Waves is practically a musical.
From the earliest drafts of the script to the final edit of the film, writer-director Trey Edward Shults embedded into every scene his own idiosyncratic, achingly personal song choices. These songs reveal his characters’ inner lives; they are intimate extensions of the images and themes of the film; they’re essential. (Just check out the first line of the script: “Music slowly builds as we pass over pavement in EXTREME SLOW MOTION.”)
Here, Shults annotates, in order, each of the 39 songs in the film. Listen along as you read and you’ll hear the whole movie in your head.
FloriDada by Animal Collective
I love Animal Collective, I love Florida, and I love the energy and chaos in this song. Waves is about the messy human experience and the dichotomies of life—pain vs. beauty, good vs. bad, individual vs. family. It’s no coincidence that we chose to just use the bridge of this song. Bridges are a strong visual motif used throughout the film—we begin and end with bridges.
Where's the bridge that's gonna take me home
The bridge that someone's fighting over
A bridge that someone's paying for
A bridge so old so let it go
Be Above It by Tame Impala
This is one of my favorite Tame Impala songs, and the perfect way to introduce the audience to the drive of Tyler’s world. To me, the repeated whispers "Gotta be above it" gives us an inside look into his mind. The first time I heard it, I was obsessed. We chose to combine the studio and live version because the instrumentals were like an overture to the film.
Mitsubishi Sony by Frank Ocean
I liked using tracks from Endless in the film because it’s less familiar than Frank’s other albums like Blonde, and Channel Orange. This is the remastered version of “Mitsubishi Sony,” which was one of the few songs that wasn’t in the script. It was originally the extended overture, but the music just fit the film, so when I was editing I decided to throw it in. It feels like the high you get when you are up late partying with the people you love. This song also works in tandem with the kids singing “Shut the fuck up” a Waves original that Alexis started improvising in the car when she told me to “Shut the fuck up” giving her directions over the walkie.
What A Difference a Day Makes by Dinah Washington
I remember when this song came on the first time I saw Chunking Express—I was in love. I think it’s a little bit of an homage to that film, and a nostalgic nod to my childhood. Lyrically, it’s also the next day in Tyler’s life and in our story, we are in church and getting more of a feel for family life. While the lyrics of the song take on a heartbreaking meaning later on in the film, they still also feel hopeful. Even though one mistake can change our lives forever, there is always a new day to heal. After we shot this scene, Kelvin’s real mom started singing this song when he got home. She said she used to sing this song to him all the time when he was little. It felt so meant to be.
La Linda Luna by Kelvin Harrison Jr.
This was a Kelvin original, truth be told he is a true musical prodigy. Kelvin’s dad is an incredible musician and their dynamic inspired many things in the film. Named La Linda Luna after Alexis’s middle name, Luna —a pretty moon. We wanted to explore how relationships unravel, how two people who love each other can fall into such a sad place.
Lvl by A$AP Rocky
This is one of my favorite cuts in the film, the sound of this beat rising with the MRI machine is how we get to watch the music syncing with the visuals, right before Tyler’s life is changed forever. The title is what life is for me, full of ups and downs everyone is on a different level.
Bad News by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
This is the first time we hear score in the film, it comes right after Tyler gets the results from his MRI, and we see it instantly pulls him apart. I saved the score until this moment because I wanted it to feel different from the soundtrack. Trent and Atticus manipulated sounds from the film in this track which really brings us inside Tyler’s headspace. The piano is another big element of the score, as Tyler plays we watch his innocence slipping away, while he tries to hold on. This score reveals the internal war he’s having with himself and his emotions.
Odds Against Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
Picking up where Bad News left off, we’ve just witnessed the tense dynamic between Tyler and his dad. A parent’s expectations raging against the insurmountable pressure of success. This was a very personal song—I still have the scars on my shoulder from tearing it wrestling in high school. My entire world fell apart and everything I had worked for was lost. I took a bad video media class and that was what saved me, it forced me to pick up a camera and film things again. It was a dream come true to work with Trent and Atticus on this film.
Rushes by Frank Ocean
Twin peaking highs and lows.
One of my favorite Frank tracks to explore the highs and lows of relationships. I remember when we shot Tyler and Alexis in the water the Florida heat lightning started and it felt magical. We used this song as a mirror of what’s to come in the second half of the film.
Hope the water’s deep enough.
Backseat Freestyle by Kendrick Lamar
Kelvin had to memorize the lyrics the day of shooting. We slowed it down to echo Tyler’s state of mind and lost high. Kendrick said this track is him reconstructing the mindset of his 16 year old self, which feels so fitting for this moment where Tyler is trying to rebel and escape his hurt. It works as a release but only for a moment.
Everything Burns by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
This track brings out Tyler’s hurt and regret, dreaming about his lost love as the relationship begins to disintegrate. The shots of Tyler and Alexis through the fire are some of my favorite shots in the film. Trent and Atticus establish this recurring theme, which is heard in two more pivotal moments of loss and pain. Water is such a central focus of this movie, with some of the biggest moments of connection between characters are either in, or near a body of water. It balances the visual destruction of the fire.
America by The Shoes
I’ve loved this song ever since that great music video of Jake Gyllenhaal killing hipsters. The movement of this song sounds like The Shoes moving through America—it matches Tyler and his friend’s energy.
The Light Shines Through by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
This is the first time in the film Tyler truly breaks down. He shows us his vulnerability, and all that he’s been keeping inside. It’s the last moment of deep connection with his sister Emily before tragedy hits and will be an important moment that stays with her forever. The piano melody theme is my favorite of the film because it’s deeply personal to me. Trent and Atticus sent me this track when I was going through a hard time, and I started crying as soon as I heard it. This song is the heart of the film—beauty fighting through pain, and someone trying to heal. I included the album version of this track here. In the film the track is the same melody but stripped down.
Focus by H.E.R
Kelvin took this glorious video of Alexis dancing to this song the first time they met, and so, naturally, the song became part of the film, but it wasn’t originally in the script. You really start to see Alexis’ spirit coming through in this song—to me, it sounds exactly like a relationship that’s struggling, nearing an end. I like the dialogue happening between this track and the next one, both characters struggling to express how they feel with their lovers.
Can you focus on me?
Baby, can you focus on me?
Can’t you see?
I just wanna love you, baby
IFHY (feat Pharrell) by Tyler, The Creator
I fucking hate you, but I love you
I’m bad at keeping my emotions bubbled
You’re good at being perfect
We’re good at being troubled
I fucking LOVE this song. IFHY feels like every adolescent love song I grew up with. When I was in high school, I destroyed my room over a girlfriend, while a song like this was playing—it may have been juvenile but it felt honest. For better or worse, music gets me through things, and it’s why I wanted a soundtrack that always felt honest to Tyler and Emily’s experiences.
Surf Solar by Fuck Buttons
This song has propulsion and drive, and feels authentic to Tyler’s experience. Even when we aren’t with Tyler in this sequence, it’s what you imagine an angry teenage experience of FOMO sounds like.
Love is a Losing Game by Amy Winehouse
This song is a timeless classic from Amy Winehouse, it comes in as we are shifting from Tyler’s perspective, and moving over to Emily’s. As one of my favorite Amy tracks, this song comes in at the end of one of my favorite scenes. After getting beaten up for a while, I wanted to pause, and have a scene where these two young women could connect with each other—everyone’s whole night should be as enjoyable as this scene. I love the look on Alexis’s face when she’s dancing to this song.
I Am a God by Kanye West
Getting the rights was hard and took a long time, and we didn’t clear the song until after Telluride and Toronto. Thankfully Kanye came through because I love every song off of YEEZUS. We tried a million other songs and nothing worked. I wanted the strength and power of the lyrics “I Am A God” right after Tyler overpowers his father. It feels so tragic, like a panic attack coming out of Tyler’s head. I love the way Johnnie Burn infuses his sound design with the track and the way we mixed it.
U-Rite / U-Rite (Louis Futon Remix) by THEY
We played this scene out in a single take, which is why this song feels so right for the moment, like a nervous warning. We wanted everyone in this scene to have music to actually interact with, so we played the song live so that it could feel like a real party. Playing music on set can be huge in channeling the right energy. In the film, the end of this track goes into Trent and Atticus’ score that again brings us to Tyler’s state of mind. Combining the original and a remix made it feel more unique and dynamic. I like that the lyrics bring us back to Backseat Freestyle and that teenage state of mind.
Be Above It (Erol Alkan Rework) by Tame Impala
Using this song again just shows us how far Tyler has fallen from where he was. It breaks my heart.
Ghost by Kid Cudi
Ghost is a beautiful song about depression, and might just be my favorite Kid Cudi song. Tyler’s world is falling apart so quickly but he doesn’t have the time to process anything, as a result, he falls into a deep depression. It is a pinnacle song for this moment in Tyler’s journey, while also interacting with this kind of completion of Tyler’s Bad News piano theme.
The people I’ve met and the places I’ve been
Are all what make me the man I so proudly am
But I wanna know one thing
When did I become a ghost?
I’m most confused about the world I live in
You think that I’m lonely, well I probably am
One thing that still gets me
When did I become a ghost?
The Stars In His Head (Dark Lights Remix) by Colin Stetson
I am really inspired by Colin Stetson’s work. It is so urgent, primal, and scary. Feels like a nightmare coming true—a primal howl into the night. I talked a lot with Sterling about this sequence in the film: It had to feel like spiraling out of control, Tyler’s worst nightmare coming true, and the impact this tragedy has on everyone. Both Tyler and Emily’s stories are supremely subjective and strictly from their point of view until we get to the end of each story, when they spiral out of control and we feel the interconnectivity of everyone.
After the Fire by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
This is the continuation of the theme set up by Trent and Atticus between Tyler and Alexis at the fire. The goal was to feel the full devastating weight of this tragedy. For me, it sounds like the film is in a state of shock, devastation, and mourning— everyone’s lives changed forever. When I was editing this sequence, I cried uncontrollably for several hours. This song acts as a spiritual transfer from brother to sister. Emily is being birthed out of a tunnel of darkness, and then entering the light to start a new chapter.
Wounds Heal by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
This is the original 22-minute track that Trent and Atticus sent me but the version in the film is slightly different. This track is what gets us into Emily’s headspace—isolated and in deep grief. The piano theme used here is her spirit trying to get through. This is the second we use the piano theme; it started in the bathroom with Tyler and Emily earlier in the film. It felt right to use it again here for a multitude of reasons. Even though we’re in a state of grief, the film is coming into a new beginning.
How to Begin by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
It’s always scary opening yourself up to someone new, especially after everything Emily’s been through. This song plays with that balance and dichotomy, she’s curious but on guard—hopeful but cautious.
Moonlight Serenade by Glenn Miller
This is the first piece of music we hear that’s not score, since the tragedy. It’s timeless, beautiful and hopeful. It’s also a very personal song between my girlfriend and I. It was always hard for me to get into swing until her.
What a Difference a Day Makes by Dinah Washington
Since this is a film about dichotomies, it was important for me to have moments that called out and mirrored each other. Returning to the diner and using this song again is obviously important to Emily and her family history. It is a small moment in the spirit of the film where we see music used to get through painful times. This song pushes Emily to open up in a way she wouldn’t have otherwise.
Loch Raven (Live) by Animal Collective
Searching for love, and starting something new, is really beautiful experience. I don’t know what the song means to Animal Collective, but, for me, it sounds like trying to push your spirit towards some light and some love. I like using the live version in the film because it feels a more raw. The main lyrics I make out are I will not give up on you. That phrase, combined with the music is just so damn beautiful to me. It feels like love.
How Great (feat. Jay Electronica and My Cousin Nicole) by Chance the Rapper
This track is one of the most powerful pieces of music that fuses hip-hop and gospel. I’m grateful Chance let us use it—he is the master, and he’s talked about how personal this track is to him. Spirituality, it is a large component of the film as we watch the characters go through some hard times. I wanted to use this track to celebrate how great spirituality, love, and the beauty around us can be. We shot this at my favorite spring in Florida, where every time we go we see a manatee.
Sideways by Frank Ocean
We just used the very end of this song to get into the next glorious track off Endless.
Florida by Frank Ocean
Maybe Frank has been jumping into springs in Florida and swimming with manatees? I have no idea why this song is called Florida but it was meant to be. Filming this was incredible, we flipped a kayak, I lost my cell phone and wallet, but I didn’t care—this felt like one of the best days of my life.
Rushes (Bass Guitar Layer) by Frank Ocean
This song is Tyler’s spirit haunting the film. I found this instrumental version from live streams before the visual album release. I wanted to bring back the instrumental part of Rushes, so it takes people back to that beautiful moment between Tyler and Alexis in the ocean. It really brings out the melancholy following a really devastating scene.
Bluish by Animal Collective
I’ve had a few people question if high schoolers in South Florida would be listening to Animal Collective—I think it’s too easy to say they wouldn’t. I know that Tyler and Emily would be. When I was in high school, I was always on the hunt for new and different music, not just music of the moment. I wanted to treat Tyler and Emily’s taste in the same way.
Pretty Little Birds (feat. Isaiah Rashad) by SZA
You are but a phoenix among feathers
You're broken by the waves among the sea
They'll let you die, they'll let you wash away
But you swim as well as you fly
I love this moment for Emily—a moment to really let go, and celebrate the high. We wanted the audience to feel that feeling with her. One of my favorite shots in the film is Taylor hanging out the car window, mirroring the same sequence with Tyler from earlier in the film.
I wanna be your golden goose
I wanna shave my legs for you
I wanna take all of my hair down and let you lay in it
Spread all of my limbs out and let you lay in it
Seigfried by Frank Ocean
It’s a loop
And the other side of the loop is a loop
This feels how molly must feel
The lyrics in this song have shifted and taken on a new meaning as I have listened to them over the years. In this sequence, we are calling back to one of the opening shots of the movie—a metaphor for young love. We see Emily and Luke in a similar phase of their relationship as Tyler and Alexis were. But, as an audience, we’re melancholic because we’ve been through this before and lost. Road trips are a very personal memory for me, and they have been an important part of my girlfriend and my relationship. It was important for me to recreate what this experience felt like. I was so naive when I was going to visit my dying father, it didn’t fully hit me until we arrived, I was just excited to hit the road with the person I loved. Working on the sound mix was emotional for me, this scene felt like I was spiritually recreating that experience.
Speaking of Nirvana, it was there
Rare as the feathers on my dash from a phoenix
There with my crooked teeth and companions sleeping, yeah
Dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought
That could think of the dreamer that thought
That could think of dreaming and getting a glimmer of God
Ties by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
As an audience, listening to this track feels like we are already living a memory. It feels like that same balance of beauty and melancholy.
Leaving Missouri by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
This track in the score is huge in translating what’s happening to Emily internally. It’s the first time she has been around death again, but now death is connected to forgiveness—something that Emily’s been struggling with. Not just forgiving her brother but forgiving herself. One family is ending, but it’s not too late to change things with her family. Forgiveness seems so simple, but it can be so so fucking hard.
True Love Waits by Radiohead
The first time I heard this rendition of “True Love Waits,” I just started crying. Yes, I probably cry too much. I just kept crying and re-listening. I just love that they waited to record a studio version for so long, and this was the result.
I think they had more to live before this version was ready to come out. At this moment in the film we leave Emily’s perspective because she’s reached a certain place internally. We now start to see how the parents are both dealing with their grief. I wanted everyone to feel connected while almost never actually being together. This film was always meant to be a soundtrack film because of how huge music has been in my life—specifically in high school. I don’t know a better way to reach the end of the film than using one of my favorite Radiohead songs ever.
Just don't leave
Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes
I love that this song opens the album, but ends our film. This song obviously speaks to the spirit of the entire film. This song at this moment feels like the much needed hope we need. Emily is on a road traveling forward, knowing it’s going to be a hard road ahead, but hopefully she’s moving towards healing and a new beginning.
A new world hangs
Outside the window
Beautiful and strange
Sound and color
With me, in my mind
Sound and color