Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Musician Will Oldham on movie music - do pre-existing pop songs belong in films?

Will Oldham (AKA Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Palace, and about a dozen other pseudonyms) is far and away one of my favorite musicians working today. Beyond his extremely prolific recording career, Oldham is a really talented actor - appearing in the classic Matewan, and more recently Junebug, The Guatemalan Handshake, and the superb Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy.

It's no secret that I absolutely love this guy. I've written roles in screenplays with him in mind - and listened to many, many hours of his music while I've been writing.

Oldham recently did a rare interview with The Onion AV Club where he talks about his creative process, his acting career, and the current state of the music industry. The whole interview is fascinating if you're a fan of his, but his thoughts on film music were what really got me thinking:
AVC: You mentioned talking to Richard Linklater and Caveh Zahedi about your ideas on movie music. Can you summarize those ideas?

WO: Well, for a while, it seemed like you were always seeing movies where all the music was determined by the music supervisors and their special relationships with certain record labels. And I just felt like, “Wow, I’ll bet they spent months or years writing this screenplay, and I’ll bet they spent months shooting this, and I’ll bet they spent months editing this, and now they’re spending no time at all picking these completely inappropriate songs with lyrics to put under a scene that has dialogue.” How does that even work? How can you have a song with someone singing lyrics under spoken dialogue and consider that mood-music, or supportive of the storyline? As somebody who likes music, when that happens, I tend to listen to the lyrics, which have nothing to do with the movie. And then I’m lost in the storyline. Not only is that a crime, but it’s a crime not to give people who are good at making music for movies the work. It’s like saying, “We don’t need you, even though you’re so much better at it than I am as a music supervisor.” Like the cancer that is that Darjeeling guy… what’s his name?

AVC: Wes Anderson?

WO: Yeah. His completely cancerous approach to using music is basically, “Here’s my iPod on shuffle, and here’s my movie.” The two are just thrown together. People are constantly contacting me saying, “I’ve been editing my movie, and I’ve been using your song in the editing process. What would it take to license the song?” And for me it’s like, “Regardless of what you’ve been doing, my song doesn’t belong in your movie.” That’s where the conversation should end. Music should be made for movies, you know?

This bit of the interview really made me stop in my tracks. Anyone who knows me or my writing is aware of how important a part music plays, both there and in most everything I do.

I've (mostly) gotten out of the habit of writing songs into my screenplays, but I'm still setting my scenes to music in my head as I write, creating an imaginary soundtrack. Music can inspire certain feelings and emotions in me much quicker and more efficiently than any other medium. If thinking of a certain song can help me get into a desired mindset, I see no problem with using that as my crutch.

But, once you get past the screenplay phase and into the editing process - does using existing songs distract from the film itself?

I can see myself on both sides of the fence with this one. On one hand, I hate, hate, hate it when popular songs are slapped into a movie haphazardly, without any real rhyme or reason other than to create a hip soundtrack. (I'm looking at you, Juno and Nick and Norah.) I find myself annoyed by the music, and these negative feelings will bleed out onto the films other qualities, or lack thereof.

But on the other hand, there are plenty of examples of movies that have used an existing song to elevate a scene into something sublime - I'll use Apocalypse Now's use of The Doors' "The End" as an example for this, or the unsettling acapella version of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" in Blue Velvet.

Do pre-existing pop songs have any business appearing in movies? When is it okay/not okay?


Onyx said...

I don't see how you can say that pre-existing songs have no place in movies. Even though they were created independently of any film, they have a certain tone and vibe that can happen to compliment a film if the selection is well thought out.

Many of us write to music, and I imagine we all choose the music based on what we're writing. If I find the song that fits my current scene, it's sometimes what makes the writing session. But if I were to pick some random song, especially one with dialogue, then it would be something much like what's been mentioned in the post. I'd totally be taken out of scene.

DOA said...

I have to say I'm much less music influenced. I'm almost always listening to music when I write, but rather have one or two inspiring songs, I just listen to "sad music" when I write sad scenes, or "action music" when I write action scenes. I don't think one specific song ever inspired a scene for me. On the other hand, even for someone as thick as like me, a stupid song stuck in the movie can jolt me out of the plot and think "you're kidding me right?"

Cake Man said...

I see WO's point about not underlaying dialogue with lyrics. Come to think of it, I can't think of many examples - though I'm sure there are tons - in movies I really like where there are lyrics playing during a scene with dialogue. Some scenes that do have lyrical songs, but they are always scenes w/o talking.

Look back at the blog to a post from November 2007 - http://swritersleague.blogspot.com/2007_11_14_archive.html - and you'll see that we thought a bit about the place and role of songs in film even then. Should a song be subservient to the film, or is it the other way around? I, too, use music while I write, not only to get me in the right mindset, but also to help me focus. It's useful background noise. However, that does not mean that I think the music comes first. In the end, I'm writing a screenplay, not a song or set list. Oldham might be a bit extreme in his views, but he's probably onto something. Some songs are too powerful to be used with out care.

They might also be signs of a weak script or directing job, if they're relied on too heavily.