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Judd Apatow Tells How the Wallflowers’ ‘One Headlight’ Came to Illuminate ‘King of Staten Island’: It’s Personal

The filmmaker and producer Barry Mendel discuss the personal connotations of Jakob Dylan's '90s perennial, along with numbers from Pete Davidson's hero, Kid Cudi.

Judd Apatow on Why 'One Headlight'
Rex/Shutterstock

The Wallflowers’ 1996 hit “One Headlight” wasn’t just a song choice that set a mood for the trailer of “The King of Staten Island.” It appears in the film itself, in a quick but telling barroom scene that gets at how near-strangers can bond over music… even if it’s music they don’t quite remember well enough to proficiently sing along with.

It might seem as if any oldie could have sufficed for a comic singalong moment, but for both leading man Pete Davidson and director Judd Apatow, it had personal meaning that made it the song for Davidson and his new fireman friends to join in belting.

“That song was very popular when Pete was young, and he would listen to it in the car with his dad all the time,” Apatow tells Variety. “It is a very special song to him.”

(Indeed, in a Washington Post profile, Davidson described it as the shared favorite song of himself and his late firefighter father, whose death on duty is one of the real-life events that’s mirrored in the autobiographically inspired film.)

But Apatow had an equally sentimental association with the Wallflowers track. “We were both really surprised our songs were the same,” the filmmaker says.

“When Leslie and I drove to Ralphs to buy pregnancy kits when we discovered Maude was coming,” Apatow explains, “that was the song we heard on the radio. Pete and I realized it was an important song to both of us and decided it had to be the key song in the movie.”

Apatow has put the song on blast on the other coast as well. “Last year I did a benefit at Largo with Jakob Dylan, and I made him play it and it was the best night. He is a great guy. I loved his film ‘Echo In The Canyon.'”

Producer Barry Mendel says the number wasn’t a 100% lock for the scene in question — there were alternatives on backup, depending on the mood of the shooting day. “It’s a song Pete loved and Judd did and that’s where it really started, and then we tried it on set,” says Mendel. “We had planned to try a few others that day too — some great ones — but when we did, it worked so well, we just said, ‘Aw, to hell with the others,’ moved on and called it a day.”

The comedy of the fleeting scene comes from just how little of a favorite song may stick in the collective brain over the years… and how little that may matter, if popular music is a “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” medium and even just a well-remembered title and hook can confer musical immortality.

“To me it’s more just funny watching anyone ‘try’ to bond, which we all do,” says Mendel. “When of course bonding either happens or doesn’t, we never seem to learn that trying is beside the point and doesn’t much help.”

For Mendel, “It’s hard to put the song’s purpose into words, frankly — it just feels right there. It’s believable that the firefighters, men and women, black, white and brown, in their 20s, 30s and 40s, would all be familiar with and enjoy bonding over it. It’s a great dive bar song, and it speaks to the beauty of the journey, which after all is what it’s all about, right?”

Things get just as personal at the beginning and end of the film, as it starts off and then goes out over the end credits with a bookending pair of tracks by Kid Cudi, including the closing “Pursuit of Happiness.”  In a radio interview in 2016, Davidson said, “I would’ve killed myself if I didn’t have Kid Cudi. If you’re 25 and under, I truly believe that Kid Cudi saved your life. I truly believe if ‘Man on the Moon’ didn’t come out, I wouldn’t be here.”

Says Mendel, “Cudi’s music clicked with this film from day one. The way it works in the opening really brought the film home, and it seemed not just fitting but powerful for that song of his to end the film too, with hope, an awareness of the struggle, and a determination to at least try. Cudi’s openness about his struggle is something obviously Pete and all of us look up to and has been inspirational to us from the start. In fact, when Pete sent us his first song list, back in the early script stage, these and many other Cudi songs were on it, and we were all just like, ‘Yeah, this feels so right.'”