The soundtrack of my life

I just saw the special music trailer of Cameron Crowe's latest, Elisabethtown. In it, Cameron Crowe explains how to him music is crucial to movies, and that the package of notes he had for the film's music was thicker than the script. This only makes it all the more surprising that the result of this hard labour is, well, unsurprising. Granted, I liked finding Ryan Adams on the list, but there would have been more interesting Ryan Adams songs to choose. Aside from that, it's some beatlesque songs, some sacharine pop, and, of course, a lot of slightly bland, melancholy songs. Tom Petty? Come on. And while Crowe rants against original music in the trailer, why then did Nancy Wilson contribute so much music for it?

Now, I can already hear the next objection, namely, are melancholy, slightly bland songs not what I listen to most? While I would object to the bland part, it's true, but music for a movie needs to be a bit more than that, needs to be a little unexpected. In my humble opinion, music needs to be a bit unexpected in a film to have full effect, needs to provoke a little, call up associations you wouldn't necessarily had had with the images alone.

To be entirely honest, I still need to find out what exactly it is that people love about Crowe. Singles was ok, but already so dated. Jerry Maguire? Amusing enough, some strong scenes, but overall just too cute. Vanilla Sky? Although I liked the music in that film, the original was better, and even that explained things to much at the end, made them both prosaic and unrealistic. Admittedly, I haven't seen Almost Famous, but a unitmate has it on DVD, so I will as soon as I find the time, maybe that will change my opinion. So far, I reserve judgment about whether Crowe is worth all the fuss.

I'm not saying putting together a terrific soundtrack is easy.I'm just surprised that Crowe is known for it, emphasises that aspect of his films so much. What do I find good soundtracks then? (Sidenote: I will not talk about musicals here, as they fall in an entirely different category)

First of all, I like soundtracks by (mainly) just one artist. And by artists, I mean people who don't usually compose for films. Example of the above are the soundtrack Air made for The Virgin Suicides, for example, or the soundtrack Belle & Sebastian made for Storytelling. The soundtrack Badly Drawn Boy made for About a Boy could not have been more perfect. The inverse, when directors use songs by a certain artist as a template for their film, works too: Aimee Mann's songs existed before PTA made Magnolia, but now they are impossible to separate from one another.

I'm not saying the only good soundtracks are by one artist, but those by one artist seem to have a higher probability of being good. Making an amalgam of songs fit well too the movie and fit well together is much harder, and even if this is achieved, the soundtrack sometimes falls just short of greatness. The soundtracks for Garden State and Lost in Translation for example are filled with beautiful songs that fit the mood of the film perfectly and that fit well together, but as a total both get bogged down too much in emo, and the songs are a bit too alike sometimes. Wonderboys pulled it off, with a collection of wonderful singer-songwriter songs, but was almost too repetitive.

I think there are at the moment only two true masters when it comes to choosing songs for the movies and making it theirs, making it impossible to imagine any other song in a certain scene than the one they chose. The first is Wes Anderson. and he's getting better with every movie. He has a knack for finding totally obscure music that you can grow to love, from baroque pieces to portugese covers of Bowie songs (by Seu Jorge) to Satie to songs by Bob Dylan in his more obscure periods. And all this music fits in with the movies perfectly, are an inherent part of what makes Wes Anderson's world so peculiar, but still familiar from one movie to the next.

The second master is, of course, Quentin Tarantino. Who can hear "Stuck in the Middle with You" now without seeing Michael Madsen? "Miserlou" without thinking of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny? And all songs for Kill Bill have been used now for commercials and TV shows, sometimes to strange effect: the horror movie tune Darryl Hannah wistles was used in a idealistic commercial for a family car. With Tarantino, it even goes so far that because I saw Kill Bill II before I finally saw The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Morricone's soundtrack felt a little out of place in the latter film.

I agree with Crowe that music adds something to seeing a film, can make the experience of seeing a film unforgettable. But I also think that for it to do that sometimes takes some unconventional choices.


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