What are the ingredients of a truly great movie soundtrack? Is it the main theme’s catchy melody — think der-der, d-d-d, der-der from Star Wars by John Williams or the now ubiquitous Time by Hans Zimmer from the film Inception? Or is it the composer’s cunning choice of sonic palette? Cue Ry Cooder’s slide guitar in Paris, Texas, the zither in The Third Man or the noir-ish after-hours sax motif from Taxi Driver. Could it also be down to the director’s inspired use of source music, known in the business as “needle drops”?
In the latter case, masters of the art in recent years have been the American auteur Wes Anderson and our very own Edgar Wright. Both directors place music at the very heart of their films, and their carefully curated soundtracks are highly respected and influential, sending listeners along cultural avenues they’ve never been down before, whether to old Bollywood film scores (The Darjeeling Limited) or to hairy 1970s prog rock, Dutch style (Baby Driver).
With both having new cinematic releases, let’s compare their latest Original Motion Picture Soundtracks. Each is passed to us like a lover or cool older sibling handing over a painstakingly compiled mix tape. One, we hope, that will make a boring car journey more bearable. One that might actually impress our friends as it repeat plays via the smart speaker in the kitchen.
The musical melange borders on parody for the entire Wes Anderson oeuvre
In the red corner, we have indie movie maverick Wes and The French Dispatch. A quick glance at the album’s track listing reveals that he’s made the sensible decision to team up once more with long-term music supervisor Randall Poster (Skyfall, The Wolf of Wall Street) as well as the award-winning Alexandre Desplat. Here, the Harry Potter and Imitation Game composer provides exactly the right kind of piano-tinkling, Debussy-esque backbone to this quirky anthology piece set in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé.
Elsewhere on the album we have Charles Aznavour, some rare Ennio Morricone (Euro Mondo anyone?), French yé-yé and accordion playing, Grace Jones and finally his old mate Jarvis Cocker swapping Sheffield indie drawl for some rather off-key French chanson singing.
Sadly, the musical melange is not entirely convincing this time around and, much like the film itself, borders on parody for the entire Wes Anderson oeuvre. YouTube has some particularly cruel satires on this, incidentally. Be sure to check out the hilarious “What if Wes Anderson directed X-Men?”
Other than the quirky animated pieces, the thrift store wardrobes and an omnipresent Bill Murray, well-worn Anderson tropes include (in no particular order): English beat bands from the 1960s especially The Kinks, folk rock singers of similar vintage, bossa nova, harpsicords, David Bowie, French pop and rare world cinema finds.
Edgar Wright has compiled a mix of 21 tracks dominated by home-grown 1960s girl pop
Like the stunning visual setups that appear throughout The French Dispatch, it’s all a bit too measured and rather too superficial. Where, for instance, are the telling moments of pathos, such as the one in which Jason Schwartzman pursues a doomed romance with a pretty Indian railway inspector while Peter Sarstedt sings “You talk like Marlene Dietrich, and you dance like Zizi Jeanmaire…”? In The French Dispatch there’s nothing to out-charm Rushmore’s Max siding with nemesis Murray to the John Lennon tune Oh Yoko!, nor a scene like the genuinely heart-warming finale (a slo-mo, of course!) in which the previously warring cast end up dancing to the Celtic-flavoured knees-up Ooh La La by The Faces.
Meanwhile, over in the Edgar Wright corner, the Hot Fuzz and Baby Driver director has compiled a mix of 21 tracks almost entirely dominated by home-grown 1960s girl pop — the Cilla’s, the Sandie’s and the Dusty’s — with a remarkable contribution by star Anya Taylor-Joy reviving the Petula Clark classic Downtown.
Composer Steven Price of Gravity and Our Planet fame is on hand to string it all together with a simple recurring piano motif and, in the film version at least, some dark and atmospheric remixes of hits by Sandie Shaw and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Eclectic, eh?
Wright has come a long way since he had the annoyingly perfect police cadet Simon Pegg rise quickly through the ranks to Goody Two Shoes by Adam and the Ants. A turning point for him, as far as soundtrack curating goes, was 2017’s Baby Driver, in which as in the earlier sci-fi hit Guardians of the Galaxy, the music is literally the driving force behind the plot. Getaway driver Ansel Elgort is rarely parted from his in-ear device as the rock, blues and soul hits keep on coming. Lord knows what the copyright bill came to.
Last Night In Soho, however, is a more subtle and beguiling selection of tunes that befits the film’s horror genre with two female leads and a plot that unravels the more macabre side to Swinging London. Sandie Shaw’s quirky 1967 Eurovision winner Puppet On A String is the musical backdrop to a demeaning dance routine at a Soho sex club, for instance. Dark and sinister scenes set to lightweight pop has been an effective directorial device since David Lynch had sleazy Dean Stockwell lip sync to Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet, followed later by the torture scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in which psycho slasher Michael Madsen finishes his gruesome work to the sound of Stuck in the Middle with You. Listening to this MOR classic sung by the late Gerry Rafferty has never been the same.
The winner: Edgar Wright with Last Night In Soho (Mondo Music)
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