To begin: Music has been a essential part of movies since the very first images were committed to celluloid — in fact, motion picture scores existed before spoken dialogue did — so it’s not surprising that one of the most important aspects of a film’s production is what songs are used and how they are grafted onto the visual product. Motion Picture Soundtrack is a new feature in which I will do some research on the songs that are used in some of my favorite scenes in my favorite movies, and why they happen to work so well (as well as some instances where the scenes fail). In order to discuss things properly, I’ll have to operate under the assumption that you’ve seen the film before. It’s not exactly my mission to dump a bunch of spoilers into these posts, but I’m not going to avoid them, either. So I guess you can consider this one big blanket Spoiler Alert and leave it at that.
The Film: The Royal Tenenbaums
The Song: “Needle in the Hay”
The Artist: Elliott Smith
Who’s Who: Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) is a retired tennis champion whose career fell to pieces the day after his sister Margot (Gwynneth Paltrow) married Raliegh St. Clair (Bill Murray). In this scene, Richie and Raleigh have just received the news from a private detective that Margot has repeatedly, and fairly unabashedly, made a cuckold of Raleigh “many times over” with various men throughout the years, including Richie’s childhood and current friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson).
Wes Anderson, who directed this film as well as Bottle Rocket and Rushmore and, more recently, The Darjeeling Limited, first encountered Owen Wilson at college at the University of Texas. The two began writing together and their first major product was Bottle Rocket, which went through a first incarnation as a short film before they secured the finances to become a major motion picture. Although it had little success commercially, its positive critical reception gave Anderson the necessary clout to put together Rushmore, one of my personal favorites (and a movie which I plan to write about in the future). Wes Anderson has a reputation for maintaining creative control over many aspects of his pictures, music included. I suspect, like Quentin Tarentino, when Anderson begins conceiving a particular scene, he’s already got the music for it in mind.
Although Elliott Smith (born as “Steven”), much like Anderson and the Wilson brothers, spent his childhood years in Texas, it is unlikely that any bond between them existed as such. Elliott Smith felt no love for Texas (although he had a tattoo of the state’s shape on his upper arm). In my opinion he may have found Austin tolerable, had he spent sufficient time there, but he spent his most formative years living outside of Portland. It’s not clear how Wes Anderson came to know of Smith’s music. Elliott Smith’s first mainstream hit was the song “Between the Bars,” which was recorded for Good Will Hunting (and received and Academy Award nomination for it). Smith had a host of problems dealing with his own success as a songwriter; his descent into drugs and alcohol and depression is no less tragic than it is typical.
Why it Works: In a scene which depicts a character cutting off hair that took months to grow, you only get one chance, and it goes well here. Editing the sections of footage together in sequence (as opposed to the pretentious backwards motion in Natural Born Killers) condenses the process as well as drawing attention to the fragmented state of Richie Tenenbaum’s pyche at this point in time. The spare acoustic framing of “Needle in the Hay” matches wonderfully with Richie’s frame of mind — originally the song had been recorded with a full band, and Smith decided at the last minute to release it with a simple guitar and vocal track. The doubling of Smith’s voice speaks to his own troubles with schizophrenia and somehow magnifies the intensity of Richie’s actions. And although the lyrics don’t address suicide directly, they do confront the issue of addiction, which it seems is one of the defining elements of Richie’s relationship with Margot. The dozens of crude portraits in his room attest to his obsession with her, and his attempts to separate himself from her were ultimately a failure. As Richie explains later, “I went away and it only got worse.”
What Goes Wrong: When Richie says, very calmly and distinctly, “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow.” Then, moments later, blood is running from his wrists. What’s the point of his announcement?
Other Stuff: One of the haunting things about this scene is that Elliott Smith eventually died of what was concluded to be a suicide. After a long, destructive cycle of heroin addiction, alcohol abuse, and depression, in 2003 he had seemingly managed to turn a corner in his life before his death from a pair of self-inflicted stab wounds in the chest with a steak knife during an argument with his girlfriend. And in 2007, Owen Wilson, Luke’s brother, conducted his own suicide attempt, slashing his wrists and ingesting an overdose of pills before being rescued.