Music in film can manipulate our emotions, accentuate scenes and elevate what might have been an insignificant cinematic moment to iconic movie scene status. To elaborate on this subject we invited musician, writer, producer, composer, and singer Lillard Anthony to talk about his love of music in films and more specifically, "creating cool".
In recent times, films have driven offbeat recording artists into the popular domain, giving them a life of their own. How and why does this happen? How do filmmakers find and use indie bands to create cool?
Music in film, particularly the score, is an emotional guide. It tugs at your heart strings, controlling your feelings like a puppeteer. If the scene is happy and bright, then the key is probably major and the rhythms likely chipper. But when the tough, estranged father finally admits love for his son on his deathbed, there's that 80 piece orchestra dragging you by your stinging eyes and runny nose right into a sobbing mess. You can pinch your leg through your pant pocket all you want, but that string section is about to make you embarrass yourself in front of your hot date.
In modern filmmaking, music can be played against the content of the scene. This creates incredible discomfort. I remember being scarred by Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs in a Berkeley dorm room my freshman year. I would never hear Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle with You" the same way again.
But, what about when films bring underground recording artists to the mainstream? Zach Braff did this very thing with his film Garden State and indie rock darlings, the Shins. I've been in indie bands all of my life, so I was quite aware of the gorgeous music that the Shins were making prior to the film's release. Their record Oh, Inverted World was groundbreaking - the swelling melodies and fluid song writing were beautifully mixed into their ultra-stylized production. That being said, when I saw how the film provided such an emotional coming-of-age-in-your-20s landscape for "New Slang," the marriage between audio and visual went to the next level: cool. It didn't hurt to have one of the most gorgeous females of all time namedrop you either.
The Shins would end up being synonymous with this scene and it kickstarted their blossoming career. Years following the release of Garden State, I recall going to a Shins' show at the Greek and still overhearing fans quoting that famous line, "You gotta hear this song, it'll change your life."
Another fine example of this phenomenon was Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol.1 and the Tokyo-based, all girl rockabilly trio, the 5,6,7,8's. I would never dare insinuate that I was hip enough to know this band prior to Kill Bill, but this scene blew me away. The band was so legit - they played well, the songs were good, and they did it all with such swagger that I wasn't sure if they were a real band. Tarantino has always brought the cool, but watching the band in the context of his film was just so f---ing cool that I didn't think that the band could ACTUALLY be real.
Sometimes, the cool is so strong in a film that it creates an entire cultural wave. Remember the swing revival in the mid-90s? I attribute that to one scene: the movie is Swingers, the track is "Go Daddy-O," and the band is the relatively unknown Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.
I suppose some of the appeal of that movie was: even-though-you're-a-dork-if-you-swing-dance-real-good-you-might-have-a-shot-at-Heather-Graham. But, in my eyes, the hipster style of the film matched with the great swing tune was so cool, it fostered an entire throwback movement. (Sidenote: it only took me a couple of swing dance classes to realize that I ain't EVER gonna get good at that.)
How do bands get discovered like this and why?
I think this phenomenon exists because good filmmakers constantly analyze their surroundings for inspiration. I'd be out a restaurant with a director buddy of mine who'd all at once remember: the lighting of the room that we're eating in, the song that was playing during his third dirty martini, the dialogue that I just used to make a fool of myself hitting on that hot chick and the vintage sconce in the bathroom that could be used in production design to say something about a character. Infuriating at the time, yes, but super cool when it all came together onscreen.
This meticulousness leads to what I think is a real pursuit of innovative music by filmmakers. Good directors are always trying to find specific songs that are direct vehicles for a particular emotion. Just as no two films are the same, no two songs are the same either (don't turn on the radio or you'll prove me wrong). And indie music is always more interesting and provocative (as are indie films) than mainstream music because there is more freedom. I also believe creative people truly love other creative people - "game recognize game," so to speak.
So when a visionary filmmaker expertly pairs a piece of music with the emotion of what he has captured visually, it becomes the ultimate of all ultimates - it becomes cool. I love seeing films where you become lost in a world because it is totally complete, a perfect marriage between what you're hearing, what you're seeing and what you're feeling.
As things continue to progress between bands and film, I suppose it's only natural that musicians from bands also enter the foray of writing actual film score. Who better than a badass musician to custom compose music for the entire film? Everyone knows the huge success of Nine Inch Nails' frontman Trent Reznor and his work on David Fincher's astounding "Social Network." But, let's not forget Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and his vivifying soundtrack of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood.
Despite the current economics of entertainment, I think the future is bright for both music and film. As long as we focus our hearts and our minds on projects that we care about, we can't go wrong. I truly believe in giving a movie or album or whatever we're making all of our positive energy because that ultimately produces something created out of love, and that will always be...100% cool.
Lillard Anthony is a composer, writer and musician. His band's song, "To Kill," was featured in the two-time Academy Award nominated film, The Messenger, by Director Oren Moverman. His most recent score was for the Jon Matthew's film Surviving Cliffside which debuted at South By Southwest in March 2014. The forthcoming album by his new band, TAPED3CK, is scheduled for release in 2014.