The “Garden State” soundtrack is not an album. It’s Zach Braff’s iPod shuffle.

Steven Neff
Courtesy of Touchstone (Courtesy of Touchstone)

The art of compiling a soundtrack is similar to sewing a patchwork quilt – songs must be culled from the sprawling body of a film and stitched into a coherent work that makes sense in its overall presentation. The task is complex, and more often than not we end up with a gaudy piece of pop pastiche that continues to deteriorate with repeated listens (take “Garden State” as a case in point).

Zach Braff took a handful of wonderful songs and carelessly sandwiched them between inferior folk knock-offs and awkward pop rockers. Bonnie Somerville, Colin Hay and Cary Brothers supply the major land mines of the record, consistently disintegrating any pleasure derived from the other tunes. Nick Drake’s humble “One of These Things First” gets cozy with Remy Zero and Thievery Corporation, while Colin Hay provides the mind-numbing coda for a pair of Shins tunes.

The frightening part of this whole situation is that Mr. Braff’s foray into the art of album assembly is probably better than 95 percent of what gets released. Major studios pump out bargain-bin fodder faster than they can write actors’ royalty checks, leading the youth of America to get their first soundtrack experiences from “The Cookout” rather than “Midnight Cowboy.”

But fear not young moviegoers, for as Leonard Cohen once said: “There are heroes in the seaweed.”

Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola come from a new school of filmmakers whose pop-based soundtracks are not only cohesive musical works, but foundations upon which their characters and plots are built.

The Creation’s freak-beat anthem “Making Time” perfectly encapsulates all the arrogance and nervous energy found in Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), the teenaged focal point of Anderson’s 1998 parochial masterpiece “Rushmore”. Ornamented by Mark Mothersbaugh’s idiosyncratic film-score snippets, the soundtrack is a whimsical compilation of folk-pop gems of the ’60s and ’70s. It plays like a great album is supposed to; songs fit side by side, an overall texture is established and there is a clear narrative arc that parallels the characters’ tumultuous relationships.

Anderson refined his approach with 2001’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which relied more heavily on Mothersbaugh’s virtuosic scoring talents to provide the film with a surreal take on classical film composition. Nico served as the movie’s musical narrator with “These Days” and “The Fairest of The Seasons” appearing at crucial points in the story’s development. The suicide attempt and subsequent hospital escape of ex-tennis pro Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) is the most poignant and thoughtful combination of film and music Anderson has yet created. Blood flows down Richie’s arms as the incessant strums of Elliot Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” quietly overtakes the picture. An awkward family hospital visit ensues, but he soon leaves and finds himself on a large green bus sailing through the aging city streets to the baroque majesty of Nick Drake’s “Fly.”

Sofia Coppola has a tendency to lean toward more ambient soundscapes, drawing heavily from shoegaze and electronica artists. “Lost In Translation” makes exquisite use of My Bloody Valentine’s “Sometimes” in a late night cab ride scene between Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson) and Bob (Bill Murray). Walls of guitar seem to cascade over the Tokyo skyline, creating a contemplative bed of sound over which the unlikely couple can ponder their future. The “Lost In Translation” album, like Anderson’s best work, is extremely well paced and meticulously compiled.

The key to Coppola and Anderson’s effectiveness as album curators is a combination of their keen musical tastes and the restraint that is demonstrated in their choice of songs. They mine musical territory that is intimately connected with their stories and will often film scenes with a pre-planned soundtrack. Both stick closely to a genre or texture and rarely employ material that breaks from the established theme.

A great film soundtrack is not just a mixtape, it’s a fully realized work intimately connected with the movie from which it came. It can transport you from the mundane reality of everyday life into a surreal world of colorful characters and escapist fantasy.

So the next time you are stuck in a grad library carrel studying for some inconsequential exam, flip on “The Royal Tenenbaums” soundtrack, look out your window and watch Ann Arbor become a whole lot more romantic than you ever thought it could be.

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