Now is a great time to pay tribute to director Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic narrative movie style, and in particular, his flair for effervescently twee musical moments.
It seems the auteur’s new feature The French Dispatch pivots to the Anderson of the aughts—not because of the old children acting like adults and grown-ups carrying out switcheroos, but because of the return of pop music to chauffeur his vivid escapades.
And they are truly brilliant. Filled with slow-motion walking shots, a deliberately-limited color palette, and hand-made art direction that often utilizes miniatures, Anderson’s work has been cited as that of a modern-day neorealist. For over 25 years, his films have hit cinematic milestones, helping to reshape the third act of Bill Murray’s career, making Owen and Luke Wilson stars, and reviving interest in J.D. Salinger.
But most importantly for our purposes is his serious commitment to music in his movies. His use of pop music from the 1960s and ’70s creates a private world where quirky statutes and Bad Dads rule the roost.
For those in the cheap seats or not hip-to-film nerd speak, “needle drop” is slang used in the film industry to describe when a pre-existing song is used in a movie as a scene or shot’s focal point. Sophia Coppola generally uses it to perform the function of an additional character, or as a Sneaky Pete way of adding unspoken dialogue to a scene. Wes, when he’s in his bag, opts to unveil the worlds into which he is dropping viewers via a introductory song. Anderson’s settings, locations, characters, and the environments from which they often try so desperately to escape come to life via the use of a little-known track, or a new twist on an older cut.
Quite possibly, Wesley Wales Anderson stole the needle drop crown from Sophia after she swiped it from Quentin, who scallywagged it away from Spike.
All four directors use the power of independent film to shape a new cinematic language and culture, frame by frame. These storytellers dragged the future of film so far into the present that the antiquated Hollywood machine could no longer say no.
(Mission District director Lissette Feliciano’s film Women Is Losers, inspired by the Janis Joplin song of the same title [and which debuted on HBO MAX this week] is a perfect example of why the power of independent film remains immeasurable—even today. But I digress.)
Today, let’s toast and celebrate some of the best Anderson music-movie magic. Action stations!
THE WEST COAST POP ART EXPERIMENTAL BAND’S ”I WON’T HURT YOU” IN ISLE OF DOGS
The magic of this B-side from the début 1966 single by Los Angeles-based psychedelic group The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band becomes the melancholic construct in 2018’s Isle of Dogs. The gangly declaration of protection with a heartbeat rhythm is the sonic emotional center of Anderson’s second stop-animation film to date, and presents a fleeting shard of vulnerability somewhere between humor and fear. As Courtney B. Vance narrates, the camera casually details the layout of Trash Island. As the song’s gentle declaration makes its presence known, talking dogs speak of a previous life.
DAVID BOWIE’S “LIFE ON MARS?” IN THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU
This is a big movie moment, a signature Anderson shot. Bill Murray plays the regretful, titular Steve Zissou, the eccentric oceanographer who sets out to exact revenge on the jaguar shark that ate his partner Esteban. In this ginormous shot that sees our protagonist take a second for a quick “spliff,” those thunderous Bowie drums keep bouncing off the cinema walls, as “Stevezy” gets lost, just for a beat, in the smoke.
DAVID BOWIE’S “QUEEN BITCH” IN THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU
This film gives good audio. In a novel cinematic curtain call, we get to see the entire cast from The Life Aquatic posse back up, walking toward the ship as a cohesive unit. The moment is epic because it recalls the fuzzy anecdotes often shared about Anderson sets. According to folklore, once the business of the day is complete, the entire cast of his movies enjoys a nightly feast.
“What I like to do is go to a place and have us all live there and become a real local sort of production, like a little theater company—everything works better for me that way,” said Anderson in a recent New York Times article.
This ending delivers that warmth.
NICO’S “THESE DAYS” IN THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS
It’s impossible for me not to think of the Green Line Bus when I hear this track. With the visual of Gwenyth Paltrow’s Margot stepping off a bus in slow motion, walking toward Luke Wilson’s moody former tennis champ Ricky, Anderson stuns time. All the information you need to know about these characters’ feelings for one another is on display.
In his magnum opus about a family of geniuses who lose their bearings once their parents split, Anderson pulled inspiration from his real life. On the DVD commentary, he admits his own mother was an archeologist, just like Angelica Houston’s Ethel Tenenbaum.
THE CREATION’S “MAKING TIME” IN RUSHMORE
Wes went crate-digging for this beloved film. For the longest time, I thought the song in question was by The Who—nope. Do your research! It’s a little-known band called The Creation that allows us into the many activities of Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer.
In a minute and change, we find out this precocious 15-year-old is jamming his life with numerous activities, trying to numb some trauma. And yes, that is an earlier shot of Bryan Cox, previous to becoming Logan Roy of Succession fame.
THE KINKS’ “NOTHIN’ IN THE WORLD CAN STOP ME WORRYIN’ ‘BOUT THAT GIRL” IN RUSHMORE
Another double dose. I have assurances from numerous shopkeepers of record stores around the world, that Wes Anderson jump-started a newfound interest in The Kinks off the strength of this terrific vignette starring the masterful Bill Murray.
His character in Rushmore, Herman Blume, has a pair of twins—rich spoiled idiots—who he in fact despises. In this scene, he wrests familial power from the evil seeds, his wife who is likely tiptoeing around with the tennis instructor, and all other onlookers.
Wearing a Budweiser bathing suit and full Dad-bod while he swigs scotch, Murray takes a cannonball leap off the diving board. With a cigarette butt lodged in corner of his mouth, he splashes everything he loathes for our maximum yucks. Underneath the scary green pool water, we observe the toll of that emptiness.