Guest Blogger: Derek Hill on the Musicology of Wes Anderson

Derek Hill is the author of the new book Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers, now available in the U.K. (Amazon | Waterstone’s | Blackwell ) and the U.S. ( Amazon ). He has agreed to write several pieces for the Academy.

Wes Anderson’s skillful use of music in his films has no doubt come up on this site before, so I’ll refrain from proselytizing. Along with Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, PT Anderson, and Sofia Coppola, Anderson—working with his longtime musical composer Mark Mothersbaugh (at least up until The Darjeeling Limited) and any of his respective editors—is one of the best practitioners at integrating pop/rock songs into a scene in a way that is memorable and emotionally satisfying. It’s easier said than done, of course. Utilizing songs in lieu of an original score (or in tandem) can be precarious. It can bring out the most wasteful and unimaginative characteristics in a clumsy filmmaker. I’m sure we all have our own list of nefarious culprits who exemplify the worst that the medium can offer up, those lazy directors/composers who send us into catatonia as they slather on yet another saccharine note or bludgeon us into the next theater with their bullying bombastic chords. I’m talking about… well, you know who they are. We all bear the sonic scars.

But when a great filmmaker, composer, and editor gel, it can be a beautiful thing. Below are a few of my own favorite musical moments from Anderson’s films. I refrained from choosing something from The Royal Tenenbaums only because my choice would be the scene of Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) standing in front of the mirror to the accompaniment of Elliot Smith’s “Needle in the Hay.” A harrowing scene and something that felt strange and wrong to take out of dramatic context. And since this isn’t supposed to be a critical evaluation of the scene or the film, I also didn’t want to rob its power from someone who hasn’t seen it yet. There are numerous other wonderful examples of music and montage in the film but alas, that was my choice. For Darjeeling Limited—again a film that has many brilliant moments—I couldn’t find the scene I wanted from the clips available. But I would’ve gone for brevity. The opening moments, in which we see the American businessman (Bill Murray) race through the crowded streets in the taxi cab toward the train station set to the whirlwind music of Ustad Vilayat Khan, is a favorite. I also love the brief music cue (composed by the great Indian director Satyajit Ray) that accompanies the scene where the Whitman brothers race down the hill after that first failed attempt at “spiritual awakening.”

Anyway, here are three of my favorites, taken from Bottle Rocket (Love’s “Along Again or”), Rushmore (The Rolling Stones’ “I Am Waiting”), and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Iggy and The Stooges’ “Search and Destroy”) respectively.

3 Replies to “Guest Blogger: Derek Hill on the Musicology of Wes Anderson”

  1. Two scenes that give me chills just thinking about them, because the music just took the frames over the edge for me, both come from my favorite Anderson film “The Royal Tenenbaums”
    1) Margo’s slow motion exit from the Greenline bus backed by the Jackson Brown song “These Days” as performed by Nico.
    Breathtaking. It’s a classic Anderson shot in slow motion. It’s inspired my own filmmaking. 
    2) The graveside scene, another slow mo at the end, during Royal’s funeral with the Van Morrison track “Everyone”. It was uplifting and darkly comic, just like the characters in the film. Couldn’t have ended that movie any better. 
    A Wes Anderson film with any other score would be just another pretty film. I was transformed after I saw one of his films for the first time.

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