Recently, I was putting together my set of stills from Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. I had watched the film the previous night and so turned the sound down to listen to music while selecting images. I let the film run for a few seconds and suddenly I was struck by how well matched the music and images seemed to be. There was a curious link between the two pieces that I’d serendipitously stumbled upon. Moments later, the track shuffled to something very different and the new piece fit equally well. It occurred to me that if the images are put together with some competence, and the music isn’t a complete tonal mismatch, it’s very easy to find ourselves being won over by the evocative power of music and image (try the experiment yourself with something vaguely cinematic and with your music collection set to shuffle). Indeed, if we look at the origins of the term melodrama, it is just this shortcut to emotion that is exploited: the music was a quick route past dialogue (a convention picked up by ‘silent’ films) with heraldic trumpets for the hero and doom-laden strings for the villain.
While the original meaning of the term is not pejorative, today’s sense of the pulpy, telenovela melodrama misses the mark of the real danger that misusing music to manipulate our emotions makes. Wes Anderson’s career offers a good example of good use of music turning into bad. When he released Bottle Rocket in 1996, he used music sparingly and to punctuate moments that were significant but beyond dialogue (Anthony losing Inez is soundtracked by The Proclaimers’ ‘Over and Done With’). Nevertheless, it seems a fitting tribute that MTV offered him a Best Newcomer award for this picture, with a number of scenes ready to be spliced as music videos. When he came to direct his next film, Rushmore , the use of music, was much heavier but had equal legitimacy. The musical styles were mostly of a piece: the wistful tunes of the British Invasion (The Who, The Kinks, Cat Stevens, Faces etc). Secondly, the film is about a teenager, so it makes sense that the music is front and centre; it’s the time of our lives where we invest music with the most meaning and we look to crystalise every moment with a music counterpart.
Unfortunately, Anderson’s use of music becomes scrappier as his filmography continues. The tipping point occurs with 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited. You’re rarely more than three minutes from a scene in which the music takes centre-stage, and the director seems to be resting on his laurels, both in the fact that he is using the same palate of musicians (Rolling Stones, The Kinks etc) and relying on the music not to enhance the emotional effect of the drama but to stand in for it. There’s also a point to be made about the ugly reflexivity of using another filmmaker’s incidental music (in this case Santiyat Ray’s) for another use, but this is perhaps indicative to the dilettantish way Anderson approached the project: a gap year photostream to a Totally Awesome playlist of tracks that will remind you of the amazing times you had with your buddies. As Will Oldham says in a memorable interview with the AV Club:
Will Oldham: As somebody who likes music, when that happens, I tend to listen to the lyrics, which have nothing to do with the movie. And then I’m lost in the storyline. Not only is that a crime, but it’s a crime not to give people who are good at making music for movies the work. It’s like saying, “We don’t need you, even though you’re so much better at it than I am as a music supervisor.” Like the cancer that is that Darjeeling guy… what’s his name?
AVC: Wes Anderson?
WO: Yeah. His completely cancerous approach to using music is basically, “Here’s my iPod on shuffle, and here’s my movie.” The two are just thrown together. People are constantly contacting me saying, “I’ve been editing my movie, and I’ve been using your song in the editing process. What would it take to license the song?” And for me it’s like, “Regardless of what you’ve been doing, my song doesn’t belong in your movie.” That’s where the conversation should end. Music should be made for movies, you know?
And that’s where I’ll pick up next time: should music be made for movies or can recontextualising be an equally valid way to dovetail two pieces that aid expression?
Youtube is rife with just the kind of thing I discussed above, all universally awful: fan tributes to films, video games (at times it seems that youtube is simply a host for Final Fantasy clips set to Celine Dion tracks).
While I’ve said before that parody is indicative of a distinctive style, the fact that Nicholas Gurewich of The Perry Bible Fellowship can create a soundtrack to an imaginary Wes Anderson film called The Cloud Photographers is suggestive of the very rigid way he now goes about making soundtracks (and movies to a certain extent).
At least I was critical!