The most memorable moments of any Wes Anderson film are often inseparable from the accompanying music.
Anderson’s long-time music supervisor Randall Poster told Rolling Stone that, “sometimes we start working on the music before there is even a script” and indeed, during the development of many characters, music has played a key role. While each Wes Anderson film has a different musical fingerprint, there are threads that are common amongst most of the soundtracks that give all his films an idiosyncratic air of mutinous whimsy and introspective melancholia. Here’s our attempt at pulling them together to form a guide to Wes Anderson’s unique musical worlds.
Originally, Anderson wanted to score the entire Rushmore film with songs by The Kinks. They played “loud, angry, teenage rock songs, and they wore blazers and ties” perfectly suiting Max Fischer, the protagonist who is rarely seen without his Rushmore uniform or an equally dapper outfit. The Kinks, like Chad & Jeremy, Unit 4+2, The Faces, The Rolling Stones and The Who were part of the British Invasion, and create a common thread in Anderson’s earlier films including The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic. While the early Brit-rock music decreases in later films, the sentiment remains. The well-dressed, mild-mannered firebrand, about to break loose is a quality you’ll find in all of Anderson’s most beloved characters and scenes from Max Fischer and Hermann Blume to Mr Fox and Monsieur Gustav.
Bossa Nova Bowie
The Life Aquatic is Anderson’s homage to French diving pioneer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Steve Zissou is on a quest to find the elusive jaguar shark on board the Bellafonte. Music supervisor Randall Poster revealed to Rolling Stone that, “on Sundays, Wes and I would meet so I could read the new script pages. And one day there was a line that read, ‘Pelé comes on deck and sings a David Bowie song in Portuguese.’ That was it.”
His fifth feature, The Darjeeling Limited is set in India and tells the story of three brothers trying to reconnect after their father’s death. The Kinks do feature in this soundtrack but the majority of the music comprises scored music from the films of Merchant Ivory and Satyajit Ray. This use of authentic Indian film music sets an ambience of spiritual depth amongst chaos and disorder, for the brothers and their journey.
The Jazz Influence
Whether it’s teenage seduction, wrap-parties, reconciliations or celebrations, scattered amongst Anderson’s films are a cherry-picked selection of jazz classics. From Vincent Guaraldi, and Yves Montard to Art Tatum and Zoot Sims, while only peppered lightly throughout the films they add undeniable charm and elegance to each film. Tellingly, his first ever film, Bottle Rocket, features a jazz-heavy score.
Folk Heroes & Singer-Songwriters
Wes Anderson films are characterised by their naïve charm and bittersweet fusion of playful whimsy and melancholy, so the music of Nick Drake, Peter Sarstedt, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Elliot Smith, Joan Baez, The Wellingtons and Emitt Rhodes feels right at home in any of his films. Handled with poignant precision throughout the narratives, these songs create emotional depths and set the pace, whether it be idle contemplations or crazy capers.
Mark Mothersbaugh's Whimsy Collages
Co-founder, lead singer and keyboardist of new wave band Devo, Mark Mothersbaugh also composed the score of Wes Anderson’s first four films from Bottle Rocket to The Life Aquatic and collaborated with Alexandre Desplat for part of the Moonrise Kingdom score. His signature sound for Anderson’s films is an unlikely marriage of pizzicato strings, harpsichord, glockenspiel and big drums; significantly contributing to the world-sound of Wes Anderson.
The Stylism of Alexandre Desplat
French film composer Alexandre Desplat has scored all the later Wes Anderson films from Fantastic Mr Fox to the upcoming Isle of Dogs. While the style and instrumentation remained loyal to Mothersbaugh’s vision for Fantastic Mr Fox, Desplat developed a more unique sound for Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Winning an Academy Award for the original score for The Grand Budapest Hotel, Desplat still dips into the pizzicato strings, glockenspiel and harpsichord, but for this soundtrack a Russian folk orchestra performed the music that drew heavily on Russian folk music and developed its signature sound from balalaikas and the cimbalom.
Art of Noye's
While many of his films and characters grew from a musical kernel, “sometimes” as Anderson writes, “the music comes first.” Moonrise Kingdom centres completely around one suite of music and one composer, Noye’s Fludde by Benjamin Britten. Intended for amateur performers, particularly children, Anderson once played an otter in his school’s performance of the one-act opera in 1979 and it was this experience – coupled with the music, that created the Moonrise world.
Poster told Pitchfork that, even before script or even storyline was produced, Wes knew he wanted to do something with Britten’s Noye’s Fludde: “I’ve worked with Wes on all his movies, and there’s usually a song or musical moment that becomes this seed from which the whole story grows… when Wes points you in a direction, you know it’s going to be like water in a desert, something you want to jump into really deeply.”