Joaquin Phoenix

“That’s Just a Good Sound”: Paul Thomas Anderson on the Music in His Movies

Glenn Kenny

By Glenn Kenny

on 12.12.14 in Features
‘Most of the crew hadn’t heard ["He Needs Me"] before. And boom, right as I played it over the footage, the crew was like, ‘I fucking get what movie we’re making now, I wish you’d played this earlier.’’

Early in Inherent Vice, the latest film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson — and the first authorized film adaptation of a novel by American literary giant Thomas Pynchon — the lead character Larry “Doc” Sportello stands out in the street in his small beach town, befuddled as he looks for someone who’s receding into the distance. As the shot holds him in a medium close-up, the song “Vitamin C” by the venerated German psychedelic combo Can comes on the soundtrack. An insistent stumbling drum beat and a bass line that zig-zags, it’s a nervous song, and the vocals by the group’s then lead singer, Japanese-born Damo Suzuki, carry appropriate anguish. I’ve always considered Suzuki’s lyrics on Can songs as little more than ESL-free associations, but in the context of Doc’s interactions with his now semi-kept-woman ex-lover Shasta, the line “she is living in and out of tune” has a very specific ring in the shot, as does Damo’s repeated cry “Hey you! You’re losing, you’re losing, you’re losing, you’re losing your vitamin C!”

“I have no fucking idea what the lyrics are on about in ‘Vitamin C,’ but they sure feel good,” said Anderson in a recent e-mail exchange. “The most important things in that song are the groove and the paranoia. What a combination!”

The song-based film soundtrack was arguably pioneered, as far as contemporary narrative movies are concerned, by Martin Scorsese in 1972′s Mean Streets. And Scorsese cites Kenneth Anger’s underground classic Scorpio Rising — which amusingly juxtaposed footage of Jesus from the silent King of Kings with The Crystals’ “He’s A Rebel” — as a principle influence. In the 1990s, Scorsese-influenced directors like Anderson and Quentin Tarantino and another Anderson, Wes, displayed a new eloquence in melding the languages of music and film, cutting and pasting from favorite songs and past film scores and blending in new music to achieve effects that bring to mind the great director Michael Powell’s ideal of a “composed film.” For Paul Thomas Anderson, music is an almost constant part of his creative process, from the writing onward. I asked him the extent to which he has pieces of music in mind for a scene as he’s conceiving it. “It varies,” he said. “Sometimes there’s a sense that there’s definitely going to be a song, and most of those sequences are pretty obvious. Like the firecracker scene in Boogie Nights: that’s gotta be built around something, because a character’s going to be singing along to it. So I had to know the rhythm of it early on.

“It’s often a matter of having a rhythm in my head that I carry around for a while. There was one that I sort of sang out to [composer] Jon Brion on Punch Drunk Love, a waltzy kind of pattern, in which I was timing something out and giving him a tempo. I’ll do that quite often.”

Anderson has the knack of being able to choose the most unlikely, but absolutely correct, song to change the stress of a scene. As in, for instance, the unexpectedly touching introduction of the Beach Boys‘ “God Only Knows” during a late-film montage in Boogie Nights. That movie’s score has an almost operatic narrative arc in and of itself, and at the time of its production, Anderson’s nerves were racked over song permissions. In an interview I conducted with him for Premiere magazine at the time, he told me that he knew that Electric Light Orchestra‘s “Livin’ Thing” was, in his mind, the only song with which to end the film. But he had heard through the grapevine that the song’s writer, Jeff Lynne, might have some issues with Boogie Nights‘ graphic subject matter. Anderson sweated out a screening of a three-hour cut of the movie for Lynne in the projection booth — and was overjoyed when Lynne gave his approval of both the film and the song’s use in it.

Another prominent song in the movie was easier to come by: “The Touch,” which Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler and John C. Reilly’s Reed Rothchild, porn studs and wannabe rock stars, mutilate during a recording session. The Stan Bush song was originally featured on the soundtrack of the 1986 animated Transformers movie, notorious, among other things, for being the last motion picture to which Orson Welles lent his talents (he was the voice of Unicron). “Buying the soundtrack to the Transformers movie was the first time I ever bought something for no good reason,” Anderson recalls. “Well, no, there was a good reason: the album was 50 cents and I remember thinking that was a bargain, because there’s got to be something worth hearing on this weird soundtrack.” In recent months observant cinephiles have noted the amusing coincidence that Wahlberg recently played the lead in, yes, a Transformers movie. “I think “The Touch” is the opening track on that soundtrack,” Anderson says, “and I sure got my money’s worth! ‘The Touch’ is the gift that keeps on giving. It has legs, clearly.”

Anderson’s first feature, 1996′s Hard Eight, a nerve-wracking oblique neo-noir that deserves to be more of a modern classic than it already is, gave Anderson an object lesson in letting go when working with a composer, in this case singer/songwriter Michael Penn. “The idea to work with Michael was just based on loving his records, and the instrumentation on them. I loved the sound of the Chamberlin [the electronic keyboard, a precursor to the mellotron] and how [frequent Penn collaborator] Patrick Warren would play it on those records. In my mind, that was a nice sound for Hard Eight. I had other ideas relating to jazz — vibraphone-based stuff. When that [type of music] was being used in movies around that time, it was being done a lot, and quite badly. Not everyone can be Chico Hamilton or Bobby Hutcherson. I was also really taken with the film music of French composer Paul Misraki. I had admired the scores of his films with director Jean-Pierre Melville, particularly Bob Le Flambeur, and Le Doulos. When I was about to make Hard Eight, I had a Misraki best-of compilation, with music from movies that I hadn’t even seen, and that stuff was great. Once I had Michael on board, he wanted to bring in Jon Brion. Jon was also a Chamberlin freak and an all-around genius for orchestrations.

‘The centerpiece of the movie was always “He Needs Me,” the Harry-Nilsson-composed song from Robert Altman’s Popeye, which is sung by Shelley Duvall in the role of Olive Oyl. It’s unreal how good that song is, and how well Shelley Duvall sings it. It was completely inspiring.’

“I had laid a lot of temp stuff in the film. Some Booker T and the MGs; a version of Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” (the Boney M cover of which of which did end up in Boogie Nights); there was some Thomas Newman stuff; he’s amazing with all those simple repetitive chords, and I think at the time I was really taken with what he had done on Unstrung Heroes. Once Michael and Jon and Patrick were working together, they tried stuff that was similar, and some of that stayed in the score. But things started to get more exciting when they brought new sounds, and started working with these eccentric instruments. Michael created a piece on the Marxophone, which is a fretless zither. A great piece was done on an Optigon, which worked on a similar principle to a mellotron, but used optical film sound tracks rather than audiotape. This was the biggest thrill: to hear new sounds not based on pre-conceived ideas I had. They managed to live up to the standards I’d created in my head — the movie scores that I wanted the music of Hard Eight to live up to: The Hustler, Chico Hamilton’s stuff from The Sweet Smell of Success. I finally got to use a Chico Hamilton piece, ‘The Sage,’ in Boogie Nights.”

Anderson describes working with Jon Brion on his fourth feature, Punch Drunk Love, as “A special process. It was the first full-blown score we did. It grew out of hard work and long wrestling matches with a million ideas. Which started, in a sense, with the harmonium, or pump organ, that Barry [played by Adam Sandler] finds and learns how to play in the movie. This got us working before we started shooting and extended into the editing.

“But the centerpiece of the movie was always ‘He Needs Me,’” the Harry-Nilsson-composed song from Robert Altman’s Popeye, which is sung by Shelley Duvall in the role of Olive Oyl. We were able to get hold of the original multi-track recordings, which were done down in Malta. It’s unbelievable stuff. They had so many tracks and had players play out of tune and out of time to add to the broken, hand made quality of that song. It’s unreal how good that song is, and how well Shelley Duvall sings it. It was completely inspiring.

“We were shooting, and it was pretty basic stuff — like, Sandler walking down a hotel hallway, and we were screening the rushes, and I played ‘He Needs Me’ over the rushes. And most of the crew hadn’t heard the song before. And boom, right as I played it over the footage, the crew was like, ‘I fucking get what movie we’re making now, I wish you’d played this earlier.’ It was one of those moments where people respond so strongly to the juxtapositions, it’s a really helpful thing for the crew.”

‘I’d trade all my screenplays for a writing credit on ["Slow Boat to China"]. My ex-old lady Fiona [Apple] sings this song better than anyone.’

It’s also helpful to Anderson. He’s worked with Radiohead guitarist and composer Jonny Greenwood on his last three films: 2007′s There Will Be Blood, 2012′s The Master, and, now, Inherent Vice. In a New York Times Magazine profile of Greenwood, Anderson tells of having been impressed with Greenwood’s work for some time before hearing his orchestral material and approaching him to adapt and expand his “Popcorn Superhet” for the score of Blood. For The Master, Anderson alternates between Greenwood’s score and some very carefully chosen, standard pop songs from the late 1940s and 1950s, the period in which The Master is set. “A lot of the time we were shooting stuff that was silent. So there was a ton of stuff during dailies were there wasn’t a lot of dialogue. So it was very easy to plug the iPod into the speakers and kind of navigate around, whether it was Chico Hamilton again, or weirder stuff. A lot of the songs I kept playing, like ‘You Go To My Head,’ or ‘Two Blind Loves,’ some of which ended up in the movie, some of which didn’t. I remember particularly loving the feeling of ‘Two Blind Loves,’ and just having the knowledge of that song really was useful. There was one classical piece that I can’t remember now, that I’d play during the rushes, and even though it didn’t end up in the movie, it ended up informing how I shaped the mood of one of the beach scenes. So it’s always useful to play with material even if it doesn’t end up being used.” (One song used to startling effect is “Slow Boat to China,” sung in full by Philip Seymour Hoffman at the end of the film. “What can I say? Nothing. Except maybe that I’d trade all my screenplays for a writing credit on that song. My ex-old lady Fiona [Apple] sings this song better than anyone.”

While Anderson probably no longer has to sweat out song approvals the way he had to with Jeff Lynne for Boogie Nights, he’s gotten to a place in his process in which he keeps his options open. “Lately I’ve been thinking that there could be two or three songs that could go in a scene, and let’s see how the scene itself plays out before we set that,” he says. In adapting Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Anderson found himself working with an author whose work has always been highly attuned to music, and who’s been influential on musicians in turn. The musician McClintic Sphere in Pynchon’s debut novel V. is reputedly based on Ornette Coleman; The Insect Trust set one of V.‘s frequent song lyrics to music for a tune on its album Hoboken Saturday Night; British art-rock combo Soft Machine‘s instrumental “Esther’s Nose Job” is named after a chapter in V., and so on. Pynchon’s magnum opus Gravity’s Rainbow is, in a sense a full-fledged musical, with characters breaking into song with some frequency from the first chapter onward. I asked Anderson if Pynchon was perhaps a subterranean influence on the “Wise Up” scene in his third feature Magnolia, in which stanzas of Aimee Mann’s mordant song are voiced by a procession of the film’s suffering characters. “I have to say, if I ever get a do-over on Vice, I would work a Pynchon song into it,” Anderson answered. “As for Magnolia, if I had a do-over for that, I might take the singing out. I know people like it but I’m not sure the movie’s better for it. I could have gotten to them frogs falling a little faster without it. I don’t know that I had Pynchon in the back of my mind when I did it, I just thought, ‘This is a good idea.’”

The music is almost constant in the nearly two-and-a-half hour Vice. Greenwood’s string-driven score has a creamier, more impressionistic feel (practically Debussy-esque) than the work on There Will Be Blood and The Master, both of which show the influence of the great Polish modernist composer Krzysztof Penderecki. “I was looking for [the mood of] a slightly sinister orchestral score from a vintage Warner Brothers studio picture,” Anderson says. As for the eclecticism of the song score, which ranges from the aforementioned Can tune (“the world needs more Can,” Anderson avers) to Neil Young‘s “Harvest” to the Association’s “Never My Love” and much much more, Anderson says, “That range came from Pynchon. Dummy that I am, left on my own I would have just thrown in a lot of ’70s songs. But if you think about it, in the time and place the movie is set, the radio is likely playing a wider variety of stuff than just the current hits.” Some of the older soul, rock-and-roll, and pop songs on the soundtrack, such as Sam Cooke‘s “What A Wonderful World” and the Cascades’ “Rhythm Of The Rain,” songs that the characters in the movie’s early ’70s would have enjoyed as kids or teens, bring a sense of poignant loss to the often wacky proceedings of the stoner detective story, which gets deeper and more unnerving as the movie goes on. “Working from the book, it helped me come from a place where I wasn’t going to try to ‘nail’ the period in such an obvious way. And then there’s just the sound of the songs. ‘Rhythm of the Rain,’ the Cascades song: it just has a really good sound, I love the tinkly instrument that sounds like a cross between a vibraphone and a marching-band xylophone. That’s just a good sound. And I do think the songs make the movie more sentimental, in a good way. There’s a real sweetness to them.”

‘More often than not, I find stuff the strangest ways; one thing leads to another on YouTube, and it’s like, “How did I get here?” Sometimes I’ll go through a phase, when I’m writing, of just closing my eyes, and going to the record store and going to a bin and plucking stuff out.’

Now that he’s almost finished with Vice — up until a couple of weeks ago Anderson was still caught up in it, finalizing the sequencing for the movie’s soundtrack album — the director says he’s “looking forward to turning that corner where life is a little more open and you’re freer to discover stuff.” Still an avid music consumer, he keeps up by listening “to Sirius XM, just because everything’s right there — Z 100 to KISS FM to 40s on 4, to the classical stations. I also listen to L.A. radio, which is great.” How about Spotify? “I’m trying my hardest not to support them, of course, but cheating every once in a while. I’ve tried to get behind the unifed front to tell ‘em to fuck off. But God they’re tempting.

“More often than not, I find stuff the strangest ways; one thing leads to another on YouTube, and it’s like, ‘How did I get here?’ Like a lot of people who love music, I’m always staggered by how inexhaustible it is, how much I haven’t heard. I think I’ve heard a lot of stuff, but I’d never heard the Chuck Jackson version of ‘Any Day Now’ until two are three years ago,” he says of the song, which turns up in Inherent Vice. “Sometimes I’ll go through a phase, when I’m writing, of just closing my eyes, and going to the record store and going to a bin and plucking stuff out. I don’t do it as often as I used to, which I feel bad about. But on the other hand, the amount of stuff I have lying around that I have yet to listen to is still so large.”