Waves Breathes With Musicality In Searing Family Drama

“There are scenes where the actors are literally interacting with songs.”

Kelvin Harrison Jr. says music gave him another tool to explore his character in Waves.

From Saturday Night Fever to Dazed and Confused, every generation has a soundtrack that defines their lives. Add Waves to that list. The third feature from Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night), Waves pulses with hip-hop hits and urban rhythms.

Kayne West, Pharrell Williams, Tony K, and Kendrick Lamar accentuate every beat of this searing family drama seen through the eyes of siblings Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) and Emily (Taylor Russell) in South Florida.

Waves breathes with musicality. The cinematography, editing, and performances step in sync with the songs while original music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross seamlessly ties it together. “There are scenes where the actors are literally interacting with songs,” says Shults. “Filming that, for me, was a blast.”

Harrison agrees, saying the music gave him another tool to explore his character. “It feels so real and you feel like you’re in the moment,” says the 25-year-old actor. “It’s amazing how a song can change your age.”

Harrison says that only one song choice made him raise an eyebrow once he got into the groove of his character, but he trusted Shults’ taste. “I don’t think [Tyler] and [his girlfriend] Alexa would be in the car singing [Animal Collective’s] ‘FloriDada’,” laughs Harrison. “But then you find a way to justify it. It didn’t matter what we were playing as long as we weren’t singing certain songs.”

Shults adds that music’s natural energy pumped up the cast and leant a sense of authenticity. “Music is a unit,” says Shults. “It opens you up and takes away any falseness.”

But Shults says the playlist also got the crew into the groove. “I would play the song for the Steadicam operator and he’d be like, ‘Okay, I feel it.’ And then he’d just shoot, whether he was literally running through a house or subtly keeping a rhythm and a vibe.”

The music bleeds into the characters’ style with Tyler’s bleached hair complementing the tracks from Frank Ocean’s Blonde. His dark skin and blond hair fuel Shults’ palette of contrasting fluorescents. Harrison and Shults say they found inspiration when browsing Target for a DVD of Monsters and Men (in which Harrison appears) and discussing the perfect “Florida look” for Tyler. Harrison says the first names bantered were athletes like wide receiver Odele Beckham, Jr.

“That was weird ‘cause I grew up with OBJ – I said we weren’t going that route,” explains Harrison. “Then we started talking about Frank, Chris Brown, Tyler the Creator, and Kanye. That became the inspiration for dying my hair: finding expression, identity, and trying to stand outside your family. That was what Tyler was screaming for.”

While Waves features numerous artists, only one song graces its soundtrack twice: Dinah Washington’s “What a Diff’rence a Day Made.” It develops the relationship between Tyler and his stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry) in an early scene and returns in act two when the drama shifts to Emily’s perspective.

“I remember seeing Chungking Express. It blew my mind spiritually,” says Shults on Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film that inspired Waves’ two-act structure. “Then that song came on and brought me even closer to it.”

Other songs originally repeated in the script, but Shults says Washington’s song bridges the multi-generational story. “The movie’s from the kids’ perspectives, but the parents are a huge part of that,” explains Shults, adding that its lyrics evoke the split-second decision that tragically shatters the family.

For Harrison, the song is another window into Tyler. The actor recalls feeling déjà vu while grooving to the song with his onscreen mother. Cut to playing the soundtrack for his real mother at home.

“She starts singing the song,” recalls Harrison. “She said, ‘I used to sing it to you when you were younger.’ So many things about this movie were bigger than us and came together with the truth of it all.” Sometimes the least expected songs define us.