Note: This music review is spoiler-free.
When it comes to soundtracking the movie of the summer–and a romantic comedy at that–there are certain aspects that you have to get right. Usually, this means that the soundtrack artist has to take contemporary popular songs (in hopes of charting on Billboard, bringing in more publicity for the film) and somehow fitting them into the film’s narrative. After all, there’s no Mean Girls without “Jingle Bell Rock” or (500) Days of Summer without Regina Spektor’s “Us” or “Hero“. Finding the perfect background song is difficult enough as it is, but even more so when it’s for a film like Crazy Rich Asians, a film that means so much for a demographic that is so often unapologetically underrepresented in Hollywood until now. Add onto this the taxing early criticisms of the film from some of the very same minority groups that Crazy Rich Asians hoped to win over, and it’s a task that’ll make anyone want to jump ship. Luckily, director Jon M. Chu and music supervisor Gabe Hilfer’s soundtrack for Crazy Rich Asians hits the mark–reviving classic Asian pop hits for a new generation of audiences and introducing a new roster of budding Asian musicians to the world.
Within the Crazy Rich Asians universe, one thing is quickly made clear–that there are a number of opposing themes working against each other in the film. In fact, that’s where most of the film’s drama comes from: the clash between traditional vs. modernist thinking, duty vs. passion, old money vs new money, East vs. West, and Asian vs. Asian-American, just to name a few. Most of the soundtrack follows suit, exploring that dichotomy and adding another dimension to the film overall.
For example, the distinguished “old money” characters like Eleanor Young or Ah Ma are often accompanied by a 20’s era lounge/jazz song whenever they appear on screen (like Chinese-jazz singer Jasmine Chen’s song “Give Me a Kiss” or “Waiting For Your Return”). Traditional Chinese songs are used to create a vintage-like feel within the Young household. In Asia, Chinese singer Yao Lee’s cha-cha song “Ren Sheng Jiu Shi Xi (人生就是戲)” and Lilan Chen’s “Ni Dong Bu Dong (你懂不懂)” are well-known, karaoke-caliber songs that older generations would recognise immediately. On the other hand, for “new money” socialites like the brash Peik Lin, hip-hop songs like Chinese rapper VaVa’s “My New Swag (我的新衣)” reflect the bold style and attitude of the Internet-savvy, hype-beast younger generation. VaVa’s song, which uniquely samples a traditional Chinese opera singer and uses traditional Chinese instruments (like the suona), serves another purpose–to signal the arrival of a new generation of Chinese elite who are redefining Chinese culture in their own terms. It’s old vs. new in the coolest possible way.
In the many giant party scenes where all characters come together, there’s even an East-meets-West effect: Chu and Hilfer choose to soundtrack these moments with songs that feature a combination of Eastern and Western influences. “I Want Your Love (我要你的愛), a love song sung by Hong Kong-Chinese artist Grace Chang, is one of the unofficial theme songs of the film–using dual Chinese and English lyrics to symbolise the meeting between the two cultures. It’s also a song that’s easy enough to be understood by most Asian-Americans, even those who barely speak any Mandarin. The simplistic, call and response lyrics, “我 (I) / 我要 (I want) / 我要你 (I want you) / 我要你的 (I want your) / 我要你的愛 (I want your love) / 你為什麼不說出來 (Why don’t you say it out loud?)”, are easy to learn and catchy enough to get everyone singing along. If there’s one song that’s bound to make a return to popular culture thanks to Crazy Rich Asians (and there are many!), it’s this one.
In fact, the rest of the songs on the Crazy Rich Asians soundtrack (save one), are results of this East-meets-West idea. Throughout the film, you’ll hear a number of classic songs reworked by Asian or Asian-American artists. “Money (That’s What I Want)”, a song made popular by blues singer Barrett Strong, is covered twice in the film–once by Malaysian vocalist Cheryl K and again with Cheryl K/Awkwafina in the end credits, setting the stage and bookending the film. During a fun montage scene where Rachel is getting dressed (every romantic comedy has one), audiences will likely recognise Madonna’s “Material Girl” covered by Taiwanese-Canadian Cantopop singer Sally Yeh. But instead of being boring, straightforward Mandarin/Cantonese translations of popular songs, the singers in each case add a little bit of attitude to their versions to make them their own. Awkwafina’s verse in “Money (That’s What I Want)” is ridiculously over the top, rapping one-liners like “Need a Messi for my mama” and “All yo money faker than some imitation crab meat”. Along the same lines, Sally Yeh’s cover replaces the cutesy, self-obsessed chorus of “Material Girl” with “這世界氣溫 (The air is warm) / 會有 Two hundred degrees (About 200 degrees) / 暖到要爆炸 When you hold me (So hot you’ll explode when you hold me)”. Later, she adds “暖到要爆炸 like my body (So hot you’ll explode like my body)”. Quite literally, Yeh claims that she’s so hot that you’ll explode when you hug her. It’s a step up from Madonna’s original–and a whole lot more fun to sing if you ask me.
But while all of these moments are introductions to the world of fun Chinese song covers, the moments that shine the most are those more serious covers done by Asian-Americans Kina Grannis and Katherine Ho. Anyone who’s watched the film will know exactly what I mean: the two emotional climaxes in Chu’s film–the wedding sequence and the finale–are carefully crafted to revolve around Grannis’s and Ho’s covers. As for the defining “Jingle Bell Rock” moments that each comedy needs to have? These are it.
Singing her rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (originally by Elvis Presley), Grannis’s cover is delicate and heartwarming–which would already be beautiful enough on its own without anything accompanying it on-screen. But here’s where Chu pushes it further, using silence to his advantage. Grannis suddenly pauses in her song, and the entire filmic universe slips into silence. The camera successively cuts to shots of trickling water filling the aisle, happy/confused looking wedding guests, and the groom awaiting his bride… almost as if the entire world is holding its collective breath for the following moment. Then, just as the bride is revealed amongst the bright lights, Grannis comes back in, singing the rest of the song a cappella. “Take my hand / Take my whole life too / For I can’t help falling in love with you”, she sings as the bride walks towards her groom– gracefully closing out the scene (and leaving the audience in happy tears). Kudos to Grannis and Chu: the entire visual and audio component are so beautifully matched and choreographed that it’s not just one of the most memorable sequences in the film, but it’s also one of those iconic film moments that is bound to leave a lasting impact on this generation of movie-goers.
Similarly, Katherine Ho’s Mandarin cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow” (also sweetly sung) heightens the feeling of the scene at the end of the film. A straightforward translation of the original, Ho leaves us with the haunting repeated lyrics, “幸福 (Happiness) / 跳進你的河流 (I jumped into your stream) / 一直游到盡頭 (Swimming until the end) / 跳進你的河 (I jumped in your river)” echoing in our heads as the film closes out. But no spoilers here–you’re just have to watch the film to find out what makes the finale so emotional.
However, despite all of these successes–the creation of the opulent multicultural Singapore, the not-too-serious Chinese covers of popular American songs, and the memorable emotional climaxes–there is one anomaly within the soundtrack. Played on full-blast over the end credits, Miguel’s single “Vote” is an oddity for obvious reasons. Miguel is the only non-Asian artist on the soundtrack, and “Vote” is the only original English song that’s featured throughout the soundtrack’s 14 song runtime. Considering that there are so many Asian/Asian-American musicians with original songs that that prime slot could’ve gone to, it’s a peculiar choice to include “Vote” here. For a film that proudly proclaims that it has the “first modern story with an all-Asian cast and an Asian-American lead in 25 years cast,” it’s strange that they didn’t also want the dual title of having the first all-Asian and Asian-American Hollywood soundtrack in who knows how long.
But there are other reasons why “Vote” is a misstep for the soundtrack–while its an undeniably catchy and spirit-lifting pop song to leave the theatre to, it also has some off-putting lyrics. The song itself is built off of the concept of “voting for a good time”, drawing an inevitable connection to politics, rather than love… especially when Miguel sings it over and over. “Vote” also includes lyrics that wouldn’t fly so well in Asia: “Yeah, so let’s vote / Like you just got paid, spend it all on Mary Jane” being one. Given most of Asia’s hardline stance against marijuana, having a line like that doesn’t fit in with the setting of the movie at all. More than anything, “Vote” seems like a throwaway political anthem that somehow got tossed into a movie about cultural acceptance and the Asian-American experience. (My personal choice for the end credits? Probably “Everybody Wants to Love You” by Japanese Breakfast.) Luckily, the second end credits song, Cheryl K and Awkwafina’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” remix, fixes these mistakes, ultimately making “Vote” forgettable in the larger scheme of things.
Despite that minor hiccup, the Crazy Rich Asians soundtrack delights and introduces to the world to Asian talent in music–both old and new. For the first time in a long time, all eyes are on Asians and Asian-Americans in film, and popular culture has finally made being of Asian descent normal. No matter what anyone says, it’s a giant leap forward. Let’s see if Chu can keep up the same sort of momentum for the Crazy Rich Asians sequel… and hopefully it’ll be one of the first to boast that overlooked all-Asian and Asian-American soundtrack designation.
Check out “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, “Yellow”, and “Money” on our Discovery playlist!