Music is an essential component of filmmaking. It adds a layer of expression beyond words. A soundtrack (music or sounds), can envelop an audience in a particular mood. Indeed, creating an atmosphere is truly a work of art and certainly not a given in every film. Crafting a soundtrack is challenging, as it must not distract while also melding into the storytelling. Sometimes songs and sounds are too overt, calling more attention to itself than the action on the screen. Other times, the sounds are predictable and generic, making the audience all too aware of what is to come— enter the high-pitched soprano and some piano chords in D-minor to elicit tears, or the dissonant noises warning the heroine not to go there right before her throat gets slashed. Yes, all cinephiles know these commonplace sounds all too well. I can think of even more examples of sounds gone wrong or feeling too generic, which is why a good soundtrack is worth celebrating. This list represents a small taste of what an important character sounds can play in every film, and how they elevate our experience.
1. Lost in Translation
Sofia Coppola has a gifted ear when it comes to soundtracks. In Lost in Translation, we learn about the inner workings of confused souls in troubled relationships and about Japan! Rare new, ethereal solo music by dream pop pioneer Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine evokes a brilliant sense of lonely ennui of Scarlett Johansson‘s character. The sounds evoke the longing you feel being in a different country, and the contradictory emotions you find when being at a crossroads— from stillness to rapid-fire boom bips of the pachinko parlor. This is also a rare occasion to find the amazing Bill Murray singing Roxy Music at a Karaoke bar. How could it get any better?
Here’s another one of my favorite tracks on the soundtrack by Air, a band that worked closely with Coppola to score her debut feature, the Virgin Suicides:
Richard Ayoade’s 2010 film is a fantastic coming-of-age story, funny and complicated, complete with original music by Alex Turner of Arctic Monkey’s fame. The soft and melodious sound of Turner’s songs compliment the plot wherein Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) faces a mission to save his parents’ marriage and lose his virginity— an almost epic journey for a 15-year-old. Turner’s lyrics complement this saga in a soft way. For instance, in “Hiding Tonight,” Turner’s husky voice whispers: “Tomorrow I’ll be faster/I’ll catch what I’ve been chasing after/And have time to play/But I’m quite alright hiding today.” Though the lyrics suggest that hopeful bright future we both fear and cannot wait for as we are young, the music evokes a nostalgic feeling. The atmospheric quality this soundtrack brings to Submarine translates so well into living life.
Listen here to “Hiding Tonight” from that soundtrack:
3. Old Joy
Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 small indie film Old Joy has the ability to transport the viewer into that wild terrain of unspoiled nature and masculine feelings. Old Joy captures the friendship between Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham, a noted indie musician himself) who take a trip in the forest of the Pacific Northwest. The film is heavy with sorrow, regret and unsaid things that have mounted between these two men. Much of the genius of this film comes from an atmospheric quality. There are turbulent waters under the bridge between these two friends. The soundtrack by Yo La Tengo has a nostalgic quality, an instrumental rendering that elevates the film into that feeling of “Old Joy.” The album, They Shoot, We Score compiles the music from Old Joy, as well as Junebug, Game 6 and Shortbus, so it’s a one-stop-shop for Yo La Tengo fans or independent film buffs.
Here’s my favorite track from that album, which if you’re feeling any stress, you can just listen to and let it melt away:
Melding with the storytelling, this soundtrack provides somewhat of an insight into the mind of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman). For instance, the sprightly notes of “the Hardest Geometry Problem in the World” by Mark Mothersbaugh are reminiscent of Max’s scheming designs to open a million-dollar project to build an aquarium at Rushmore Academy to win a teacher’s heart. Mothersbaugh, of Devo fame, is in charge of most of the score with original instrumental music that truly adds to the action on screen. The rest of the songs give us a way into Max Fisher’s personality, the prep school reject who is also into writing theatrical plays, is also seriously partial to British pop, including the Who, the Kinks and even the Creation. The compilation plays like a fun mixtape that has some imaginative breaks at the hands of Mothersbaugh.
Here’s my favorite track from that album:
5. The Squid and the Whale
Noah Baumbach’s 2005 family saga is full of drama, black humor and great music. Less rock and roll than the previous albums on this list, the Squid and the Whale soundtrack has a more folky vibe with songs from Bert Jansch, Kate and Anna McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III. The original music comes courtesy of Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham, best known for headlining the indie band Luna or as the duo Dean and Britta. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this couple of musicians can write music so well for the complicated relationship between the two recently divorced writers depicted on screen.
Here’s my favorite track from that album (R.I.P. Lou Reed):
What are some of your favorite soundtracks? What is it about music and film that moves us beyond our lived experience? Leave a comment below!