Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sharing the Road We Walk: Wes Anderson and His Music

Watching The Darjeeling Limited the other day I was completely energized by a moment in the film that I had forgotten altogether. The moment is the funeral scene where our three wanderers, Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman – three brothers on a quest to find familial unity in India – happen across three boys struggling to carry some cargo across a raging river. As their load crumbles, so do the boys, and they are sent into the water at the mercy of the current. As the brothers try to save the kids from drowning we find that the kid Brody's character tried to save "didn't make it." What follows is a beautiful moment where the brothers walk – in slow motion of course – through the village as "Strangers" by the Kinks (the second time Anderson has used a Kinks song set to slo-mo effectively, the first being the fantastic scene in Rushmore where Bill Murray jumps off a diving board into his pool) plays in the background. It's a heartbreaking detour for a film – essentially a road movie with a pretty standard plot where our protagonists try to "find themselves" – that I was initially uneven on when I first saw it in the theater three years ago. However, this recent viewing has not only de-soured me on the film, but it got me thinking about a Wes Anderson trope that I always look forward to in his films: his "music videos".

You know what I'm talking about if you've seen an Anderson movie. These are the moments that are almost always in slow motion and accompanied by great music that shows us a filmmaker who is willing to share with us his headphones and listen in on the soundtrack of his life. The funeral scene in Darjeeling is something that could have taken the viewer out of the movie – a "look at me" moment – but instead it feels as if we're walking along with the three brothers, sharing in the poignant experience with them, maybe thinking about our own brothers or sisters in the process. This one scene reminds me that these feelings and moods are evoked in every post-Bottle Rocket Wes Anderson movie. He's a masterful storyteller and one of his greatest assets is the way he can intertwine his music (which seems very much him) with his narrative without being too showy or distracting.

These mini-music moments in his films always succeed at evoking the appropriate emotion and amount of poignancy (you can always count on the coda to an Anderson film having music, perfectly summing up how the characters feel). These are almost always non-schmaltzy moments put to music that is meant to do nothing more than, as Kent Brockman would say, tug at the heart strings and fog the mind. In The Darjeeling Limited it's the beautiful and poignant funeral scene. Anderson's camera is always zeroed in on its subject – whether the camera is tracking its characters as they walk like in Darjeeling, or fixated on its subject with the keenest eye as in the suicide scene from The Royal Tenenbaums that's set to Elliot Smith's "Needle in the Hay" – while the scene almost always plays out in slow motion. Some may get annoyed with this well-worn indie piece of film trickery, but Anderson doesn't use the slow motion just for aesthetics (although things dosometimes look cooler in slo-mo), he is trying to get the viewer to not just pay attention to the image (which sometimes is a little heavy-handed, like the three brothers in Darjeeling dropping their bags so they can board their final train, already in motion, home) but to the words and rhythms of the music…this is where Anderson looks to attack our emotions. And I'm a sucker for it every single time.

Like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, Anderson realizes that music doesn't have to be a representation of the period the film takes place in. Scorsese first caught the audience's attention with his use of popular music as soundtrack in films like Mean Streetsand Goodfellas. Tarantino most recently used David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting out the Fire)" in his ode to WWII B-movies Inglourious Basterds. Hell, you can even trace it back to as early as the 60's when Fellini used the famous "Ride of the Valkyries" to introduce Guido in the brilliant 8 ½. All of these filmmakers employ original compositions for their films (the best of the bunch being, of course, Nino Rota's score for Fellini's film), but few use these non-original compositions to as great an effect as Wes Anderson.


In Rushmore he employed an appropriately anarchic soundtrack consisting of British Invasion music (Anderson originally planned on using songs only by The Kinks, since Max reminded him of someone who would be a fan of the British Invasion scene) that acted as ideal background dialogue for what Max Fischer goes through. In The Royal Tenenbaums he used a more somber soundtrack consisting of music by Nico and Elliott Smith, once again using music that mirrors the emotions of his characters. In The Life Aquatic the music was used to make you feel as lost (at sea) as Steve Zissou was…Anderson wisely uses Brazilian versions of David Bowie songs and the inspired use of the otherworldly, postmodern pop group Sigur Rós that Anderson used during his key scenes.

In The Darjeeling Limited what got my attention about the use of The Kinks songs, specifically the use of "Strangers" during the funeral scene, is that they make you think about the journey the brothers go on, how they feel about each other, and then how they feel about their experience at the river trying to save the kids. When the funeral scene arrives and Anderson's camera tracks the three brothers, listen to the words of the carefully selected (and catchy as hell) Kinks song:

So where are you going to I don't mind/If I live too long I'm afraid I'll die/So I will follow you wherever you go/If your offered hand is still open to me/Strangers on this road we are on/We are not two we are one/So you've been where I've just come/From the land that brings losers on/So we will share this road we walk/And mind our mouths and beware our talk/'till peace we find tell you what I'll do/All the things I own I will share with you/If I feel tomorrow like I feel today/We'll take what we want and give the rest away/Strangers on this road we are on/We are not two we are one.

It's a moment that makes me smile just typing those lyrics and thinking about how perfectly the music accompanies that specific moment in the film. It's probably Anderson's finest moment as a filmmaker, and it's only a few minutes long. One can also get a glimpse into the filmmakers that inspired Anderson as he uses music cues throughout from the films of one his idols and masters, Satyajit Ray.

I could go on with numerous other examples, but what I find most interesting about Anderson's use of music is that if you were to just simply listen to his soundtracks they would probably seem like an odd mishmash of songs…but when understood within the context of the film the soundtracks aren't just a collection of tunes used in the film, the collection acts as its own album that can be listened to, enjoyed, and appreciated like any other album released by a band. When we hear the words "I wish that I knew what I know now" playing over the credits of Rushmore we may listen to the song and think that it has a catchy tune with good lyrics; but listening to that song while watching the film gives the song a whole new meaning. We now understand it in the way it relates to Max Fischer, and we understand too that this would probably be a song that Fischer would like. I've always liked that about Anderson's films…his music choice always seems genuine for the characters he creates.


Anderson's use if non-original compositions seem to fit his style. His choice of songs acts as not just an exclamation point to what he's trying to tell us – again thinking about how he ends all of his films the same; slow motion with an appropriate song that sums up the film – but it seems that it also is an apt representation of the auteur himself. Much like Scorsese, Anderson uses the music of his life to put us into the proper mindset to understand his characters, their motivations, and how they feel. He allows us to view this one personal thing about him via the music he selects. Scorsese chose the songs in Goodfellas because that's what he was listening to as he was growing up and watching the events that inspired his gangster films unfold outside of his apartment. It may seem jarring at first, but it's deeply personal because this is how Scorsese – the storyteller, the one making us privy to what he's witnessed – experienced it. That was the soundtrack of his life. Very few filmmakers can get away with this.

Original scores are always going to be impressive aspects of a film (since it's fresh in my mind I'm thinking of the way Carter Burwell's score works in Coen Bros. movies, specifically A Serious Man), and often I prefer music that was originally composed for the film to directors who simply copy and paste other songs to their movie; however, there are some filmmakers that use music the way Anderson does extremely well (again, Scorsese seems most responsible for popularizing this technique, and recently Greg Motolla used The Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes" perfectly in his 2009 film Adventureland). For Wes Anderson it not only works, but heightens the overall experience of watching one of his films.

Films are sometimes defined by their soundtrack (who wouldn't recognize Rota's Godfather score, or Williams' Indiana Jones theme?), and sometimes films are defined by specific moments that are defined by music. It takes a good director to understand how to choose a song, when to use it, and for how long to keep it going on screen. Again because it's fresh on my mind I'm thinking of something like 500 Days of Summer, an unconventional rom-com that contains one truly inspired scene – a split screen of the main character's 'expectations' of what might happen by going to a party playing out on the left, and the 'reality' of the situation playing out on the right – set to Regina Spektor's "Hero".

I also quite like Cameron Crowe's (another filmmaker whose films are always defined by music) use of the Elton John song "My Father's Gun" in the uneven, but ultimately satisfying, Elizabethtown. That song perfectly encapsulated the protagonists (Orlando Bloom) struggle to connect with his father, now dead and cremated in an urn sitting next to Bloom as they take a road trip "together". Crowe's film is all about mix tapes and how an array of music can affect someone and open their eyes to something they weren't always aware of. It's a beautiful moment in the film. It can be said that Anderson uses indie music to evoke emotion the same way Crowe so wonderfully uses classic rock in his films.

Recently, as stated above, Quentin Tarantino uses David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting out the Fire)" to great effect in Inglourious Basterds. Like Scorsese, Tarantino throws the viewer off by splicing in music that doesn't fit the era, in this case an 80's song set to the backdrop of a theater in Paris during WWII. This anachronistic decision isn't just a wink-wink moment from Tarantino, the song, when listened to closely, gives context to what Shosanna has gone through, and foreshadows what she's about to do; specifically setting fire to her cinema with The Third Reich inside. What makes this moment more memorable than say the end of a movie like Elizabethtown (which gets it wrong at the end, focusing its attention on the wrong relationship…the girl/boy instead of the son/dad)is that this isn't just some isolated moment of pop culture goodness, the song's lyrics reverberate throughout the rest of the movie. The heavy bass beats continue to thump throughout the finale in the theater where we see Shosanna's laughing face being projected amongst the flames. We can't help but think of the song that preceded the events, the song that kicks off the final chapter to Tarantino's revisionist opus.


The above digressions are perfect examples of other filmmakers who use music extremely well, but while I was watching The Darjeeling Limited (the reason for the inspiration of this post) I felt differently than I did during the aforementioned examples. There's just something about the music Anderson uses that lifts me up and out of my body and makes me feel and reflect on things; it's a feeling and an experience that few filmmakers can elicit, and Wes Anderson is the modern master of this particular musical trope; transcending the "music that defines the scene" snag some filmmakers get caught in – causing films as a whole to be somewhat forgettable and only defined by certain musical moments – and actually getting all of these neat little "music video" moments to mesh together into unforgettable movie experiences…not just brief, exhilarating moments memorable because of the music.

I'll never forget Richie's suicide attempt in Tenebaums; I find it hard to think about Bill Murray and Wes Anderson without thinking of Budweiser swim trunks and The Kinks; I'll never listen to Sigur Rós again without thinking of Bill Murray's face as he looks at his life-long adversary – the Jaguar Shark – and lets it "all" go; I find it hard to think about tracking shots in Anderson's films without going back to the brilliant funeral scene in The Darjeeling Limited; and I certainly can't help but think of Anderson anytime I see a filmmaker end his film in slow motion and with a catchy song. And yet despite all of these very memorable moments, I always think about them within the context of their respective films, and how those specific moments superlatively mesh with the purpose of the film and help the larger themes come into better focus (was there a better or more apt song for Anderson to end his hipster Bildungsroman, Rushmore, with than "Ooh La La" by The Faces); how they make me understand the characters better; make me understand Anderson's intentions more clearly; and make me grateful for sharing in the experience of Wes Anderson – inviting me into his clique – playing for me his personal mix tapes.

Here are some examples of great Wes Anderson music moments:


  1. Great piece Kevin and I agree 100% with just about everything you said. Other film makers use it well but Anderson, as you so eloquently put it, "there's just something about the music Anderson uses that lifts me up and out of my body and makes me feel and reflect on things". The composition, the camera movement, and what the song actually says about his characters and their state of mind is what I think lifts one up. The only movie where I didn't think the soundtrack was poetic was Fantastic Mr. Fox, actually, though it was certainly not without its inspired soundtrack moments.

    Great piece and great topic, Kevin.

  2. The music in The Darjeeling Limited is probably my favorite in any of Anderson's films- even the original Indian music, which far outscopes any of that irritating A.A. Rammann (sp?) noise in Slumdog Millionaire. The Indian music in Anderson's film is more dreamlike and... holy, so to speak.

    As for The Darjeeling Limited itself, it enhanced my appreciation for Anderson, whose earlier work doesn't astound me all that much (I have mixed feelings on Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbamus and- much to Ryan's dismay- haven't seen all of The Life Aquatic). However, I think Darjeeling and Fantastic Mr. Fox are both great. I wanted to try to fit at least one of them in my Top 50 of the Decade list, but there just wasn't enough room!

  3. Ryan and Adam:

    Thanks for reading and thanks for the kind words. I'd leave more of a comment but I'm really busy with work stuff at the moment. But I just wanted to say thanks for dropping by and checking this out!