Personal Lyrics Give Characters a Voice on the ‘Short Term 12’ Soundtrack

By  · Published on August 22nd, 2013

A foster care facility filled with various at-risk teens may sound like an intimidating place, and it certainly can be, but the realistic and sensitive way director Destin Cretton approaches the material makes audiences want to go behind the walls of Short Term 12, and what they find there may be surprising.

The innocence conveyed through composer Joel P. West’s simple guitar plucks suggest things are not as scary at Short Term 12 as it may first seem. Sure, some kids try to break free from the facility by running at breakneck speed towards the front gates, but there is a comfort and true sense of security perfectly reflected in West’s score that suggests a different reality.

The key for music in a film like Short Term 12, which features many moving elements – stunning performances, beautiful cinematography from Brett Pawlak, strong writing – is to add to the narrative without overwhelming it. As we get to know the residents of Short Term 12 better, the music follows suit, filling out tracks like “Wiffle Ball” and “Birthday Cards” with rich violins and piano refrains. However West’s score is wise to never overpower pivotal character moments as proven in the more restrained tracks like “I’ll Be Fine” and “This Is Home.”

West creates a beautiful soundscape that successfully accents the character driven Short Term 12, but music also plays a strong role within the film with Marcus (Keith Stanfield) opening up to Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) through his song lyrics featured on “So You Know What It’s Like.” There are many poignant scenes throughout Short Term 12, but this glimpse into the way Marcus’ mind works shows how art, whether it be songwriting or drawing, allows the facility’s residents to express themselves in ways they may not feel able to through conversation. That message is a strong parallel for a successful movie score.

Marcus’ lyrics are heartbreaking saying, “Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like,” but the different emotions that come through his voice are even more telling, changing from reserved to broken to angry over the course of the song. It is clear Marcus, one of the oldest residents and one set to age out of the system soon, is terrified of what life on his own may be like and this song tells more than any look, outburst, or heart-to-heart ever could.

Stanfield has two other songs on the soundtrack, “Vicious” and “After Party,” with Keith “Sweaty” Milgaten that also give insight into Marcus, but in a less direct way. The others are great, but “So You Know What It’s Like” marks one of the most memorable scenes in the film and is one of the most moving songs the soundtrack.

West establishes a clear musical theme throughout his score that starts many of the tracks (“Welcome to Short Term 12,” “Bath,” and “This Is Home”), but both the film and the soundtrack also incorporate songs from other artists throughout which makes the moments this theme strikes up convey a feeling of comfort and familiarity that reflects the heart of Short Term 12. These tracks, like the piano driven “Brushbloom Glow” by The Tree Ring (head over to The Playlist to see the group playing “Welcome to Short Term 12”) and the guitar driven “Wild Again” by Canines, give the soundtrack some texture while still staying true to the overall feeling of the narrative.

However, the one song that deviates slightly from this style is the Mariachi Bandido track, “Cielito Lindo,” which plays during a party at Mason’s parent’s house and works as not only a nod to the culture Mason grew up in, but also accents an important moment between Mason and Grace (Brie Larson).

All the music in Short Term 12 has a purpose and a meaning beyond merely transitioning from one scene to the next. The soundtrack is a beautiful representation of all the feelings and emotions explored throughout the film while still being delicate and restrained enough to let the characters take the lead. Often the lyrics of songs featured in films work to express what a character cannot (or will not) say, but Short Term 12 takes an even more affecting approach by allowing one of the characters to compose and perform his own lyrics, shedding a more personal light on his character and showing how music actually gave him a voice.

The soundtrack for Short Term 12 is available through Milan Records.

1. “Welcome To Short Term 12” – Joel P. West
2. “Clear My Head” – Joel P. West
3. “Brushbloom Glow” – The Tree Ring
4. “Wiffle Ball” – Joel P. West
5. “Bath” – Joel P. West
6. “Maybe, Baby” – The Shivers
7. “Cupcakes” – Joel P. West
8. “Birthday Cards” – Joel P. West
9. “Let’s Walk Then” – Joel P. West
10. “Wild Again” – Canines
11. “I’ll Be Fine” – Joel P. West
12. “Let Me In” – Joel P. West
13. “Now We Should Get Out Of Here” – Joel P. West
14. “This Is Home” – Joel P. West
15. “Cielto Lindo” – Mariachi Bandido
16. “So You Know What It’s Like” – Keith Stanfield
17. “Vicious” – Keith Stanfield and Keith “Sweaty” Milgaten
18. “After Party” – Keith Stanfield and Keith “Sweaty” Milgaten

Short Term 12 comes out this Friday, 8/23 in limited release.