Friday, July 6, 2012

Why "Moonrise Kingdom" is Simultaneously the Best and Worst Wes Anderson Soundtrack

Moonrise Kingdom's soundtrack is nothing like previous Wes Anderson soundtracks. In fact, compared to the quirky jukeboxes that his previous soundtracks were, it sounds surprisingly ordinary. But that's a good thing.

Around the time that Wes Anderson's breakout movie Rushmore came out, you could illegally download music, but hard drives were smaller and the iPod hadn't been invented yet. The radio was the primary way to get introduced to music without buying it. In 1998, my 14-year-old self was probably alone in my room listening to Classic Rock 102.3, WXCR, trying to imagine a world free of Backstreet Boys or Starr Reports. I was reaching up to turn the dial on the stereo that was on a high shelf above my homework desk, anticipating an overplayed but still-cool song but hoping to hear a lost one-hit wonder or an obscure album track that I hadn't heard before.

When Rushmore came out, I liked it for one reason above all others: the whole soundtrack was obscure album tracks and lost one-hit wonders that I hadn't heard before. The original soundtrack's AllMusic review calls it "the zany, hip radio station you've always longed for and will never get." That was exactly how I felt about it.

My world was set to a mix of good music, bad music, overplayed and underplayed music, but Rushmore's world was set to 100% good and underplayed music. For that reason, I wanted to be Jason Schwartzman's character, even if it meant I'd have a destructive crush on Olivia Williams.

I've been a fan of Wes Anderson's movies ever since. Even the disappointing ones have moments that are funny in retrospect. But what really keeps me watching them is the Wes Anderson Universe, where, for two hours, the songs that only you and one friend listen to are big enough to fill a movie theater.

All of Wes Anderson's soundtracks take place in that universe, except for his latest and most popular movie, Moonrise Kingdom. Its use of music is different in two big ways:

1) All of the songs are songs that characters are listening to (aka diegetic sound).

The movie begins with a group of children listening to an onscreen record of Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," and this trend continues for the entire movie. There's incidental music (by Mark Mothersbaugh and Alexandre Desplat), but that's the only music that ever plays from offscreen. When we hear Hank Williams, it's because Bruce Willis' character hears him on the radio. And when we hear a vinyl "45 by Francoise Hardy- a "quirky" musician who's right at home in the Anderson Universe - it's because Kara Hayward's character is playing the record for Jared Gilman's character.

When we hear the song, it's not Wes sharing his record collection for the audience, it's a character sharing her record collection with another character.

2) There are considerably less songs on the soundtrack.

Ever since Bottle Rocket came out nearly 20 years ago, a major part of the Anderson Universe has been its radio-station feel. The universe doesn't just contain good songs- it contains a lot of them. When one song ends, you know another one will start soon. Scenes are like songs and the movie combines both the fun of a playlist and the fun of a movie.

In Moonrise Kingdom, there's no such thing. There are only four songs, and they come at odd intervals. The movie lacks that feeling of "I bet there's gonna be another song soon!" that you get in Anderson's previous movies.


In his previous movies, Wes Anderson packed his universe with snippets of great music. The music is a large part of why I have good memories of all of those movies, but the power of the soundtracks faded with repeated viewings. Good as The Royal Tenenbaums is (and it probably is still the best of his jukebox soundtracks), the moment that Van Morrison's "Everyone" kicks in at the end was much more powerful when I didn't expect to hear that distinctive harpsichord intro. 

Before I watched Moonrise Kingdom, I'd been wondering if maybe the Wes Anderson Universe rested too heavily on the novelty of its music. But after seeing it, I realized that Wes actually doesn't need quirky soundtracks to keep his cinematic worlds afloat. Moonrise Kingdom is a universe where colors are soft and warm and lightning doesn't kill humans.

But it's not a universe world where quirky, foreign, and obscure music accompanies montages and slow-motion walks. In the Moonrise Kingdom universe, Francoise Hardy is just music that one lonely American plays for another lonely American. And judging by the movie's popularity with both Wes Anderson fans and the general moviegoing public, people like it that way.

To my surprise, I like it that way, too.

1 comment:

  1. I feel the same way about Rushmore. I get a weird nostalgia when I watch that movie, as if I had lived it myself. Maybe part of that has to do with romanticizing Max Fischer.

    I've been disappointed in Anderson's latest films, but I do really want to see this.

    The concept of playing music in a film only when a character is listening to it makes the movie feel more realistic (they used the same technique in The Wire), but it does change the atmosphere of the movie. Interested to see how it plays out :)


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