Frequently Asked Questions: Wes Anderson’s Movie Soundtracks
By Courtney E. Smith
Frequently Asked Questions is exactly what it sounds like, where we have experts guide you through the unknown about people and topics in music and pop culture. Filmmaker Wes Anderson will release his eighth feature film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, on Friday, March 7. Like all of his films, the music is its own character and a source of fascination for the public and a beloved part of his oeuvre. What draws out such a fandom around simple movie soundtracks? We break down the answers.
Who is Wes Anderson?
He’s a director and screenwriter who helmed and penned a beloved assortment of films including Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. He hails from Houston, Tex. and earned his degree at the University of Texas in Austin which is where he met Owen Wilson, the future movie star and his collaborator on early works. He now physically resides in New York City, but mentally is often…elsewhere.
He crafts films that exist in an alternate universe—a near-past where society never quite made it past 1965, give or take a few David Bowie songs. Through specific lighting, a retro color palette Anderson creates similar twee- and vintage-hued worlds around vastly different tales, whether taking place in an effete private high school or a stop-motion literal fox hole. He utilizes a revolving cast of characters, favoring Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Luke and Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe and Tilda Swinton. As with any auteur, his cinematic touch is easily recognizable and easily parodied.
Why do people care about his film soundtracks?
One part is nostalgia, which has weighed heavy on members of late Gen X and early Millennials. Music from generations you were unable to partake in, due to the pesky confines of birth dates, might be better or more true or preferable to the music and situations you were actually forced to live through. For Anderson, born in 1969, this frequently means the soundtrack of the pre-revolutionary 1960s (think of the first two seasons of Mad Men) and always, always leans towards the twee side of the street.
The other part is emotional. Anderson has a knack for pairing nearly forgotten pop songs with moments that stick in the viewer’s mind and cause a kind of popular resurgence around forgotten gems. In Bottle Rocket it was Love’s “Alone Again Or” (a song that did not make the film’s official soundtrack) playing in the background while Luke Wilson ran through a crappy motel searching for the love of his life/the maid. In Rushmore it was the final credits set to Faces’ “Ooh La La.” The Royal Tenenbaums reminded us of the beautiful sadness of Nico as well as the moroseness of Brian Jones’ influence on the Rolling Stones. The Life Aquatic gave entirely new life to David Bowie’s “Life On Mars.” The Fantastic Mr. Fox was overrun by those familiar Beach Boys melodies and Moonrise Kingdom gave new mystique to Françoise Hardy.
This one-two punch makes his soundtracks not only part of a finely crafted alternate universe Anderson fans desperately want to be apart of, but pushes them into the pop culture zeitgeist. You’ll find the songs Anderson unearths for his films quickly sneaking their way into commercials, blog posts, and the soundtracks that play in-stores from Chipotle to Urban Outfitters.
What is his most iconic music in film moment?
Dear reader, it is incredibly difficult to select only one but here it is: that scene in The Royal Tenenbaums when Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow are sitting in the tent in their living room, listening to a 45 of the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” on a children’s record player while grappling with their forbidden love. It’s not only the moment that solidified Anderson’s devotion to a particular type of music, but when we knew he was a certain type of music fan: a geek with a basement full of 45s and 78s. Just like us (or like we’d like to be).
What makes The Grand Budapest Hotel soundtrack different from his other film soundtracks?
There are no pop songs. So…that’s weird. It’s entirely instrumental, which is a first: even The Darjeeling Limited managed to fit in a few Kinks songs. Instead of the expected, he fills the movie with a lot of orchestral score, which is very normal for him, and some Russian folk songs and performances by the Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra, which certainly lend a specific mood to things.
This creative choice is probably related to the setting. His inspiration for the movie was a series of books by early-20th-century Austrian writer Stefan Zweig that detailed life in Europe after WWII. That places it far out of his ’60s-’70s musical go-to dream world and while the songs of the ’30s still hang around in the public eye (we’re talking the key stuff from Judy Garland, Billie Holiday and the Glen Miller Band), they’re a bit overwhelming for storytelling. Just try to imagine Anderson shoehorning “Over the Rainbow” or “Strange Fruit” into the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel and it quickly becomes clear why he didn’t go down that path.
What’s is ABKCO Records, the label his soundtracks come out on?
It was founded by Allen Klein, an accountant and later artist manager to some of the biggest acts in the world, including, for a time, the Beatles — and he’s often credited as one of the top reasons for their break-up. ABKCO Records bloomed out of ABKCO Industries and Allen Klein’s purchase of Cameo-Parkway Records in 1967, whose catalog includes Chubby Checker — who never regained the master recording rights to “The Twist” from the group. That’s just the tip of Klein’s shady past. He’s known for swindling the Rolling Stones out of the master and publishing rights for their early recordings, spanning from 1963-71, which ABKCO Records still controls despite many efforts by the band to buy them back. He pulled the same thing on Sam Cooke before them so ABKCO’s got those records in its pockets, as well. Not coincidentally, they also administer the rights to the Kinks’ catalog.
That doesn’t sound very music nerd friendly. What the hell?
This is a fairly controversial deal for music nerds. From a business perspective it makes a lot of sense because ABKCO controls the master recording rights to many of the artists Anderson is known to use. By reaching a soundtrack licensing and distribution deal with them, he undoubtedly gets preferred or discounted pricing to use their music in his films. That’s good when licensing one legacy track for a a film, including DVD and digital distribution, can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $200,000 — if you’re Anderson and you want several tracks, every little bit of a price break helps keep the budget down, which keeps the studio away, which keeps your creative vision in tact.
Klein died in 2009. His son Jody is now CEO of ABKCO Records. However, it continues to exist entirely on catalog material and a few select soundtracks, including the films of Wes Anderson, with a heavy weight on reissues of early Rolling Stones albums and placement of those songs in films, television shows and commercials. It gives them a vulture-like appearance that is not copasetic with many vinyl-loving fans of ’60s music. So, it’s a bit of a sticky wicket.
Can I still enjoy the dusty whimsy of Wes Anderson’s soundtracks knowing all this?