There’s a scene in The Virgin Suicides in which the neighborhood boys, who have long lingered on the sidelines of the Lisbon sisters’ lives, reach out to the girls over the phone. After hearing a single “hello,” they drop the needle on Todd Rundgren’s “Hello, It’s Me,” holding the receiver up to the turntable speakers. The girls call back with “Alone Again (Naturally),” with the boys responding with The Bee Gees’ “Run To Me,” and suddenly a very real conversation begins to happen between the teenagers, entirely through music.
The Virgin Suicides is filled with moments of fumbling for words: making small talk on the dance floor, brooding at the dinner table, touching hands in the darkness of a classroom. The film is built on the silences between the teenagers, and their inability to vocalize their feelings. Just as the Lisbon girls’ collective trauma is a mystery to their classmates, parents, and neighbors, it’s also a mystery to viewers. Sofia Coppola keeps her teen subjects distanced and quiet in a way that feels authentic to their age and isolation, but also strategically minimalist on paper. Coppola is a spare screenwriter, and in The Virgin Suicides, her first feature film, she builds her trademark for letting music fill the silent spaces with just the right thing to say.
While The Virgin Suicides has a memorable score composed by Air, the 1970s-filled soundtrack, featuring Rundgren, Heart, Styx, and more, along with some anachronistic Sloan tracks, gives the film’s musical moments depth. These early-’70s pop and rock songs position The Virgin Suicides as a teen period piece à la Dazed And Confused or American Graffiti. Coppola and music supervisor Brian Reitzell place these songs to emphasize their messages as literally as possible, making the soundtrack function like a teenager’s mixtape. Trip Fontaine strutting down the school hallway to the almost laughably obvious choice of Heart’s “Magic Man,” the wordless, furious car make-out scene to Heart’s “Crazy On You,” and the prophetic presence and confused tone of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” playing as Trip and Lux Lisbon escalate their relationship at prom all prove that the music is the message. When teenagers aren’t darting their eyes across the room or making out, The Virgin Suicides uses pop lyricism to breathe narrative and emotional tension into its stagnant moments.
The Virgin Suicides was only the beginning of Coppola’s penchant for dropping a needle on a song to get across a point in lieu of dialogue. The soft, reverb-shrouded lines of The Jesus And Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” (“Walking back to you / Is the hardest thing that I can do / That I can do for you”) echoed the mystery of the last message Bob (Bill Murray) whispers to Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) at the end of Lost In Translation’s final scene. Cleo’s ice-skating scene in Somewhere as her father Johnny Marco watches is set to Gwen Stefani’s stellar ode to repaired relationships, “Cool.” Initially tied to his smartphone, Marco (Stephen Dorff) is impressed by the way Cleo (Elle Fanning) skates. It’s a profound, albeit subtle, moment of fatherly recognition in the film, with Stefani’s sugary pop ballad as the only vocal presence in the rink. And while the track is rooted in the romantic, its message of growing older and reconnecting with loved ones couldn’t ring truer in the scene.
In Lost In Translation, karaoke is a means for Charlotte and Bob to say what they can’t directly tell each other, nor their significant others. Charlotte performs a flirtatious rendition of The Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket,” while Bob does Roxy Music’s “More Than This.” Both songs double as cries for attention from lonely people. And The Bling Ring is populated with mind-numbing club scenes featuring the teen criminals pining for recognition and documentation, as Azealia Banks, M.I.A., and Kanye West—real celebrities—blast in the background.
Coppola’s greatest use of a soundtrack to deliver, and dramatically alter, her narrative is in Marie Antoinette. The film drew criticism for emphasizing style over substance, a charge based in part on the way the movie swerves away from historical accuracy. But the soundtrack, a mix of Baroque classics, ’80s New Wave hits, and contemporary indie rock, benefits from a punk-rock sensibility. The juxtaposition of music like Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” over ’90s movie makeover-style montages of Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) testing out cakes, clothes, and boys help emphasize the fact that the famously reviled queen was merely 14 years old when she married Louis XVI. Once it becomes apparent that Coppola is painting a picture of teen-girl-driven excess and romanticism, bands like The Strokes and Gang Of Four seem more than fitting. And because the film’s characters say so little, Coppola once again lets her soundtrack serve as a reminder of Marie Antoinette’s youthful recklessness and spirit, something that can be hard to remember in the midst of a more traditionally staged period piece.
Sometimes using music to communicate becomes a plot point. In addition to the phone-tag scene in The Virgin Suicides, Lux is forced to burn her records, from Aerosmith to Kiss, after her mother hears a sermon that leads her to blame rock music for her daughter’s rebellion. Any teenager of any decade would be upset by this parental decision, but disposing of the girls’ musical collection is fraught with symbolism; taking away the music in The Virgin Suicides means taking away what the girls are trying to say.
In a Pitchfork interview about The Bling Ring’s soundtrack, Coppola and Reitzell spoke of wanting to include music from the world they were portraying, but not necessarily music representative of average 16-year-olds. “I guarantee you those kids weren’t listening to Can and Klaus Schulze, or even M.I.A.,” Reitzell said. “You’ve just got to use your ears and put in music that’s good, because good music is really kind of timeless… At times, I’ve had to use bad music in movies because I needed it to reflect the character, but I can’t do that with Sofia’s movies.” Music for Coppola exists on a unique, shifting scale. Her soundtracks don’t depict specific time periods, as evidenced by the anachronistic track selections of Virgin Suicides, The Bling Ring, and Marie Antoinette. Nor does the music particularly reflect the characters’ tastes. (While Lux cites metal bands as her favorite music, The Virgin Suicides’ soundtrack is largely pop and folk-focused.) Coppola reaches out to musicians like Kevin Shields, Air, Phoenix, and Kanye West to make music for her movies. She constructs soundtracks from the ground up, dodging conventional scores to make soundtracks that stand up on their own.
At this point, it’s cliché to describe Coppola’s musical backdrop as characters in their own right. Really, her soundtracks are less like characters, and more like foundations for her stories. Nixing music in a Coppola film would be like ripping pages out of the script. Strip away a soundtrack like The Virgin Suicides’ score, and more than just the words of Carole King, Todd Rundgren, and Ann Wilson disappear. Much of that repressed, unexpressed loneliness does too.
This concludes our Movie Of The Week look at The Virgin Suicides. Don’t miss Genevieve’s Keynote on Coppola’s signature shot, and how it speaks to her stories about alienation and longing. And today, the discussion continues in Keith and Tasha’s Forum, with a look at the film’s attitude toward suicide, female mystery, and loneliness. Join us again next week, we dive into the stylish, influential world of John Woo’s The Killer.