Friday, December 26, 2014

Best of Year # 1: Only Lovers Left Alive OMPST

It's that time of year again, when I look at the arid wasteland of this blog, and wonder whether I can post anything before the end of the year that will make the thing slightly less arid and slightly less wasted. I don't think I listened to as much new music in 2014 as I did in 2013, but there's still more than a couple of albums I heard noteworthy enough that I think I can come up with something to say about them. I hope to write more, no promises, but for right now, here's discussion of a rather noteworthy movie and its remarkable soundtrack

Squrl & Jozef Wissem Only Lovers Left Alive OMPST cover
There are motion picture soundtracks, and then there are original motion picture soundtracks.

I'm sure you pick up on the difference.

Quentin Tarantino, for example, has become known for assembling obsurities and forgotten hits into his soundtracks that capture the mood he wants to create. Yet his soundtracks are for the most part compilations and not original. April March's incredible "Chick Habit," to mention just one song that has become linked with Tarantino's musical curation, was originally released 12 years before it was used in Death Proof. And, you know, "Stuck in the Middle With You" wasn't original to the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack, either.

What QT does is interesting, and sometimes maddening, but it's not what I'm talking about here.

I'm not talking about The Singles soundtrack, or The Graduate's, or the one to Clerks. Great music in all of these, and pretty much groundbreaking across the board for their use of the music in a film context, yes. But the music contained in the soundtrack was not original to the film.

What I want to talk about here are the few original motion picture soundtracks that have gained a fame separate and apart from the movie they were designed to score.

Pink Floyd More OMPST cover
I now understand that Barbet Schroeder's More is actually considered to be a pretty good film, but the Pink Floyd soundtrack album is much more well known, and I spent a good portion my life rocking out to "The Nile Song"--and chilling out to "Cymbaline"-- without knowing about Schroeder's paean to junkies.

I've written about how the album assembled from Tangerine Dream's score to Sorcerer may actually be their best; I know for a fact that Friedkin's movie is fantastic, yet the sountrack is to my mind, both better and more significant.

And I think this rare case--original soundtrack outshining the movie--may be what we have with Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive.

Only Lovers Left Alive Theatrical Poster
I think Only Lovers is considered to be something of a comeback movie for Jarmusch. After practically defining indie cinema in the '80's and '90's, Jarmusch's always-slow pace of work decelerated even further after the turn of the century. 2003's Coffee and Cigarettes is interesting and fun but ultimately insignificant, with its indie icons like Roberto Benigni and Jack White dropped onto the screen like bandnames dropped into a fanzine's music review--for the appeal to coolness only. Broken Flowers (2005) with Bill Murray full-swing into his late-career focus on introspection and regret was great, but 2009's The Limits of Control was considered a failure by most who saw it.

Only Lovers has its flaws, too. Jarmusch's films always look great, and his new one is no different. Set in both Detroit and Tangier, the film presents Detroit as a dark and nearly abandoned landscape, in gorgeous ruin, a space ten times too big for its current bedraggled population. And the Old City of Tangier looks exactly like what it is: 2500 years old, full of mysterious alleyways and tunnels slithering through the sandstone buildings.

Yet as gorgeous as this vampire movie is, it's not much for plot.

It's not surprising that Jarmusch has finally made a vampire movie. Ever since The Lost Boys, Western pop culture has varnished the older vampire tropes with a thick patina of cool. And Jarmusch has always of course been obsessed with cool.

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston by turns have it all down pat: the dark shades, the even darker clothes, the buzz-music, the world-weariness, the name- and relic-dropping, the contempt for the squares.

Adam with his collection of stringed instruments and Eve with her books (and Christopher Marlowe with his notoriety) are certainly a solid foundation for any movie Jarmusch may have cared to make. Plus vampires, right? But each time a fragment of plot threatens to break out, Jarmusch's script squashes it flat.

Listen: your movie can't just be a music video, and your characters can't simply be receptacles for cool. A story might be nice, but there has to be more.

In a way, though, I guess, there is something more. There is the soundtrack album. Along with a Dutch lute player* by the name of Jozef van Wissem, the music for Only Lovers is played by SQÜRL, a band led by Jarmusch himself. And the music is such a success that the cynic in me wonders whether Jarmusch made the film as a vehicle for the music, rather than the other way around.

The movie begins with montages of our two characters as they go about their separate jaded ways in their separate jaded rooms, with the band's version of Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love" swirling as the camera swirls. Guitars highly distorted by wah-wah and fuzz pan across the soundfield as a woman by the name of Madeline Follin alternately howls and warbles. It's tremendous, and from there, in the manner of an extended music video, the movie sews together bits of Eastern-ish drone, doom, infinite delay postrock, and yes, Elizabethan lute into a collage that, when completed, easily outshines the movie it was created for.

I have reservations about Jarmusch's movie, but none whatsoever about his music. I believe that the Only Lovers Left Alive original soundtrack is not only one of the best albums I heard in 2014, it is one of the best original soundtracks ever made.

File Under: Vampire Blues, 2014

*And isn't this a nice Elizabethan touch, in a movie that features Christopher Marlowe in a supporting role? (Return)

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