Today, for Wondering Sound, I speak with Paul Thomas Anderson about the music in his new film Inherent Vice, and in all of his other films. I'm pretty happy with the piece and was happier still to speak with Anderson, who's all kinds of smart and engaging and also, in my estimation, a great filmmaker. And Inherent Vice is, for this film critic, the movie of the year.
In the opening of my piece, I state that Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets "arguably pioneered" the song-based soundtrack in Hollywood-affiliated narrative film. Useful word, "arguably." My piece hadn't been up ten minutes when a friend reminded me on Twitter that The Graduate, Easy Rider, and American Graffiti all preceded Mean Streets. And indeed they did. And while I can be legitimately pegged as a Scorsese partisan, I will still stand by my assertion while admitting that leapfrogging over Easy Rider was something of a snub.
Here is my reasoning: The Graduate's music soundtrack is largely song-based, but it's all the work of one composer, Paul Simon. And, as the speeding-to-the-church scene testifies, Simon repurposes the "Mrs. Robinson" motif for riffing that actually resembles a traditional score. Easy Rider uses rock and roll songs as both score and background music; American Graffiti takes advantage of the fact that all its cruising chracters are tuned in to the same radio station (the studio and deejay Wolfman Jack actively figure in the storyline, too) to make a score out of its nostalgia-inducing stream of '50s and early '60s songs. Graffiti only preceded Mean Streets by a couple of months in 1973, and it was a much bigger hit. But I'd still argue that Mean Streets was ultimately more influential in terms of making the song-based "score" a convention (wellspringing, among other things, the still wild-and-wooly subindustry of song licensing for motion pictures and television) than any of the other films. With Graffiti, you have the pretext of diegetic happenstance, and I think that obtains to a certain extent with Easy Rider as well. Easy Rider being a film about the counterculture from within the counterculture, highlighting that culture's music made sense. Not to second-guess myself too much, but I probably don't give Dennis Hopper as much credit as I should in terms of orchestrating sound and image; by the same token, "Born To Be Wild" IS a song about riding a motorcycle, so it's not as if he was a kind of aesthetic Vasco De Gama for pairing it with a montage of motorcycle-riding. My assertion stems from my belief that it was in the distinctive way—related, again, to the Michael Powell idea of "composed film," which like Scorpio Rising was a key influence on Scorsese—the director matched music to movie that really gave traction to the concept, and turned a practice that had until that point been isolated and occasional into something more standard.
In any event, hope you dig the piece.