Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Soundtracking Anderson: The Royal Tenenbaums

If Rushmore bent time and space with music from the British Invasion, Wes Anderson's third film pushes the method to the extreme of near timelessness using music, costume and prop design to create a sort of cartoon version of Manhattan. For The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson moved on to baroque rock from the early seventies, helping to create a feeling of melancholy throughout the film, and cementing the label of 'melancomic' to Anderson's work (like it's meaning, this made-up label is both tragic and a bit humorous).

The first song that Anderson had in his head before sitting down to write was a Jackson Browne cover of "These Days" by Warhol Superstar Nico and he wrote his first scene with that in mind: Margo (Gwyneth Paltrow) getting off the Green Line Bus in slow motion (video). Nico's sad and beautiful voice helps color in Margo as much as the raccoon eyeliner that they share.

The opening montage that introduces the characters (expertly voiced by Alec Baldwin) is done to the tune of "Hey Jude" (see video,) which was recorded at the last minute by score scribe Mark Mothersbaugh and his offshoot Mutato Muzika Orchestra. Anderson originally meant to have The Beatles original version open the film (and close it with "I'm Looking Through You,") but circumstances forced their hand to record another version (EW, 12/04). Elliott Smith was approached initially, but he wasn't in any shape to do so at the time, as he was already on a downward spiral that would eventually end with him taking his own life just two years later. Eerily, the song he did provide, "Needle in the Hay," was used prophetically as the backdrop for Richie's attempted suicide (video). That co-writer Owen Wilson had a hand in writing the scene makes it doubly eerie. Continuing on the musical suicide tour of RT, when Richie (Luke Wilson) gets out of the hospital and takes the bus home, it's to Nick Drake's "Fly". Drake's upbeat song is meant to signify a sort of rebirth, but it's hard to ignore the fact that this singer took his own life as well.

This scene is then followed by back-to-back tracks from The Rolling Stones, backing the drama between Richie and Margo. They confess their love to one another to "She Smiled Sweetly," and then Margo says it has to be a secret love and leaves as "Ruby Tuesday" raises in volume on the "goodbye" chorus. This, and a few other RT scenes, I believe mark the first time Anderson uses diegetic music of any significance. The songs play on a turntable, and exist in the characters' world, whereas nearly all the music in his prior work was non-diegetic in nature. This diegetic use of music is much harder to do (see the The Sopranos,) and shows Anderson's growth working with Randall Poster on these films (and on his next film, he would take it to another extreme). Another use of this is The Clash's "Rock the Casbah," playing on a stereo for an Eli (Owen Wilson) drug deal (video). The Clash appeared earlier with Eli as well, as when he buys some drugs while out with Margo you hear "Police and Thieves." Anderson seems to associate punk rock with illicit behavior, as he also uses The Ramones' "Judy is a Punk" as a backdrop to the montage of Margo's secret past. Contrasted with the baroque sounds of the rest of the soundtrack, it's meant to be a little jarring.

If Eli Cash is The Clash (why am I just now noticing Cash=Clash?) then I guess Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is Bob Dylan. Dylan's "Wigwam" sets the mood for when he meets his grandkids for the first time ("no we didn't" - see video,) and Dylan's theme score Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid helps escort Royal out the door after his ruse has been discovered. And I haven't even brought up the scene of joyful rebellion where Royal and his grandkids raise some hell to Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard" (video). There's really no scene that isn't carefully scored, so that each moment is somehow more precious then the next, which initially is the best thing about the film. But together, much like this post I'm writing, it all feels a bit claustrophobic, and that really is the major flaw in this otherwise beautiful, sad, funny film.

Playlist: Rssmbld Sndtrck - The Royal Tenenbaums
1. "Hey Jude" - The Mutato Muzika Orchestra (video)
2. "String Quartet In F Major (2nd Movement) (Ravel)" - Ysaye Quartet
3. "Sonata For Cello and Piano In F Minor (Enescu)" - The Mutato Muzika Orchestra
4. "Look At Me" - John Lennon - Chas gets his children ready for bed on his first night back home
5. "Christmas Time Is Here (Instrumental)" - Vince Guaraldi - Margot is leaving home / Royal tries to reconcile with Margot in the ice cream shop
6. "These Days" - Nico - Richie is picked up by Margot, by way of the green line bus (video)
7. "Police & Thieves" - The Clash - Eli and Margot visit a drug dealer and discuss Richie
8. "Wigwam" - Bob Dylan - Ethyl and Henry discuss their relationship / Royal meets his grandsons (video)
9. "Gymnopedie No. 1" - Erik Satie
10. "Lullabye" - Emitt Rhodes - Chas confronts Richie in his tent (video)
11. "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard" - Paul Simon - Royal takes his grandsons out to raise hell (video)
12. "Main Title Theme (Billy)" - Bob Dylan - Royal leaves the house
13. "Judy Is A Punk" - The Ramones - The Margot private investigator montage
14. "Needle In The Hay" - Elliott Smith - Richie attempts to commit suicide (video)
15. "Fly" - Nick Drake - Richie escapes from the hospital, sneaks back into house (video)
16. "She Smiled Sweetly" - The Rolling Stones - Margot and Richie talk in the tent (video)
17. "Ruby Tuesday" - The Rolling Stones - Margo leaves
18. "Stephanie Says" - The Velvet Underground - Richie is visited by Mordecai* on the roof of the hotel
19. "Rock The Casbah" - The Clash - Royal and Richie try to get Eli some help (video)
20. "Christmas Time Is Here (Vocal)" - Vince Guaraldi
21. "The Fairest Of The Seasons" - Nico - prologue, announcement of Royal's death
22. "Everyone" - Van Morrison - Royal funeral, credits
Score by Mark Mothersbaugh

More: Aside from Mothersbaugh and his score, the other artist who ties the musical theme together goes mostly uncredited, and that's John Cale. He played in Velvet Underground ("Stephanie Says") and played on both Nico tracks as well as "Fly" by Nick Drake.

*The original hawk used to play Mordecai was captured during shooting and held for ransom - production could not wait for him to be returned which is the reason that the bird that appears later in the movie has “more white feathers” - it’s a different bird

Previously: Bottle Rocket, Rushmore

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