Culture

How REM helped The Bear go from very good to one of the all-time greats

As hit TV show The Bear returns, we look at its symbiotic relationship with its soundtrack – and particularly the songs of REM

REM in Chicago in 1983

REM in The Bear heartland of Chicago in 1983.

The Bear is returning for a third series. And earlier this month, REM were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, reunited as a four-piece to perform Losing My Religion at the induction ceremony, and Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry gave a 41-minute interview to CBS News. Who has been accessing my dreams? And if things come in threes, what’s next? A new UK government, maybe?

Despite never existing at the same time, these two cultural phenomena are forever linked. And not just in my dreams. Because, when The Bear launched in 2022 – 11 long years after REM disbanded – Christopher Storer’s series used the band’s music in such a stunning, heart-rending way it made even the longest of long-term fans listen anew.

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In season one of The Bear, the entirety of Oh My Heart, a song from REM’s 15th and final studio LP Collapse into Now, played in episode three. This was the moment The Bear went from very good to one of the all-time greats. 

Things are not looking up for Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) and Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) as The Bear returns. Image: FX

“I came home to a city half erased / I came home to face what we faced,” sings Stipe. The plaintive quality of his voice way to the fore, so unlike their earliest releases. On screen, Jeremy Allen White as Carmen ‘Carmy’ Berzatto is shown in close-up, his face etched with sorrow. It’s all there. His brother Mikey’s death, new beginnings for himself – and maybe the city of Chicago and the country too.

The song takes us deeper inside the emotions. The emotions take us deeper inside the song. It is TV magic. 

The soundtrack to The Bear takes an already superlative drama to a level all its own. Songs from Wilco, Pearl Jam and Ethiopian jazzer Mulatu Astatke were chosen by series creator Storer and executive producer Josh Senior for maximum impact. 

Each episode packs so much into sometimes as little as 20 minutes of screen time. And the dialogue pings around Carmy’s kitchen at astonishing speed. So these extended musical interludes offer a distinct change of pace and tone.

Radiohead’s Let Down soundtracks the final scenes of series one. Carmy finds Mikey’s hidden cache of cash in tins of tomatoes. He plans for the future of the restaurant – “Family style? Two tops, booths?” – with chef Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri). He sits down to eat with the oddballs and misfits who will transition The Beef to The Bear in series two, and perhaps even makes peace with Mikey’s death. All this, while Thom Yorke sings: “One day / I am gonna grow wings…” 

Again, the music is elevated by the show, the show elevated by the music.

Series three of The Bear is available on Disney+ from 27 June

In classic episode Forks from series two, we find new meaning in Taylor Swift’s Love Story (Taylor’s Version) when cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) sings along in his car. He’s happy and hopeful at last. Richie has found a sense of purpose. 

And there is more REM when Strange Currencies soundtracks Carmy’s romance with Claire (Molly Gordon) throughout series two. It has never sounded better. The show was even given a previously unreleased demo because the band are fans: “The Bear is hands down my favourite show of last year,” Stipe said. 

It is not the best REM song. The best REM song is Shaking Through from the album Murmur (I will be taking no further questions on this subject). Instead, Strange Currencies is another deep cut, from 1994’s under-appreciated Monster LP. It’s the album that marked the end of their extended imperial phase – which lasted from 1982 debut EP Chronic Town through to 1992’s Automatic for The People

White’s soulful eyes and the lovelorn looks he shares with Molly Gordon as Carmy’s long lost crush Claire accentuate the longing in Stipe’s voice. “I don’t know what you mean to me / But I want to turn you on, turn you up, figure you out. I wanna take you on. These words, ‘You will be mine’.” It’s a song of unrequited love. But the The Bear shows what might happen if both parties felt the same… and then met, by chance, in a frozen food aisle. The lyrical directness of the song matched and raised by Carmy and Claire’s instant re-connection. 

R.E.M. made a new video for their song Strange Currencies after it was used on The Bear

The music for Strange Currencies was primarily written by REM drummer Bill Berry. There is a moment in the new CBS interview where they’re asked whether they have regrets about ending the band. Stipe, Mills and Buck are quick to say no. Berry, who left in 1997, wells up and admits to second thoughts. To watch as an REM fan? Well, it’s like seeing your dad cry. Oh, my heart.

Because this is a band of brothers. Family style. They always split royalties and songwriting credits, leaving the egos and lawyers to lesser groups.

If REM are the object lesson in retaining your integrity when accolades, awards and huge audiences could swell heads to stadium size, then The Bear is so far achieving a similar balance. 

Series two was packed with the dizzying dialogue we initially fell for. Yet it furthered the exploration of family, death, food and community while also incorporating guest roles from Olivia Colman, Jamie Lee Curtis and Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk. Rather than taking focus away from the central story, they added new dimensions, augmenting rather than distracting, like John Paul Jones’s string arrangements on Automatic for The People.

A whole episode dedicated to pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) travelling to Denmark? It shouldn’t have worked. But like New Orleans Instrumental No 1, it was somehow perfect. 

The second series ended with Carmy alone and in torment. The soundtrack? REM. The song? Half A World Away. The lyrics? “This could be the saddest dusk I’ve ever seen.” Followed later by: “My mind is racing, as it always will / My hands tired, my heart aches.” Again, a perfect circle of scene and song.

In series three, Carmy and Sydney’s vision of The Bear as a successful high-end restaurant will test friendships to their limits. Just as recording Up in 1997-8 and making Fables of the Reconstruction in Wood Green, London, in winter 1985 did for REM.

The Bear‘s band of brothers (and cousins) will be tested like never before. But the show will survive – White has spoken about his hopes for a seventh season. Because The Bear is a strange little show that somehow became huge, adapting to its new scale with integrity and authenticity intact. How very REM.

All episodes of series three of The Bear are available on Disney+ on June 27.

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