'The Greatest Hits' Is the Most Original Time Travel Movie in Years – The Daily Beast

SXSW 2024
Premiering at SXSW before its Hulu debut April 12, the time travel-centric love story combines great music with genuine romance—and reinvigorates a stale genre.
Entertainment Critic
At this point, time travel movies are as commonplace as reality dating shows. They’re everywhere, and that ubiquity has diluted their initial novelty. How can you make something truly different than what another person made before when the concept has been milked dry? The answer: You can’t. The only remaining option is to construct it with more integrity than most do. Only then can you make something that doesn’t feel like a carbon copy, yanked from an assembly line.
Writer-director Ned Benson’s latest film, The Greatest Hits—which premiered at SXSW on March 14 and will be released in a limited theatrical window on April 5 before landing on Hulu on April 12—is the rare time travel movie that doesn’t feel like it’s arrived from the factory. It barely feels like part of that genre at all, which is largely why Benson’s first film since 2014 avoids most of the snares that have debilitated other, superficially similar works. Looping through spacetime is merely a supplementary plot point to a story that’s really about how easily grief can be triggered, and why it can sometimes feel so good to sit in that cloud of painful sorrow for just a little longer. Benson’s film is a crafty yet subtle inversion of a stale genre. It moves the viewer and gets out while it’s ahead, aiming for maximum emotional impact over any flashy, absurd striving.
While The Greatest Hits is certainly not at the level of something like, say, Arrival when it comes to the ingeniousness of its plotting, it has a stirring scope that feels similar to Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 masterpiece. Think of this film as Arrival for the caffeine-dependent Coachella crowd; if that doesn’t pique your interest, I’m not sure what will. The movie finds Harriet (Lucy Boynton), a young music producer-turned-librarian, fiddling through her rows of vinyl records, looking for the next one to throw onto her turntable. Some are marked with slips that say “TESTED,” while a timeline of dates sits drawn on her wall, with sticky notes of scrawled-out messages taped up below each year.
Harriet is looking for Max (David Corenswet), or, more specifically, she’s looking for the song that was playing just before Max died. It's been a much trickier endeavor than she imagined, but since Harriet has already found the track that was on the radio when she and Max were hit by a car almost two years prior, it’s worth a shot. If she could discover the right one, maybe she could change their fate, and Max would still be alive and next to her, thumbing through their extensive wax collection on a Sunday afternoon.
Yes, listening to the right music can transport Harriet back in time, to a moment in her life with Max when a song was playing. Her trips only last for the duration of the track, making her mission even more difficult. What’s more, Harriet suffers debilitating neurological episodes every time she hears one of these songs while not in the safety of her own home. She falls to the ground and passes out, until her past self either shuts the music off or rides out the tune to its conclusion. It’s a good thing that wearing noise-canceling, over-ear headphones is a common practice for commuters in 2024—but just in case, Harriet has taken extra precautions to ensure that she won’t be triggered in an inconvenient space. If only triggers were subject to our whim, and not we to theirs.
Benson is fully aware that The Greatest Hits can’t dance around its preposterous concept, so he wisely leans into it, suggesting that Harriet’s experiences may just be the result of the brief coma she fell into after the crash with Max. Strangely, melding neurological anomalies with the ability to travel through time makes his film feel more realistic, which is further aided by Benson’s delicate, empathetic character writing. Harriet is a woman who wants to save her boyfriend, yes, but sometimes she just wants to see him again. Even a minute or two reunited with the love of your life can be enough to go on, and Benson understands that, as humans, we’re all a little masochistic. We willingly listen to songs that remind us of someone, or watch movies that will make us cry. We choose to consume art in a way that hurts us, because that pain is what makes the art so beautiful. Nothing can evoke a tapestry of emotions like the opening notes of a song that means something to you.
Boynton is as game for this irrational premise as Benson is, developing Harriet and the way she handles loss into a character that feels utterly familiar. Her emotions aren’t outsized, but they are pervasive. The grief is always there, and some days are better than others. It’s why she regularly attends a local support group led by a licensed psychiatrist (Retta, in a lovely, small performance), even if she doesn’t participate. It’s there where Harriet meets David (Justin H. Min), a sweet and similarly grief-stricken man who also has a penchant for vinyl. Their quick connection is organic, even when it needs to happen fast in a 96-minute movie. It’s almost as if they’ve met before.
As skilled as Benson’s compassionate script is his choice of needle drops to accompany the film, and the work of its music supervisor to make those audio cues happen. The Greatest Hits earns its title, unassumingly throwing out cuts from Beach House, Peggy Lee, Jamie XX, and more. Even using a leaked Lana Del Rey song that went so viral on TikTok that she properly released it on streaming somehow doesn’t feel cringey. Speaking of streaming, it’s best not to think about that aspect too hard. Why doesn’t Harriet just stream songs to speed up her journey to save Max, you ask? Uh, ever heard of being a romantic? She’s a music producer with a pretty normal level of arrogance; of course, the warmth of vinyl will be the only thing that can push her into the past. As hard as the good folks at Dolby try, even Apple Music Spatial Audio hasn’t been able to bend the space-time continuum.
The idea of using musical triggers to recall grief and send someone back to a moment in time is a clever one, luminously executed in Benson’s film. Watching the film and feeling a true connection to this genre for the first time in a long time makes it all the more surprising that someone else hasn’t already done this story. But other filmmakers are trying too hard to find new ways into this rote concept, and often make a mess of themselves in the attempt. The Greatest Hits weaves us through Harriet’s experiences gradually, ensuring that its viewers won’t need a deeper scientific explanation if the emotional impact of the film’s story is compelling enough.
Benson’s confident script and enchanting, modest direction ensure that The Greatest Hits doesn’t bite off more than it can chew. It’s a movie with scope and ambition but not ego. Its humble nature keeps Benson’s characters from feeling pretentious in their love for deep-cut music and rare vinyl. The film celebrates these types of adoration without exalting them, and the diffident types of audiophiles who move about Harriet’s universe charm their way into a viewer’s heart. That resonance is so supremely critical to a time travel film. This genre hinges on forging an emotional connection to its audience. That relationship is what makes trekking through space and time a necessary experimentation with fate, and not an exhausting record that’s stuck on repeat.
Entertainment Critic
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