When it comes to stylised quirkiness and off-the-wall humour, there is one film maker who stands out against all others, and that is the inimitable writer and director Wes Anderson. Having carved himself a very specific filmic niche, he has found incredible success in making oddball comedies, with serious and heartfelt undertones which capture the imagination in such incredibly simple ways. A huge part of what makes Wes Anderson’s films his own is the use of music and underscoring, to intensify the glorious palette of colours and characters Anderson taps in his film making history.
Anderson’s musical choices are always cleverly melded into his scriptural and narrative arcs, and what better place to start than with Rushmore. This cinematic gem, which introduced Jason Schwartzman to the world of acting, has a wonderful soundtrack which recalls days of teenage summers and angst-filled growing pains. One shining example of this is the carefree pulse of Cat Stevens’ song ‘Here Comes My Baby’, which can’t help but bring to mind that very specific feeling of being loved – underscoring one of the love stories of the film which soon turns bittersweet, the musical choice here not only echoes how great love can feel, but how quickly that feeling can fade and turn into something entirely different.
One of the best sequences of the film is when the two protagonists of the film are working to ruin each other in increasingly ridiculous and vicious ways. This is set against the madcap rock n’ roll of ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’ by The Who, the jangling chords and energy-driven vocals creating an unmistakable backdrop of mischief to our character’s antics. The repeated vocal hook of “You are forgiven” drips with a glorious irony while we watch these two wannabe-alpha-males try to beat each other at their own game.
Another of Anderson’s films in which we see this intricate and intelligent use of soundtracking is his much celebrated family drama The Royal Tenenbaums. While beautifully scripted and sumptuously directed with it’s distinctively self-aware character costumes and set pieces, so much of the sadness and the emotionally effecting moments bleed through in the soundtrack. One moment of of near-perfection is where we see Margot, the adopted daughter of the family, step of a Green Line bus to be reunited with her adoptive brother, Richie. As she steps of the bus in slow motion, the gently melancholic guitar strokes of ‘These Days’ by Nico drift into the scene and create a heartbreakingly warming yet tragic moment as the character’s eyes meet and their ultimately doomed love is laid bare.
Later in the film, Elliot Smith’s ‘Needle in the Hay’ spikes the picture in a moment that is shocking, unexpected and so important for the film and the characters, Smith’s disjointedly resonant vocals underscoring the emotional and physical downfall of a character who seemed so strong. In this way we see Anderson at his directorally emotional height, ever so subtly reaching into the depths of his audience’s empathetic nerve and working away bit by bit until the true tragedy of his characters is seen.
One of the most unique soundtracks of Wes Anderson’s library of pictures, and of any film of his cinematic generation, is that of 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, in which a bereaved oceanographer sets out to take revenge on the shark who killed his partner. The soundtrack features a number of David Bowie covers by Portuguese artist Seu Jorge. The covers, sung entirely in Portuguese aside from the titles of the songs, are delicately crafted tributes to Bowie, performed with a lone acoustic guitar and Jorge’s stunningly smooth vocals. In particular his covers of ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Changes’ stand out from the soundtrack, which create a strange sensation of something incredibly familiar being made into something new and incredible. Jorge’s original and inspiring covers frame the film so, so perfectly.
While his selection of already existing music for his films is always done with a deft directorial hand, where the music of Wes Anderson’s films really impresses is in the originally composed pieces which can be seen throughout his films. Composer Mark Mothersbaugh has collaborated with Anderson on a number of his films, the hispanic-baroque stylings of ‘Hardest Geometry Problem in the World’ from the opening of Rushmore and the light orchestral twinkles of ‘Let Me Tell You About My Boat’ from The Life Aquatic demonstrating Mothersbaugh’s artistic kinship with Anderson is his compositional style.
More recently, Anderson has worked with French composer Alexandre Desplat in creating the perfect soundscape for his pictures. In the scoring to the stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s classic Fantastic Mr Fox, Desplat uses healthy dollops of 1930s jazz scratch band banjo mixed with the vibrant strings and light overtones to frame the whimsical and joyous sentiments of the film – check out ‘Jimmy Squirrel and Co’. The more minor xylophonic motif creeps into the score a number of times, tying the whole picture together through this recurring musical idea, which can be heard most overtly in ‘Kristofferson’s Theme’.
This motif emphases the inquisitive and adventurous nature of the Foxes and gives the score a sense of constant excitement and wonder. Desplat also composed the original score pieces for Anderson’s most recent film, Grand Budapest Hotel. The use of Eastern European folk influences in the composition creates an incredibly atmospheric air for the film, with the bold colours, larger than life set pieces and the rolling scenery playing off against the underscoring with brilliance and ease.
Wes Anderson’s films are full to the brim with nuances and subtle hints at emotion and meaning which are never fully surfaced. The musical selections, both by way of soundtrack choices and new compositions, for his films tie together these ideas in such a wonderful, simple and elegant way that it is impossible not to be moved, enthralled and enchanted every time.