Sunday, November 7, 2010

Music in the Films of P.T. Anderson

P.T. Anderson is one of the best filmmakers working today, and one of the reasons that his films are effective is that the director is so creative in his use of music.  Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997) is a panorama of the late 70s/early 80s San Fernando Valley porn scene and has a soundtrack full of hits from that eraThe film has an energy that comes from a constantly roaming camera and non-stop music that transitions from 70s disco and R&B to 80s pop.  It often feels like the movie is one long musical montage showing the passage of time and making sure that we always know what each character is up to.  This isn't particularly original, but Anderson's genius in Boogie Nights is in the song choices.  Consider the opening scene set to The Emotions' "Best of My Love."  This disco tune perfectly sets the scene of the film - it is pulsing, rhythmic, and fun. In a long take worthy of Orson Welles, the music draws us in and captures the optimism and care-free nature of the characters.

Another fantastic scene elevated to perfection by music occurs towards the conclusion of Boogie Nights.  Now in the 1980s, fallen porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and his two associates (played by John C. Reilly and Thomas Jane) attempt to complete a drug deal at the home of an unhinged dealer (Alfred Molina).  The three strung-out rubes are forced to nervously wait while the dealer is preoccupied smoking a crack pipe and singing along to his stereo blasting "Sister Christian" by Night Ranger.  The song, with its slow piano intro and emerging drum beat building to a loud chorus, acts like the tightening of a vice, increasing the tension of the scene.  Then, the song is cut off thanks to a bad mix-tape (a brilliant touch by Anderson) and segues into the more rocking "Jessie's Girl" by Rick Springfield.  By this point, the tension has become unbearable.  Of course, the fact that the dealer's Chinese houseboy keeps randomly tossing firecrackers throughout the scene doesn't help.

Anderson's next film Magnolia (1999) also has a great soundtrack, but this time he uses only songs by the laconic Aimee Mann.  This keeps the mood appropriately somber as she croons such depressing songs as "One is the Loneliest Number" in her dry style.  These omnipresent tunes become a literal part of the action during a scene in which all of the characters simultaneously sing along to the soundtrack.

In 2002's Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson relies less heavily on the soundtrack and more on the instrumental score.  Naturally, he works with his composer Jon Brion to create a score unlike any that I've heard.  It is at times old-fashioned with a big string love melody that sounds like a Hollywood movie from the 1930s.  However, in some scenes, Brion switches to a strange percussive dissonance that plays in odd atonal patterns that threaten to drown out the dialogue.

The director does throw in an odd soundtrack choice to Punch-Drunk Love: he uses the thoroughly bizarre and repetitive song "He Needs Me" from Robert Altman's 1980 version of Popeye sung by Shelley Duvall.  Somehow, Anderson makes this endearing as opposed to completely annoying, perhaps because the love story between Adam Sandler and Emily Watson is the same mixture of sweet and odd.

Most recently , P.T. Anderson uses another unusual score from an unlikely source in There Will Be Blood (2007).  Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood composed the music for this film set in the early part of the 20th century and the score is fresh and exhilarating.  It drives the film and gives There Will be Blood much of its strange power.

It is amazing to me how confident Anderson is in the music choices that he makes. On paper, this all sounds pretty ridiculous (I haven't met too many people who hear Shelly Duvall's voice and think "I want to hear more of that!"), but when paired with his amazing camerawork, the music enhances the image, which of course is the entire point of music in film.

1 comment:

  1. I'd never heard "He needs me" before seeing this movie, but I've been enamored with it ever since... never leaves my ipod!