While every Soundtrack Studies to date has focused on a specific album, it seems that focus is somewhat wasted on the works of Wes Anderson. While the true nature of variance among Anderson’s films could be debated (and surely is), it would be difficult to contend that Anderson’s style isn’t homogeneous.
Though I realize just by saying that, I’ve just readied a legion of Anderson fans for rebuttals. Oh well, they’re all probably wispy and weak.
Wes Anderson’s pursuit of a timeless (but certainly not placeless) quality to his films has gone from a quirk early in his career to a his calling card, to perhaps a crutch worth of mockery, as SNL’s The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders so artfully indulged in.
In his avoidance of contemporary technology in his films, he also brings an aesthetic to the costuming that doesn’t belong to any era, but rather seems to belong to Anderson himself. And the same is true for the music in his films.
Curiously, the music in his films is far from anonymous. While a car in a Wes Anderson film is essentially an unbranded, shapeless placeholder for a car, the music belongs to famous artists. The Kinks, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones.
These are among the most famous artists in popular music, albeit from an era that seems to vaguely jive with the costuming, technology, and production design. So why use the Stones when you could pick some unknown French chanteuse to sing them in her native language? It ups the quirk by a degree or two, and certainly would help keep the budget down by avoiding licensing the expensive originals.
It merits noting that Wes Anderson isn’t the sole gatekeeper of his soundtracks. I mean, he’s the director, and the de facto brand, so he certainly could exercise veto power, but he works hand-in-hand with Randall Poster, a music aficionado who, through his passion for music and film, landed a career soundtracking films. He’s worked with Anderson since Bottle Rocket, so if you’re looking for another reason for the alarming consistency, that’s one right there.
Another such indicator is that Anderson and Poster have what Anderson describes as the “vault,” which is a list of songs they have pre-selected with no particular movie or scene in mind. So, to that end, it appears that reason the duo picks some songs is simply because they like the song, and not because a particular scene is begging for its inclusion. To say that a song is “shoehorned” in would (probably) be dismissive, if only because the design DNA of the films and the muted emotion are so prevalent that the taste in music runs along the same lines, so perhaps there are handful of songs in the vault that are good contenders for a scene.
Or, what I believe more likely to be true, is that while audiences and critics may mock Wes Anderson, and the choice of music for his films, that doesn’t mean they don’t like it. They’re essentially pointing out a consistency, which is an odd thing to be critical of, in and of itself. The type of people who like, or even watch Wes Anderson films aren’t the type of people who object to a deep cut by The Kinks. So while these people may object to Anderson & Co. returning to the same well over and over, it appears that they say that despite really enjoying the water from that well.
Of the artists to enjoy several track listings in a Wes Anderson film, virtually none are American or English speakers. That shuts the naysayers up pretty quickly; criticize my heavy use of this artist and you’re a xenophobe. The most glaring and recognizable example of this would be the Seu Jorge tracks on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. They’re all David Bowie covers sung in Portuguese, which is so damn Wes Anderson-y it makes me want to run out into the streets and cast Bill Murray in something.
For all of his fans, and the acclaim his films get, Wes Anderson’s soundtracking with Randall Poster is rarely described as masterful, despite being so heavily stylized and recognizable. The people that like these films understand that they’re buying into the Wes Anderson brand, and that brand is rife with things like Portuguese covers of David Bowie songs, “Hey Jude” played by the Mutato Muzika Orchestra, or just some obscure Rolling Stones song while the characters are running down the street with suitcases.
Few directors have made as powerful and distinct a brand out of their style, and while Wes Anderson’s style has many facets, it’s hard to say that his choice in music doesn’t set the tone more than any other aspect of the film. It’s good-natured, not of this era, slightly odd, but very comfortable. And to that end, he chooses music that perfectly fits the tone of his films.