Hi Lisa -- Thanks for reminding us of that powerful moment in Michael Moore's documentary (made years before the scandal of Flint's toxic water supply was revealed).
I think "Wouldn't It Be Nice" was used less ironically in The Big Chill (the 80s yuppie movie). But it was used ironically in a much better movie, Shampoo. It was a shock to hear it over the closing credits, immediately after the very sad ending featuring the melancholy music of Paul Simon. Some of the final scene is shown here (I think they stupidly cut off the final moments):
I'd forgotten that WIBN also appears at the beginning of the movie. A professor wrote about Shampoo and WIBN at some length in a journal article ("Popular Music and Mythic Deconstruction in Shampoo"):
Shampoo’s ambitious intentions begin as the credits rise: a dark screen and the opening verse to the Beach Boys’ wistful ode to 1960s youth and exuberance, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” firmly establish the film’s project. Challenged to maintain our aural equilibrium, we are presented with competing soundscapes: besides the song, the sounds of a man and a woman – whom we will soon realize are the film’s protagonist, George Roundy (Warren Beatty) and Felicia (Lee Grant) in the middle of a rather halting, struggling form of sexual intercourse. The song, playing on the alarm radio next to the bed, goes unnoticed by the struggling lovers. So much for music’s effects on the masses, eh? As Brian Wilson’s achingly fragile falsetto cries “we could be married/and then we’d be happy,” Felicia is frustratingly demanding that George put his hand “here,” and George responds with grunting acquiescence. Seconds later, long before either has a chance to consummate (by the sounds of the two, we wonder if given all night whether they would be able to), the telephone rings, breaking whatever sexual and emotional harmony there is between them. For a solid three or four seconds, the viewer – the screen is nearly entirely black – is greeted with the competing diegetic sounds of radio, voices, and a ringing telephone. George, in one of his rare moments of sensibility, turns off the radio before answering the telephone. Immediately, forty-five seconds into the film, one of the most enduring songs of the 1960s is cast in the rather unappealing role of aural nuisance; such re-casting of popular music in unexpected roles will continue throughout.
J. Hoberman, in his book Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the
Sixties, states that the bracketing of the film’s credits with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (the film closes, after George has lost both women in his life, with the latter part of the song) is “deeply sentimental” (345). This may be true – though we must question what it is the film is being sentimental about – but I believe there are more complex factors at play here. Looking at the context within which this song is placed (the viewer doesn’t get to hear more than two or three seconds of the song unimpeded by other diegetic sounds) as well as the fact that we know, given a perspective that by 1975 includes the knowledge of a fallen Saigon, the murders of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and a crooked, exiled ex-President – the childlike wistfulness of the song acts instead as ironic commentary. The fact that “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” plays during a scene of passionless, uncomfortable intercourse, rather than during a moment of unbridled, passionate romance, only enhances this darker reality. The lack of sentimentality in Shampoo’s opening scene (humorously evident in George’s decision to answer the phone, furthered moments later when he leaves Felicia to pursue another sexual possibility) is a stark welcome to the decade simplistically dubbed “the era of free love.” There is no love going on between George and Felicia; instead, we are greeted with a sexually vacant darkness, where even the most beautiful of music is nothing more than annoying accompaniment to uninterested intercourse. Wilson’s repeated pleas, “then we’d be happy,” are set in strikingly humorous contrast to George’s impromptu lie to Felicia that he is going to visit a girl in the middle of the night because she has a “pancreatic ulcer.” By establishing the gap between the music we are hearing and the artificiality of the characters we are seeing at Shampoo’s outset, the filmakers cue the viewer as to the complex narrative power of the soundtrack.
As we continue to watch the film, we find it necessary to reevaluate the supposed transcendent abilities the best popular music has been said to possess; in Shampoo, popular music’s calls for a new world order – whether it be The Beach Boys’ wishes for marital bliss or The Jefferson Airplane’s decrying of sexual hypocrisy – never seem to reach the ears of the film’s main characters. This disjunction between image and sound sets up recurring counterpoints, the meaning of which is best articulated by Kathryn Kalinak:
Counterpoint [is] music which does not duplicate visual information. Music which foreshadows, undercuts, provides irony, or comments upon situation or character has been termed contrapuntal. (26)
Shampoo contains many moments of counterpoint (the opening scene is a moment of classic counterpoint), as the passions and desires of the songs stand in stark contrast to the superficial concerns of the characters. In other words, hardly the concerns of a united revolutionary generation that filmmakers as diverse as Stone, Zemeckis, and Kasdan would later have us believe. “Some people never took part in the revolution", Shampoo tells us, because “they already had other plans.”
The fact that the decade’s music is (more often than not) falling on deaf ears in Shampoo represents the first key step in the film’s deconstruction of monolithic constructions of the 1960s: while there were certainly individuals who took the music’s revolutionary calls to heart, others, like the characters here, simply weren’t listening. Shampoo gradually creates a dystopic atmosphere by way of its soundtrack: while the film certainly shows the free-wheeling sexuality and counter-cultural fashions embodied by many of the generation, when taken in conjunction with the music, the embracing of these elements did not automatically signify socio-political motivations. Shampoo’s characters are interested primarily in themselves. With the moment of moral bankruptcy that opens the film (both George and Felicia are cheating on their significant others), “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” highlights the lack of domestic and social bliss that existed in much of the country at the time, therefore re-instituting the variegated experiences and realities that the America of the 1960s possessed, rather than the one-note, music-and-activism strains films like Forrest Gump and The Big Chill would have us believe existed....
.... Though it may seem that the soundtrack’s unexpected moments of elegiac tenderness towards the characters hinders the dystopian elements the film has worked so hard to convey, the opposite is true. Dante’s Inferno postulated that true hell means being aware of one’s past happiness, and yet not possessing the ability to regain it; the final songs cement this type of hellish dystopia by eliciting sympathy on the part of the viewer. When we watch the film’s final scene (which occurs the morning after Sammy’s party), George stands atop a Los Angeles hill, as Jackie (who has just turned down his proposal) drives off into the distance with Lester. This bleak image is, one final time, accompanied by George’s theme, eliciting a moment of pure tragedy. Jackie, who was the closest thing to a physicalized version of the Beatles’ Lucy, takes the last ride out of town with Lester, the film’s symbol of establishment Republicanism. Nixon has been elected, Cambodia and Altamont are around the corner, and George, now aware that he has irrevocably wasted years of his life, is left alone with his failures.
In a final moment of stark montage, the screen goes black as George’s theme ceases, and the viewer is once again aurally confronted with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Sounding bleaker than ever, with everything that has come since we first heard it, the song that began the film as ironic counterpoint ends as funereal dirge, lamenting not only what never was, but what was never to become.
In closing her review of the film, Pauline Kael wrote that “watching Shampoo, one is amazed that [era] ever existed at all” (606); with the film’s creative use of musical soundtrack, we are given a fuller representation of what that time really was: wild, beautiful, violent, superficial, confused, hellish, wistful. By establishing a dystopian reality within one of the most romanticized eras in America’s history, Shampoo succeeds in complicating Hollywood’s simplified peace-and-love-and-protest ideology, and, perhaps even more importantly, illustrates the vast, complex narrative capabilities of a brilliantly utilized musical soundtrack.
The whole article, which discusses other music in the movie, is here: