Readers wary of spoilers should be forewarned, this close look at the use of Eno’s music in the Lovely Bones will lead to certain key revelations in plot points.
In an interview by Sheila Roberts, Peter Jackson, director of the Lovely Bones, reveals that an idea to license a couple of Eno songs for a period soundtrack lead to something much grander when Eno offered his services to score the film instead. “He said to us, have you got a composer to do the soundtrack? And we said no, not really … and then he said he would be really interested in doing it. If we wanted to go that way, he sort of volunteered, which was amazing to us.”
Not only did Eno offer his services as a composer, but he allowed Jackson to chop up his music, which included some of his long-existing 70s-era work in addition to lengthy, original compositions he put together based on concept sketches Jackson shared with him (again, see interview). “It was a completely different way to how we’ve ever worked with a composer before,” Jackson said. “But, for this particular movie, both the sound and the style of working really ended up suiting the film great.”
Eno’s gracious gesture to allow the filmmaker to edit the music indeed adds a deeper dimension to the compatibility of music and mise-en-scene in the movie. I found the empowerment of the director to manipulate the music as he saw fit to the drama added to the impact of the scenes featuring music.
Recognizing Eno originals at the beginning of the movie made for a fun sequence setting up Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan)’s personality. Jackson utilizes the sporadic, minimal piano melody of “1/1” from 1978’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports during the scene when a very young Susie (Saoirse Ronan) wistfully stares at a penguin figurine “living” inside a snow globe. Then there was the scene featuring the throbbing bass line and the harsh driving guitar strums of “Third Uncle” from 1974’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) when Susie saves her brother from choking by taking him in the family car to the hospital.
Those sequences were a fine and entertaining contrast to the music, which hinted at the dramatic potential in Eno’s established works, but the real powerful uses of Eno’s music would come later in the film. Interestingly enough both of these moments featured songs Jackson had intended to use on the soundtrack before contacting Eno. “There were two or three of Brian Eno’s existing tracks that made it onto our list,” Jackson said in the Roberts interview. “‘Babies on Fire’ (sic) was one that we always thought would be great to accompany the scene where Mack goes into the cornfield with a baseball bat. There was an instrumental that he did called ‘The Big Ship,’ which was another beautiful piece of music that we had planned on using.”
The music of “Baby’s on Fire” from 1973’s Here Come the Warm Jets creeps up on you during the scene Jackson mentions featuring Mack (Mark Wahlberg) following the man he correctly suspects is his daughter’s killer (Stanley Tucci), Mr. Harvey. As Mack ducks behind trees wielding the bat, a strange buzzing can be heard on the soundtrack. It would appear sporadically, as Mack got closer and closer, until I could recognize it as the fractured guitar solo by Robert Fripp on the track. The song actually grew from the sound of insect noises to the full-on, frantic guitar part of “Baby’s on Fire,” which, knowing Eno and his “oblique” production strategies, probably came from him asking Fripp for a solo that imitates the sound of a raging fire. The scene climaxes when Mack stumbles across two teens making out, and the boy takes the bat from Mack and beats him so bad he needs to be hospitalized, all the while, the famous Fripp solo is burning across the soundtrack.
Jackson uses “Big Ship” from 1975’s Another Green World (a rock album I consider one of the greatest ever composed in the history of the genre, by the way) during the climax of the movie. As Harvey tries to unload a large, heavy safe containing Susie’s bones, the community’s young resident psychic, sitting inside a shack overlooking the scene, channels Susie as she kisses the boy who would have been Susie’s first kiss. It’s a chaotic song featuring a quiet but hyper keyboard melody that shimmers, as deep swells of synthesizers grow from soft distant whistles to what sound like deep, slow growling guitar lines (though no guitars are credited on the track, just synthesizers– man, did those early 70s synths sound other-worldly). The song truly sounds like a large ship emerging from some foggy horizon. It certainly fits the slow-motion tension underlying the scene that actually becomes an ironic moment of sentimentality. Susie forgoes the opportunity to communicate to the real world that her murderer stands just outside the shack to instead have that kiss she never had while alive.
I have heard Eno’s music in several films before the Lovely Bones, offering great surprises to hear in the dark movie theater. In Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, an incidental scene features “By This River” from Eno’s 1977 album Before and After Science playing on the protagonists’ car stereo. When David Bowie refused to allow Todd Haynes to use his music in his movie Velvet Goldmine, which was loosely based on Bowie’s life in the 70s, Haynes turned to Eno for some of the tracks. Still, even with Eno’s music playing a direct part of the story in Velvet Goldmine, no other movie that I have seen featuring Eno’s music has been used to greater effect than in the manner Jackson has used it in his underrated effort in the Lovely Bones.
Edit: As this is one of Independent Ethos’ most popular posts, I felt inclined to up-date this to note that the Eno fansite, Enoweb has noted his 2010 solo album Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon) includes some of the score he had exclusively composed for the Lovely Bones.
*I had read the movie reviews warning of the overwrought sentimentality of the film, and after seeing the film, I feel it is a valid point. But I also feel inclined to forgive it as, well, film critics were hardly ever 14-year-old girls, and I think the “in-between” segments of the film have to be informed by the naïve mentality of a young teen girl to be believable.