I interviewed singer-songwriter/actor Will Oldham years ago, and during a digression about how music is used in movies, Oldham told me how much he hated the films of Wes Anderson, whom he called a “cancer,” with an approach to film scores that amounts to, “Here’s my iPod on shuffle, here’s my movie.” I get what Oldham was saying: He was arguing that a song has its own integrity, and shouldn’t be slapped like wallpaper into the background of another artist’s vision. But I think Anderson—like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese—is far from careless about the songs he chooses for his soundtracks. If anything, Anderson picks his songs and spots so precisely that when he’s done with a piece of music, it’s sometimes inextricable from his film. (That’s the kind of outcome that could also make someone like Oldham angry, I’m sure.)
With our Movie Of The Week discussion of the music-laden The Royal Tenenbaums set to kick off tomorrow, here are five songs that Anderson used so well that they now immediately conjure images from his movies:
“Skating,” Vince Guaraldi Trio (“Bottle Rocket”)
Before Anderson and his co-writer/star Owen Wilson made their feature debut Bottle Rocket, they made a short, black-and-white version that was originally intended to be part one of a longer film. In the “Bottle Rocket” short, Anderson was freer to use the music that he ultimately couldn’t afford to put in the feature (or that the studio didn’t want him to use), which is how he was able to score a montage of pistol-practice with a song from Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. The wistful jazz piano clashes with the footage of dudes shooting guns, creating exactly the impression that Anderson intends: that these guys are just overgrown kids, playing at being criminals.
“Ooh La La,” The Faces (Rushmore)
With Anderson’s second feature, he started foregrounding more of his musical tastes, and gave Rushmore more of a “story displaced in time” feeling by using a lot of explosive British rock from the late 1960s. Creation’s “Making Time” and The Who’s “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” now seem like they were written expressly for Rushmore, as does The Faces’ “Ooh La La,” which closes the film. As Rushmore’s major and minor characters—all recently reconciled—crowd onto the dance floor in slow motion, Ronnie Lane’s raspy voice sings about the wisdom of age and the folly of youth, punctuating Anderson and Wilson’s poignant exploration of teenage arrogance.
“Needle In The Hay,” Elliott Smith (The Royal Tenenbaums)
So many songs stand out in The Royal Tenenbaums—Nico’s version of Jackson Browne’s “These Days,” Van Morrison’s spry “Everyone,” the orchestral version of The Beatle’s “Hey Jude”—but it’s hard not to think of the music in this film and not think of the scene where Luke Wilson’s depressed Richie Tenenbaum cuts his hair and beard and then slits his wrists. Nearly everything about that moment is different from Anderson’s usual style, from the more modern choice of song to the peeling back of the layers of artificiality. It’s one of the most evocative and painful dramatizations of attempted suicide ever put on film.
“Starálfur,” Sigur Rós (The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou)
The soundtrack for The Life Aquatic got a lot of attention at the time the movie came out because of its gimmick of having Brazilian musician Seu Jorge perform David Bowie covers, but as with The Royal Tenebaums, the most striking musical moment in The Life Aquatic involves a more current song. As aloof, over-the-hill oceanic explorer Steve Zissou (played by Bill Murray) faces the “jaguar shark” that’s obsessed him for years, the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós’ yearning “Starálfur” rises, and a teary Zissou murmurs, “I wonder if it remembers me.” Zissou’s crew, crowded around him, pats him gently, reassuring him that he does have some kind of legacy, even if it’s not the one he planned for.
“Heroes And Villains,” The Beach Boys (Fantastic Mr. Fox)
Brian Wilson recorded one of The Beach Boys’ most intricate songs for SMiLE, an aborted project intended to use the complexity of classical music techniques to recall the innocence of childhood. Anderson uses “Heroes And Villains” in a stop-motion animated film that transforms Roald Dahl’s slim children’s novel into a sharp riff on middle-aged obsolescence. It’s a perfect match.