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How Wes Anderson Perfected the Music-Nerd Soundtrack

Charting the impact of the director’s use of music in his work across the past few decades.


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Wes Anderson against a 70s-inspired, stylistically appropriate background

Wes Anderson photo by NurPhoto. Graphic by Martine Ehrhart.

The only English-language pop song in Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is 144 seconds of whispery psych-folk detritus called “I Won’t Hurt You.” Released in 1967 by Los Angeles act the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, the song may be the drowsiest expression of passion ever preserved on vinyl. The chorus simply repeats the title over and over again. Gentle strumming provides a pedestal for lyrics like, “The stars are in your eyes/I’ll take a spaceship and try and go and find you.” Instead of drums, there’s an amplified heartbeat. The singer sounds as though he’s murmuring in his sleep; he may also be suffering from a touch of nasal congestion. It’s not the kind of dramatic song movies normally use to heighten the emotions onscreen—and it’s an especially unexpected choice for a stop-motion epic set in a near-future Japan.

The story takes place in the fictional metropolis of Megasaki, where the city’s disease-stricken canine population has been exiled to a desolate Island of Trash. Though Isle of Dogs’ score favors traditional Japanese instruments like recorder and taiko drum melded with music from movies by legendary Tokyo director Akira Kurosawa, “I Won’t Hurt You” is the sonic centerpiece of its trailer. It’s the perfect sweet yet haunting song to add a bilingual element to the soundtrack of this sweet yet haunting bilingual movie.

In his 2003 book Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting, Brett Milano explains that West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band are “beloved by a majority of diehard collectors, and by hardly anybody else.” Despite the subsequent widespread availability of their music on digital platforms and a recent vinyl reissue, the description still fits. At least, it did until Isle of Dogs. Whether they know it or not, the legion of Anderson fans who viewed the trailer 19 million times have all heard about 40 seconds of the song. In the film itself, they’ll hear it twice more. It’s a quintessential Wes Anderson sync—an obscure mid-century pop cut whose emotional impact is so immediate you can’t believe it isn’t a classic.

This is the power of what we might call the crate-digger soundtrack, a style of music supervision that heightens the movie-watching experience with the thrill of pawing through boxes of dusty LPs at a flea market. Instead of commissioning new singles, recycling B-sides, or finding era-appropriate hits to set the scene of a period piece, these soundtracks champion unheard, forgotten, or otherwise apt vintage gems. Sometimes, they even thrust those songs back into the cultural spotlight, on hit soundtrack albums that feel like hand-labeled mixtapes.

Despite Anderson’s insistence that he’s “not really a vinyl guy,” he and his longtime music supervisor, Randall Poster, are easily the most popular team to have perfected this eclectic approach. Their quest to find the perfect syncs for 2007’s Indian travelogue The Darjeeling Limited took Poster to India, where he begged the foundation that manages the legacy of celebrated director Satyajit Ray to let him copy master tapes of scores from his films. Beach Boys fans can thank Poster for tracking down the band’s archivist to secure their “Ol’ Man River” cover for Anderson’s first stop-motion feature, the Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson and Poster are so famous for having impeccable musical taste that the Talkhouse made a funny video that replaces the Rushmore soundtrack with goofy ’90s hits by Smash Mouth, Spin Doctors, and Blink-182. The substitutions transform an artful coming-of-age classic into a corny teen comedy, demonstrating just how dramatically music can shape a film’s mood.

Every crate digger has a specialty. Anderson’s is the British Invasion, from the Rolling Stones to one-hit wonder Peter Sarstedt, whose darkly funny 1969 single “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?” is a recurring theme in Darjeeling and its prequel short, Hotel Chevalier. Rushmore, from 1998, is Anderson’s Anglophilic opus, featuring the Stones, the Who, the Faces and garage-rock quartet the Creation, who were virtually unknown in the U.S. before their propulsive single “Making Time” scored a montage of teen antihero Max Fischer’s many extracurricular activities. Like those acts and the disgruntled schoolboys of British auteur Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film If…, which Rushmore references, Max is a rebel clothed in the signifiers of tradition. Reflecting on the film’s use of the Rolling Stones’ “I Am Waiting,” Poster has noted, “The Stones were these brattish-looking guys in these crisp suits, and I think [Anderson] found a correspondence [between Rushmore and] the sound and the image of the band.” That strange mix of iconoclasm, respect for institutions, and love of tradition is Anderson’s trademark as a writer and director, so it’s no wonder that his default soundtrack matches those aesthetic themes.

Not that he confines himself to ’60s England. In a 2005 review of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou soundtrack, Pitchfork’s Chris Dahlen defined “Wes Anderson music” as “light but not MOR, the kind of song that has a strong kick but soft edges.” By then, that canon included onetime New York transplants Nico and Bob Dylan, whose songs permeate the Manhattan-set The Royal Tenenbaums, and the samba-fied David Bowie covers Brazilian musician Seu Jorge performs throughout The Life Aquatic. More recently, for period dramedies Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson and Poster have added classical music and leaned heavily on Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat’s instrumental scores. Even as they’ve branched out to explore new genres and traditions, crate-digging has continued to define their curatorial style.

Anderson wasn’t the first director to approach soundtrack construction with a record collector’s curiosity, obsessiveness, diverse tastes, and reverence for the pop music of generations past. Period soundtracks like Goodfellas, Malcolm X, and American Graffiti aside, the crate-digger style dates back to indie films of the ’70s and ’80s, when wildly referential postmodern aesthetics ruled, and rock was starting to celebrate its own history. As greatest-hits comps became ubiquitous, but before classic rock radio emerged, John Waters was pairing the cutting-edge trash of 1972’s Pink Flamingos with rockabilly and doo-wop from his ’50s childhood. In 1986, David Lynch used Roy Orbison and Bobby Vinton to evoke Eisenhower-era suburban claustrophobia, minus the period setting, in Blue Velvet.

Years before Anderson synced two tracks by the late-’60s L.A. psych rockers Love in his 1996 debut feature, Bottle Rocket, the great Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai took the crate-digger soundtrack international. Like Lynch and Waters, Wong is fascinated by mid-century glamour and grit, studding his dreamy, nostalgic romances with old and new pop songs from China, the U.S., and beyond. His 1994 masterpiece, Chungking Express, sets a neon-lit love story to Cantonese-language Cocteau Twins and Cranberries covers by one of its leads, pop singer Faye Wong. Her starry-eyed character’s favorite song, “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas & the Papas, follows her from scene to scene.

The same year Chungking Express appeared, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction soundtrack climbed to No. 21 on the Billboard album charts, where it would remain for more than two years. The film forgoes an instrumental score in favor of vintage surf-rock, funk, disco, and soul tracks—all surrounding the famous scene where Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace overdoses on heroin to an Urge Overkill cover of Neil Diamond’s 1967 ballad of soft-misogynist condescension, “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.”

Anderson and Tarantino have about as much in common as is possible for a twee icon and a virtuoso of ultraviolence. They’re both mainstream but have ’90s indie roots, distinctive visual styles, cultish fan bases, and favor pop-culture pastiche. When it comes to music, they love recycling classic film scores and building entire scenes around syncs. They’re among the only contemporary American directors who have the interest, freedom, and budget to compile unique soundtracks. And they share with Lynch and Wong a knack for mixing music from different eras to make their films feel timeless.

But whereas Tarantino’s syncs function mostly as ironic or literal commentary on the story, Anderson’s music cues establish mood and place while offering subtle insight into characters’ internal lives—which means his soundtracks work better as standalone playlists. Tarantino’s use of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” as an anthem for Kill Bill’s betrayed Bride might strike you as clever; Anderson’s syncs leave you desperate to hear everything the artist in question ever recorded.

A shot of the Rolling Stones’ 1967 album Between the Buttons is featured in Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.

Although Anderson’s films are routinely—and sometimes rightly—accused of being too mannered, all of his soundtracks demand an emotional response. That’s probably because he writes his screenplays with music in mind, using songs to shape characters’ personalities rather than waiting until post-production to start drawing those connections: For Darjeeling, he and Poster planned early on to use songs by feuding brother act the Kinks to dramatize the combative relationships between the film’s three adult male siblings.

Poster has estimated that he and Anderson picked out 90 percent of the syncs in The Royal Tenenbaums before shooting began. The most crushing scene in Tenenbaums finds former tennis prodigy Richie processing some upsetting news about his adopted sister, Margot, whom he has secretly loved since childhood. In the bathroom of their family home, he snips off his long hair and beard, then slits his wrists. The sequence is choreographed to Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay,” a song as slow, quiet, and devastating as the blue-tinged shots of Richie’s otherwise silent suicide attempt. Smith’s name might stick out amid those of Dylan, Nico, and Nick Drake in the music credits, but the somber indie-folk he made a generation later sounds right at home among their hushed voices.

As that Tenenbaums scene suggests, Anderson doesn’t entirely deserve his reputation as a fanatical nostalgist. Sure, he averages more than two shots of records spinning on turntables per movie, but one Darjeeling character plays his music over iPod speakers. The Bowie covers Seu Jorge recorded for The Life Aquatic don’t just relocate Ziggy Stardust’s space travels to the tropics for a team of undersea explorers—they bridge Steve Zissou’s checkered past and his lonely present. And in that film’s climactic scene, when they finally glimpse the elusive jaguar shark that killed Steve’s best friend, the captain and his crew briefly transcend time and space to the sounds of Sigur Rós’ otherworldly “Starálfur.” 

Anderson’s soundtracks each have an overarching theme, whether it’s the bohemian New York of Tenenbaums or Moonrise Kingdom’s clash of Benjamin Britten’s comfortingly neat, didactic classical compositions for kids and Hank Williams’ messily emotional, adult country songs. But these mixtapes aren’t time capsules. The magic of Wes Anderson music has little to do with fidelity to a particular genre or era—it’s in the way strange and familiar sounds flow together to form the emotional landscapes of his films.

In retrospect, Anderson emerged at precisely the right moment, when the first generation raised on the postmodern collages of MTV music videos were in their teens and 20s. Unlike other zeitgeisty Gen-X indie filmmakers such as Kevin Smith or Todd Solondz, though, he’s remained relevant in the 21st century, thanks in large part to the prescience of his eclectic style. In 2018, we can click from a random YouTube video to an art-house classic in a matter of seconds. When it comes to music, streaming services have made every curious millennial a genre-agnostic, virtual-crate-digging junior Wes Anderson.

Those services also mean we no longer have to buy a $20 CD to revisit our favorite movie songs. As of 2017, the only album from the past 10 years to rank among the 15 top-selling soundtracks of all time was the one for Frozen. But Anderson’s musical brand has been strong enough to survive this sales slump. Amid the current, modest-but-still-growing vinyl resurgence, his soundtracks are so coveted by the audiophiles and commodity fetishists who still buy physical albums that they often appear as limited-edition Record Store Day releases. A double-LP Anderson tribute compilation from 2014, with covers by artists like Frank Black and Kristin Hersh, came out on two different colors of vinyl.

Since the turn of the millennium, indie filmmakers of Anderson’s generation and younger have made movies set in the present that blend old, new, familiar, and obscure music so often as to render the practice unremarkable. French New Wave scores mingle with Bowie and T. Rex on Anderson’s sometime co-writer Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha. Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s best picture nominee Juno intersperses original songs by anti-folk singer Kimya Dawson with Sonic Youth and Mott the Hoople. For better or worse, Zach Braff’s 2004 hit Garden State has one of the defining soundtracks of the aughts, integrating the Shins, Paul Simon, and Iron & Wine into a greatest-hits comp of soft-spoken man-child angst. Sofia Coppola often inverts Anderson and Poster’s method, using contemporary music to accompany stories set in the past: Her first feature, 1999’s The Virgin Suicides, is set in the ’70s but places songs by alt-rockers Sloan side-by-side with Todd Rundgren, Heart, and an electronic score by Air.

As crate-digging musical tastes have gone mainstream, and sluggish album sales have made commissioning a full slate of new songs from A-list pop artists unrealistic for most movies destined to earn less money than the Fifty Shades series, Hollywood has also started to embrace Anderson and Poster’s approach. Teen movies in particular have ridden this wave, from the Digable Planets and Public Enemy tracks favored by the retro-rap geeks in 2015’s Dope to the ’80s goth and new wave of 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which features syncs by “The O.C.”and “Gossip Girl” music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas. The emo hero’s journey Scott Pilgrim vs. the World bombed at the box office, but its indie-meets-classic-rock soundtrack, with original songs written by Beck, hit No. 6 on Billboard’s rock album charts. And as pop music has always demonstrated, once teenagers—and the adults paid to reflect and shape their tastes—get their hands on a trend, it’s guaranteed to infiltrate all levels of culture.

A portable record player shown in Anderson’s 2012 film, Moonrise Kingdom.

Some spark of originality is inevitably lost when a niche aesthetic goes mainstream, as fans of grunge and cinéma-vérité know well. MTV’s pseudo-indie teen comedy Napoleon Dynamite, with its so-uncool-they’re-cool Alphaville and Jamiroquai syncs, may be an indirect descendant of Rushmore, but its songs are a literal joke compared to Max Fischer’s British Invasion jams. In the age of “feel old yet?,” crate-digging soundtracks have become more about pushing nostalgia buttons than surfacing lost gems and forging meaningful connections to a film’s characters through careful song selection.

If Wes Anderson music as we knew it in the early aughts is becoming just another film cliché, it’s hard to blame the director or his music supervisor. It’s been more than a decade since they’ve heavily relied on ’60s and ’70s folk pop in their movies. Now that Anderson is exploring a wider range of locations and period settings—and has adapted his aesthetic to include stop-motion films starring talking animals—each of his soundtracks has grown very different from the last. He and Poster are still crate diggers, but they’ve expanded their searches from one well-stocked section to the whole record store, hunting for foreign film scores in one corner, then searching through Russian folk and French chansons in another. The Grand Budapest Hotel soundtrack doesn’t include a single Western pop song, which seems fitting for a story set at a fictional Central European hotel doomed by war and other 20th-century horrors.

Isle of Dogs takes up similarly dark themes, its dogs standing in for the millions of Jews sent to concentration camps and the tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans interned in the U.S. during World War II. Surrounded by the score’s low, somber taiko drums, “I Won’t Hurt You” is a throwback to older Anderson-Poster soundtracks. But it’s also a precisely attuned expression of mutual care, and a beacon guiding the movie’s human and canine heroes on what may well be a suicide mission. Every repetition of the track’s title is a promise between two species who could inflict fatal harm but choose to help each other survive instead. Wonderful as the song is, “I Won’t Hurt You” never had such potency on its own.

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This post originally appeared on Pitchfork and was published March 21, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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