A few months after the turn of the millennium, unrecognizable new Radiohead recordings were uploaded to Napster, the first songs from the band’s then-unreleased fourth album crackling across the crude peer-to-peer service like scattered transmissions from a distant alien planet. Around that same time, the band’s official website was reborn as a random series of white slides and black text, each of which contained its own uniquely cryptic message. Buried in the seemingly endless parade of pages was one that read:
“every bad act
is stored on a magnetic tape
which we retain. kept in a secret vault
repeated and repeated with your code name
at the top of the file.
to be reviewed at your departure
for the pearly gates.”
In November of 2006, during a webcast recorded from England’s Maida Vale studios, Radiohead lead singer and dominant persona Thom Yorke sat at a piano and plunked out a spartan ballad called “Videotape,” which began with the lyrics, “When I’m at the pearly gates, this’ll be on my videotape.” The song would eventually find a home as the closing track on Radiohead’s 2007 album, In Rainbows, but neither in the seven years between its conception and its recording, nor in the seven years since, has Yorke confirmed that “Videotape” was inspired by After Life, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 humanistic masterpiece about a bureaucratic way station for the recently departed. In the spartan and serene rooms of the film’s heavenly office, the dead are instructed to select a single memory from their lives. At the end of one week’s time, the subjects each star in a filmed re-creation of their chosen moment, disappearing into that perfect scene for all eternity.
Odds are that Yorke will never confirm the inspiration. The general affability of the band’s members is always subsumed by the mercurial genius of their frontman, and longtime Radiohead fans are keenly aware that you’d sooner get an original-sounding song out of Chris Martin than you would a straight answer out of Thom Yorke. The truth of the matter is ultimately irrelevant, but the possible connection between Kore-eda’s film and Radiohead’s song nevertheless hints at the answer to a different set of questions altogether: Why isn’t the band’s music used in movies very often, and why is it almost never used well?
This week’s release of I Origins, which scores its climax to one of Radiohead’s most revered and unusual songs, might finally offer an answer. The final moments of Mike Cahill’s new film clarify and question the band’s strange relationship with the movies more urgently than anything else has in years. It’s been 14 years since Radiohead released Kid A, the band’s monumental follow-up to 1997’s OK Computer, and yet Cahill’s film somehow marks the first time that magisterial album-closer “Motion Picture Soundtrack” has ever actually appeared on a motion-picture soundtrack.
So why did it take so long? It’s not as if the song isn’t inherently cinematic: When Radiohead’s fourth studio album was officially released in October of 2000, Pitchfork’s review observed, “The experience and emotions tied to listening to Kid A are like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on IMAX.” It’s hard to know exactly what that means, but it sure sounds like the kind of thing that music supervisors might have noticed and pursued. On the other hand, if “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is the Radiohead song that most explicitly invites cinematic imagery, it’s also the track that best epitomizes how the band’s music inherently seems to resist it.
“After years of waiting / nothing came.” – Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box
Radiohead is the greatest rock band of the last 30 years; even people who disagree with the sentiment can appreciate that it has more than a whiff of objectivity to it. Like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones before it, Radiohead has consistently relied upon unique imagery to deepen its mystique and complicate the meaning of its music. If producer Nigel Godrich is often cited as the band’s sixth member, artist Stanley Donwood is effectively the seventh. His artistic collaborations with Yorke (a.k.a. Dr. Tchock) have resulted in Radiohead’s iconic album art, dense visible mythology, and the multitude of illustrations that populate the band’s merchandise and various web projects. Radiohead’s music videos have likewise illustrated how the band uses visual language to deepen the public’s connection to its songs without ever reducing the tracks to a single meaning. In fact, the band’s most memorable video—produced at a time when the über-hit “Creep” was the only Radiohead song to have been licensed for use in a movie—explicitly speaks to how the inscrutability of the band’s music is inextricable from its effect.
At the end of Jamie Thraves’ 1995 music video for “Just,” dozens of pedestrians are convinced to abandon their lives and lie down on the sidewalk after a troubled passer-by shares an unknown message with them. A precocious piece, the video is essentially Radiohead’s version of Monty Python’s “The Funniest Joke in the World” sketch, in which an unheard joke causes people to laugh so hard that no one can survive the punchline.
The song, a single from the band’s 1995 album The Bends, crystallized the band’s previously untapped genius for layering discordant sounds with emotional heft every bit as complex and unclassifiable as its arrangements. The video, on the other hand, crystallizes how the band’s music has always been so difficult for people to picture. The infrequency with which Radiohead’s music has been licensed makes each instance something of a small event unto itself, and an unusually illuminating look into how soundtracks inform their movies, and how great songs don’t necessarily make for great choices.
Radiohead has had a complicated relationship with licensing its songs to movies for as long as it’s had the pull required to be involved in such discussions. “Creep,” the band’s massive breakout single, was first used in the pivotal climactic moments of the oh-so-1994 comedy S.F.W. (“So Fucking What”), which stars Stephen Dorff and Reese Witherspoon and is to Airheads what Deep Impact is to Armageddon. (Unlike Deep Impact, however, S.F.W. only grossed $63,000.) The song was bluntly prescriptive of the main character’s sense of self, every bit the anthem of self-aware self-loathing that Thom Yorke had intended it to be.
Things were complicated considerably by the release of the band’s second album in 1995, as two songs from The Bends were borrowed for a substantially more successful film. Amy Heckerling’s Clueless features “My Iron Lung” and, more prominently, an acoustic version of “Fake Plastic Trees,” which Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz refers to as “The maudlin music of the university station.” As the film’s music supervisor, Karyn Rachtman, explained to Idolator, the music was essentially picked to be mocked: “Amy had thought that Radiohead was just this whiny, whiny band. … Radiohead wasn’t the huge band that they still are today. So, it was just a funny thing that Amy did.”
The tables turned in 1996, when, for the first and last time, Radiohead was commissioned to compose a song for a movie. The band was in the process of writing its third album when Baz Luhrmann approached it to contribute some musical accompaniment for the final movements of his modern and manic reimagining of the greatest love story ever told. (Luhrmann would also borrow “Talk Show Host,” still the band’s greatest B-side). Spurred more by a childhood crush on Olivia Hussey than an appreciation for Strictly Ballroom, Yorke agreed to the idea. When “Exit Music (For A Film)” first appeared over the closing credits of Romeo & Juliet, marrying the crescendo of a Shakespearian tragedy to the poetic violence of Yorke’s lyrics, it was as literal an application of a song as one could imagine. Less than a year later, the song would be reborn as the fourth track of the decade’s most important rock record. (Pipe down, Nirvana fans.)
When OK Computer came out in 1997, Radiohead immediately became one of the biggest bands on the planet, and yet following its release, not a single one of the band’s songs would appear on feature-film soundtrack until the maudlin Kevin Kline vehicle Life As A House, nearly five years and a generational divide later. As the third act begins and all hope seems lost, a despondent Hayden Christensen sits on the roof of his house and stares into the void as a truncated version of “How To Disappear Completely” wafts over the soundtrack. “I’m not here. This isn’t happening.” It’s the most literal and emotionally lucid song on an album that’s otherwise defined by its distance, and so it’s hardly a surprise that it was the first Kid A track to be excerpted for a film.
More often than not, movie music (particularly in middlebrow weepies) desperately clings to the literal. Its purpose is to isolate a single emotion and then amplify it until the scene achieves its desired emotion through sheer blunt force. The song certainly makes it clear what the film wants viewers to feel in that moment, but its emotional magnitude is such that it completely dwarfs that of the movie, humiliating the machinations of the drama. Therein lies the inherent danger of using a Radiohead song (or any great song, for that matter) to transparently augment a simple sentiment. When the music stops, you’re forced to confront what it was compensating for.
Few filmmakers understand the interplay between music and emotion quite like Cameron Crowe. When he kicked off 2001’s Vanilla Sky with Radiohead’s glitchy, ironic, and vaguely dadaist “Everything In Its Right Place,” his use of the song wasn’t instructional so much as it was destabilizing. The film, an ultimately prescriptive but admirably bizarre remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes, may have tried to piggyback off of the digital tabula rasa provided by Kid A’s opening track, but an invitation to reset is hardly the same thing as a linear path to feeling. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Crowe explained that he used the song because “It’s just rich and multi-layered... like you’ve ripped open the human mind and it’s the thoughts and sounds of what goes on in the psyche. That’s what we wanted Vanilla Sky to feel like. And it’s also fun. I find Radiohead to be fun as well as challenging.” It’s precisely because the cue challenges viewers, rather than simply pandering to them, that it is so memorable, and imbues the first passages of the movie with a sense of ambition and wonder that the screenplay struggles to sustain.
Unsurprisingly, few films since have shared Crowe’s enthusiasm for challenging their audience in quite the same way. For the next seven years, not a single song from Kid A would appear on a major motion picture soundtrack, and the film that finally broken the silence—Austin Chick’s disastrous 9/11 drama August—certainly didn’t do much to encourage other filmmakers to similarly engage with Radiohead’s music. The following year would see a live version of “Everything In Its Right Place” make an ironic cameo in Emily Young’s Veronika Decides To Die—during the scene in which Veronika (Sarah Michelle Gellar) decides to die, no less—but the film was never released in the United States. It would be the last time that a song from Kid A appeared on the soundtrack of a narrative feature film until this week.
“I keep the wolf from the door
But he calls me up
Calls me on the phone
Tells me all the ways that he’s gonna mess me up.” – A Wolf At The Door
This is not to suggest that filmmakers and financiers were charting the correlation between the use of Radiohead songs and box-office success, or to dismiss the simple truth that business inevitably factors into the equation. Radiohead has never been especially overeager when it comes to lending out its songs, or even separating them from each other; the band was once a prominent iTunes holdout, allegedly uninterested in having individual tracks sold a la carte. But the band’s control over its back catalogue expired some time after the release of 2003’s Hail To The Thief, when the rights for Radiohead’s first six records reverted back to record label EMI.
And yet, in the decade since the music became fair game, there hasn’t been an abrupt torrent of films featuring Radiohead songs. There are 14 wildly disparate songs on 2003’s Hail To The Thief, and it’s hard to imagine how they might factor into any kind of film other than a political documentary. Given Yorke’s fixation on body issues and alienation, perhaps Radiohead music would be a perfect fit for a Lars von Trier film, if he weren’t so hung up on Wagner and Rammstein. While appearances by Radiohead songs in movies like Something Borrowed, Anonymous, and I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry certainly suggest that the band has been stripped of its veto power, 14 Radiohead songs from across their discography appeared in the environmental documentary The Island President, indicating that the climate-conscious band might still have some lingering sway in allowing its music to be used gratis. It would seem that the band’s music is simply too weird for most major studio films and too expensive for most indies.
Meanwhile, the films in which the band’s self-released music has appeared have only confused things further: The most shocking moment of the Twilight saga is still when the In Rainbows opener “15 Step” begins to pulse over the end credits of the first film. Elsewhere, the songs over which the band has full authority have appeared in movies as disparate as Choke, Tetsuya Nakashima’s indelibly twisted Confessions, and Tran Anh Hung’s I Come With The Rain, possibly the only film to pull Radiohead music from both before and after the EMI era. In 2013, Denis Villeneuve’s ashen crime saga Prisoners became the first narrative film to borrow a song from Radiohead’s eighth studio album, The King Of Limbs, with the mournful piano dirge “Codex” playing softly in the background during the final scene.
Villeneuve had borrowed the band’s music before, in his 2010 political drama Incendies, which makes striking use of two tracks from Amnesiac. The film, a memorably manipulative intergenerational saga about a family shaped by the fallout of an unspecified civil war in the Middle East, makes fantastic use of the songs because it never thinks of them as simple ornamentation. Incendies opens with “You And Whose Army?,” the sneering call to arms playing over a slow-motion sequence of young Arab boys having their heads shaved, reborn as soldiers. According to Villeneuve, the Radiohead song was written into the script from day one: He explained to SBS that “One of the ideas behind the song is for it to be clear that [the film] will be a westerner’s point of view about this world: an impostor’s point of view. That it will be a fiction. When you put the image with an Arabic or Middle Eastern song it looks authentic, and I didn’t like it at all.”
The song is so invaluable to the film because Villeneuve doesn’t make it subservient to his images. Incendies is a confidently directed film, but Villeneuve doesn’t have the hubris to think that he can tame such potent music. The filmmaker may have licensed “You And Whose Army?” but he’s not using the song so much as he’s collaborating with it. If anything, the track clashes with the hypnotically hyper-fluid visuals, dislocating viewers from the image in a way that forces them to consider how the film is making them feel, rather than simply submit to it. Incendies has been accused of manipulating its audience, but if the film’s plot ultimately keeps viewers on a short leash, its soundtrack never reveals its secret, it just makes sure that viewers are ready to listen for it. Not unlike Vanilla Sky, Incendies exploits Radiohead tracks for the multiplicity of their meaning, empowering the image by dislocating viewers from it.
“It’s not like the movies
They fed us on little white lies.” – Motion Picture Soundtrack
Which brings us back to I Origins and “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” The film, which explores the harmony between science and religion against a pseudo-scientific backdrop, begins as a romantic drama before eventually flirting with ideas of of reincarnation. It is only the slightest of spoilers to reveal that, by the time Thom Yorke’s voice croons, “I will see you in the next life” over the film’s final shot, the lyrics are so literally applied that the Radiohead track might as well be a plot point.
The song shouldn’t work here. On paper, it seems downright disastrous. For one thing, “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is one of those album closers that’s virtually inextricable from the record it ends, the band’s most cogent argument against selling their songs a la carte. Moreover, the track bridges the gap between the wail of a church organ and the “little tweety angel noises” (Yorke’s words) of the heavens, achieving in the span of three minutes the same cosmic connection that Cahill’s film is still striving to complete at the end of its 113.
And it’s not as if the scale of the movie’s imagery is helping. Here we have one of the only “rock” songs ever recorded that could comfortably score the closing moments of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the kind of music that could soundtrack a one-way ticket to the infinitude of existence, used over a slow-motion image of Michael Pitt walking through the lobby of an Indian hotel, a young girl clinging to his hand. Is this really the motion picture for which “Motion Picture Soundtrack” was written?
Radiohead fans know that the group makes sport of the literal, and that “Motion Picture Soundtrack” isn’t actually about a motion picture soundtrack any more than “Myxomatosis” is actually about rabbits developing skin tumors, or “Idioteque” is actually about... whatever an idioteque is. This is, after all, the same band that took a wrenching guitar ballad called “True Love Waits”—a rare and revered live staple that the band denied Cameron Crowe permission to use in Vanilla Sky—and used it as a trojan horse to express the horrors of romantic infatuation.
Nevertheless, Cahill’s use of the song is almost the platonic ideal of how Radiohead music should function in movies.“Motion Picture Soundtrack” actually appears in the film twice, first in an acoustic rendition before a character’s death severs the story in half, and then again in the final scene. It’s a simple trick, but one that effectively helps the song reverberate with the echoes of a past its protagonist is desperately trying to flesh out. (The effect is even greater for the band’s hardcore fans, who know that the origins of the song actually predate “Creep,” despite the track not being published until after Radiohead’s defining millennial schism.)
When asked if “Motion Picture Soundtrack” had been inspired by a particular film, band bassist Colin Greenwood once replied that “It’s like The Wizard Of Oz, at the end of this mad record with all these mad sounds, you get the curtains pulled back and there’s this bloke pumping… and you see after all the technology and the Pro Tools and the samplers, at the end of the day it’s just like…”
And then he trailed off. The way that Cahill uses “Motion Picture Soundtrack” doesn’t make I Origins a good film—by the time we arrive at the final scene, the engaging romance of the first half has been almost completely usurped by the maudlin metaphysics of the second—but the song is brilliantly effective here because it isn’t compensating for a lack of drama, but rather inviting viewers to finish Greenwood’s sentence themselves. Cahill’s story ends with reasonably conclusive proof that the protagonist will indeed see some version of his dead ex-wife “in the next life” (or that he already has), but “Motion Picture Soundtrack” imparts the overwhelming feeling of a final farewell. The song doesn’t sound like it was written to score a cathartic promise of re-introduction so much as it sounds like it was written to score the funeral for someone you loved so much that you can’t even remember their face.
The song’s lyrics have often been interpreted as the chronicle of a suicide (a claim that Yorke has answered by saying, “You can read suicide into most things, can’t you?”), and the optimism of its final words would seem cruelly ironic if not for the lacuna that follows them on the record, a minute of negative music that I Origins omits from both the film and its official soundtrack album. Every aspect of the track is designed to complicate another: The shrill honking of the organ clashes with the whispered prettiness of Yorke’s voice, the terminal misery of one line (“Red wine and sleeping pills...”) are confronted by the holy romantic bliss of the next (“...help me get back to your arms”), and the song’s most frequently repeated refrain is defined by its ambivalence. (“I think you’re crazy... maybe.”) “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is a composition that hinges upon contradictions, so powerful because it doesn’t lead listeners to its meaning so much as it returns them to their awe.
Cahill recognizes that “Motion Picture Soundtrack”—like the vast majority of Radiohead songs—is too dense and self-conflicted to do anything but confuse a clear emotional beat. Where the films that have used the band’s music to simply turn up the volume on a prescribed feeling have suffered for it, I Origins takes its cues from the music video that Jamie Thraves made for “Just” almost 20 years ago, eliding the solution of an incredible mystery in order to leave people with the extraordinary power of its implications. In a way, the end of I Origins confirms the connection between Radiohead and After Life, even if the particulars remain unknown. As one character observes at the end of the film, “I searched desperately inside myself for any memory of happiness. Now, 50 years later, I’ve learned I was a part of someone else’s happiness. What a wonderful discovery.”