Note: I know I’m skipping Wes Anderson’s seminal and mildly underrated first film, Bottle Rocket. The reason being, that although the compositions of Devo front man Mark Mothersbaugh are really cool, the soundtrack is made up of nothing but those compositions. Also, believe me, in this article, and in Parts II and III, you will get an impacted ass-full of my thoughts on Mothersbaugh’s compositions. Anderson’s films feature him very heavily.
Movie soundtracks are a tricky thing to review because they are rarely any good. I don’t think most movie soundtracks that feature artists in lieu of original compositions really bring a lot to the table. If the artist on the soundtrack is well known, you might get the occasional ‘hit,’ but more often than not, it’s a b-side, a cover, or a re-mix. Often times it feels as if there’s only one or two good tracks, which hardly makes buying the entire album worth it. Also, it frequently feels like the music is just kind of thrown in there as some sort of promotional tool, or as a reminder that a band still exists who might be taking too long between albums, or possibly the result of a label trying to get some exposure for an up and coming artist. I mean come on, how many soundtracks have you heard that were just bad mixtapes? But a few stick out, and at the forefront are the soundtracks from Wes Anderson’s feature films. I want to show that the often misused soundtrack is a fantastic tool in a movie, and very few do it as well as Wes Anderson.
If you could sum up Wes Anderson’s movies in one word, that word would be ‘Detail.’ Everything about his movies is meticulously planned, from the framing of every shot, the bone-dry humour of the dialogue, the fonts on title cards, the montages and of course the sets…my god the sets!!! In Darjeeling Limited, he had the entire train hand-painted in excruciating detail. Look at the house on Archer Avenue in The Royal Tenenbaums; there is literally some form of hidden visual gem in every room. If you are a Wes Anderson fan, you already know exactly what I’m talking about. If you aren’t, go watch everything he’s ever done; it’s all great for the aesthetics alone. So with a director who needs everything to be ‘just so,’ the music selected for his films has been carefully chosen to promote the mood of each scene, rather than promote the artists. The songs also deserve to be analyzed both in, and out of the context of the film, because…well, this is a music website. To Rushmore!
There are eight original and one previously used (Bottle Rocket) compositions here by Mark Mothersbaugh, and they are perfect for this movie. Since the entire film is centred around the prestigious private Rushmore Academy, the tracks all have a bouncy, bright, polo-shirt-(collar-pop-optional)-Ivy-League feel to them. They move around from style to style, but just reek of the bourgeois upper class. At times, when the harpsichord kicks in, it feels like chamber music at a fancy dinner party. When there is a nylon stringed guitar, it’s played in a style in which you can easily envision a long haired college professor plucking it in an East Coast park. Most of the compositions hover at around the one minute mark, and all are titled after the scene in which they play. My favourite is probably the first track, ‘Hardest Geometry Problem in The World,’ as it showcases all of the styles and nuances that shade the other tracks. The notes are played fast and light, shifting between instruments, and they sound as if they could be backing tracks to a children’s audio storybook set on a summer’s day. They fit the film brilliantly, which is probably why Anderson seemed to go back to the Mothersbaugh well time and time again for his films.
The first non-composition track is ‘Making Time’ by The Creation. The song plays over a montage of the various clubs that protagonist Max Fisher is involved in. This is probably the best Beatles song that wasn’t penned by the lads from Liverpool (or it could also be that all of that British Mod music begins to sound the same after a while to my uninitiated ears). The song is undeniably good though. The dirty guitar riff and palm-muted chords are instantly recognizable, and the semi-gruff vocal melody that gives way to a super catchy chorus is worthy of a few repeat listens. The song does break into some strange psychedelic territory in the bridge that seems unnecessary, but maybe in the late 1960s it was VERY necessary.
Rushmore is made of three acts, and the music is very reflective of the tones and narratives of each one. In Act I, Max is happily attending Rushmore and thoroughly enjoying starting and leading clubs, writing and directing hit plays, all the while doing horribly in his academic studies. The music reflects this carefree and youthful exuberance. Unit 4 +2′s UK #1 hit, ‘Concrete and Clay,’ is a fantastic example of this. The song is relatively percussion-less and it moves along through poppy guitar lines dominated by a catchy multi-part vocal melody. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and it stays in standard territory by sticking to a verse/chorus/verse pattern. It’s a good track. I wouldn’t skip it, but I wouldn’t seek it out either. It creates a quick sunny mood and then is quickly forgotten within the context of the movie. And this is exactly what it should do – it establishes a mood and then lets the scene take over. This is a similar case to ‘A Summer Song,’ by British Invasion folk duo, Chad & Jeremy. It’s a good song that helps create a pleasant mood, and the acoustic guitars blend in perfectly with the sunny East Coast landscape of the scene.
Act II sees both a changing of the seasons and a changing of moods in the film. Max decides to give up the ways of being an adolescent and foray into adult relationships. Meanwhile, Herman sees his marriage falling apart and provides one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, in which he sits on the edge of a pool in Budweiser trunks, throwing golf balls into the pool while smoking a cigarette. He watches his two sons (visceral, stupid boys, whom he has obvious disdain for) get excited about a crossbow. He also looks to see his wife smiling and laughing as she flirts with another man. It is Blume’s misery embodied in a handful of seconds, and the backing track is The Kinks’ ‘Nothin’ in the World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl.’ The song is in that same ’60s vein as the previous tracks, but as the movie shifts into a more somber tone, the track provides a powerful transition in tone. Gone are the feather-light melodies of previous songs, and the lyrics fit the situation beautifully. Originally, the entire soundtrack was going to be made up of songs by The Kinks, but this ended up being the only one to make the final cut.
At this point you’ve probably noticed Anderson leaning heavily towards British Invasion bands. He was quoted as saying something to the tune of, ‘Max always wore a blazer, and British Invasion music was made by guys in blazers, but it still rocked.’ The British Invasion theme carries on (almost) without fail. In this Act of the movie Mothersbaugh’s compositions also lose some of their previous sheen as the characters enter into turmoil. It is in this act that we see Cat Stevens show up for the first time with the song, ‘Here Comes my Baby,’ which is used wisely to show Max in love with Rosemary while she is involved with someone else. Despite the care-free tone of the instrumentals, the lyrics are sharply on point: “Here comes my baby, here she comes now, and it comes as no surprise to me, with another guy.” This leads to another montage showing both Max and Blume starting a small war with each other over the love of Rosemary. Max acts out by ratting out Herman’s infidelity to his wife, and then proceeds to release bees into the hotel Blume is staying at after the couple separates. Blume sinks down to Max’s level and runs over his bike. Max’s response is to cut the brake lines on Blume’s car, and the whole while, part of the eight minute track ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’ by The Who is playing. The sequence is the “you are forgiven” part of the song, which provides an ironic backdrop to the escalating series of paybacks. It is a good track in its entirety, but Anderson has definitely chosen the most solid and appropriate part of the track to include in the film.
Also thrown into Act II, but slightly out of place, is a melancholy song that I can’t stop listening to since starting to analyze this soundtrack: ‘Rue St. Vincent’ by Yves Montand. It’s what Max plays on the radio when making a last ditch attempt at Rosemary by faking as if he has been hurt in a bike accident. The song is incredible, only because it is so unlike the music I usually listen to. It is in French and sounds like it should be coming through a phonograph, but it is incredibly beautiful and the French language sounds very pretty when sung in Montand’s timeless voice. I need a playlist of this type of music to listen to while trying to de-stress after work; it’s impossible not to relax while this is playing.
The transition between Act II and Act III begins with Herman and Rosemary gone asunder and Max feeling alienated and alone, not attending school anywhere. His only friend, Dirk Calloway, has left him, and Fisher has abandoned his dreams and is instead working at a barbershop with his dad. Calloway shows up to give him a Christmas present and make amends. As the two fly a kite, Max decides to turn the activity into a new school club as Cat Stevens’ ‘The Wind’ starts to play. The song is one of introspection and speaks of listening to your soul to determine your path. As the song plays, you can feel that Max is done with his anger, lies, and revenge, and he is ready to make amends with those he has hurt along the way. It signifies Max’s priorities shifting back to the things that used to make him happy before he tried to enter the world of adulthood, which looked appealing, but left him broken. Both the lyrics and the melody of the song fit the scene and show a shift towards resolution and the final act of the film.
Act III is all about resolution and it sees two great songs played out. The first is John Lennon’s song ‘Oh Yoko’ which is fundamentally happy, as the late artist sings about being in love. It reflects Max, who is now dating a girl who appreciates him (who is also of an appropriate age), and is putting on his most advantageous school play to date. Max also brings together Herman and Rosemary in a bid to try and get them to be friends again. As the film resolves with all of the characters dancing at an after-party, the song ‘Oh La La’ by The Faces plays. Rod Stewart sings in his signature rasp, “I wish that I knew what I know now, When I was younger,” which sounds as if it was tailor made for a film like Rushmore, which shows the process of growing up, and how youth is wasted on those trying to escape it.
Overall, the music adds to the more dramatic and narrative aspects of the film, but at its heart, Rushmore is of course a comedy; in fact my favourite comedy. Like all Wes Anderson movies, the humour is not handed to you on a silver platter; it is dry and subtle, but nevertheless hilarious once you key into the jokes. His attention to detail also merits return visits, since there is something new to pick up on upon subsequent viewings. The way that the music interplays with the film is one of the strongest examples of this. Up next in a few weeks, The Royal Tenenbaums…