A number of directors in the last two decades have been excellent at picking music to be a part of their movies, but for my money, the one who manages to always impress me is Wes Anderson. Starting with Bottle Rocket, Anderson has been smart to pepper all of his movies with great music. Who can think of “Judy is a Punk” by The Ramones without thinking of the visual file of Margot Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums? Or “Let Her Dance” by The Bobby Fuller Four without thinking of Mr. Fox and family dancing at the end of Fantastic Mr. Fox? Or even “This Time Tomorrow” by The Kinks at the start of The Darjeeling Limited? These are three perfect examples of great music in Anderson’s films, but for my money, his best compilation of music comes from his second movie, which was released in 1998. The movie was Rushmore.
When I bought the film’s soundtrack album around 1999 or 2000 (available on London Records), I was surprised to read that Anderson’s original intention was to pepper the whole movie with music by The Kinks. In fact, I credit this statement with getting me to discover everything about The Kinks and how underrated they actually are (but we will have to save that for something else). In the final film, only one Kinks tune is used, and as I discovered, it was one of their lesser known tracks called “Nothing in This World Can Stop Me Worrying ‘Bout That Girl.” It plays during a scene that says everything about the character of Mr. Blume (Bill Murray). He is bored and basically hates himself (We discover it long before Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) will end up realizing the same thing). In this context, the whole scene is antagonizing the lyrics of the song. It’s one of the more underrated uses of music in the film because at first glance, it seems to be only used because of how the music is written, but the lyrics make it seem like something else entirely.
There are many great songs used throughout the film. And it was also the first movie that made me realize that oldies stations were only playing what was considered Top 40 radio. I credit the movie with expanding my idea of what British Invasion oldies could and should be. Sure, there is a song that was heard a lot on oldies radio at the time (“A Summer Song” by Chad & Jeremy,which is used perfectly in the scene that sets up the building of the aquarium on the Rushmore campus), but others like “Concrete & Clay” by Unit 4+2, “Making Time” by Creation, and even “Here Comes My Baby” by Cat Stevens (I had only heard the Top 40 version by The Tremeloes) were all songs I had never heard until seeing this movie. And now all three rank among my all-time favorite songs. Beyond that, they expanded my knowledge of music history to such a degree that was never possible before.
But my favorite use of music in the whole film is the use of “A Quick One, While He’s Away” by The Who. I had known some of The Who’s music going into Rushmore for the first time, but this was the first song of theirs I had never heard of, and although only the last 2-3 minutes play (during the sequence where Mr. Blume and Max (Jason Schwartzman) take revenge on each other due to their affections over Miss Cross), it is the perfect accompaniment to those images. They demand of something loud to get the point across. And the brilliant use of the “You are forgiven” section of the song also gives another antagonistic clash between the words of the music and the situations of the movie. There is no forgiveness, just more damage. Watch the clip below to see for yourself:
The brilliance of the music doesn’t end there. The very next choice of music Anderson has up his sleeve is a brilliantly underrated Rolling Stones song called “I Am Waiting.” Here was a song that might not have made the film’s terrific soundtrack album, but as I would find out in the coming years, ABKCO Records wouldn’t let it on the soundtrack (In my opinion, I’m so glad Anderson has released the last three soundtrack albums through that very label, hence now being able to have Rolling Stones tracks on his soundtrack albums). At the time, I was upset, but the reasons were understandable. Remember, this was back before the iPod was released, so music options were limited to CDs and (to a lesser extent) cassettes. As a result, not every music store carried everything (Most still don’t). Its use puts it in the middle of a wonderful montage of November and how the lives of the three principal characters are essentially falling apart. I was really impressed with this use of music only because it wasn’t too obvious, even though it might have seemed otherwise, but it never seemed that way to me in the least. Judge for yourself:
A lot of choices in the music afterwards are great ones, but not quite to the same level of that one. I love the use of “The Wind” by Cat Stevens and “Oh Yoko” by John Lennon (One of the most underrated songs from Lennon’s Imagine album), but they definitely seem to be there for mood rather than character. The last great use of music comes at the end with “Ooh La La” by The Faces. For years, I use to own the film’s original screenplay book and one sentence at the end of the script always stood out: “It is the saddest song of the night.” I still don’t think of “Ooh La La” to be a sad song in the least, but it caps the movie off on such a perfect note that it leaves us begging for more as the curtain closes for the last time. Being a tainted 13-year old, I was too young to realize that the film’s ending was perfect. I had been jaded by what Hollywood had been telling me in that every movie ends in a bow. This was a movie that killed me that it didn’t end like that, but at the same time, it was the right way to go. Especially looking at it now, by leaving the fate of all of the characters up to chance, it was the perfect choice.
I must give a special mention to the music score by Mark Mothersbaugh. I find its use to say everything about the childlike sensibilities of Max Fischer, and it works as a perfect contrast for him and the rest of the movie. And there’s a piece called “Piranhas Are a Very Tricky Species,” which once again demonstrates Anderson’s love for fast-paced drum pieces. He famously said in his commentary for The Royal Tenenbaums that he wanted to have a piece like that in every one of his movies, but it seems he sadly ended that (with no explanation) after The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, as none of his last three movies have an original piece like this, but the piece of music is used twice and used to wonderful effect both times in the movie.
In the end, Moonrise Kingdom might have displaced Rushmore as Wes Anderson’s best movie in my opinion, but the soundtrack will never reach the same heights that Rushmore achieved fourteen years ago. The soundtrack is in a class by itself, and for my money, it was the movie that proved that compilation soundtracks could be something more than just unconnected songs being used. They could be used for a purpose to set up the soundtrack for the story and characters as well as the energy of the story. Out of all the soundtracks of Wes Anderson’s movies, Rushmore is his flat-out best!