saw Teddy or Vern again except in passing. But as his younger self speaks to Chris before they part ways, the music stops, allowing the moment speak for itself.

As the story returns to the present, the Ben. E. King version of “Stand By Me” plays over the final scene as adult Gordie finishes writing his story and and the end credits roll. Here the original song shifts the tone to one that is more joyful, the lyrics of the song taking on new meaning as they meld with the theme of friendship presented in the film.

And you can’t help but smile and sing along.

Sean Woodard is a graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University and Chapman University.  Focusing on a wide variety of interests, Sean’s fiction, film criticism, and other writing have been featured in Los Angeles Review of Books, Found Polaroids, and Los Angeles Magazine, among other publications. He is a journalist for Addiction Now and serves on the Film Department for Drunk Monkeys. A native of Visalia, CA, he now resides in Orange County.