Settling the Score

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Nick Urata and accordionist Tom Hagerman of DeVotchKa!, photographed in the farmlands east of their native Denver, by Gary Isaacs.

Watching this year’s Oscar broadcast made fans of indie rock jump out of their chairs and jig like the cast of Riverdance on a thousand Red Bulls for one joyful reason: Jon Stewart brought Markéta Irglová back on stage to finish the acceptance speech for Best Original Song that was drowned out by the orchestra, shoving her off stage. Her speech was great; it was a “moment.”

The performance earlier in the show by Glen Hansard and Irglová of their winning song from Once, “Falling Slowly,” was the stuff of romantic legend. That battered guitar! Hansard and Irglová’s speeches were eloquent, inspiring, and reached out to struggling artists everywhere (rather than thanking their Reiki masseuse). More than that, they signaled within the realm of shiny, popular, big-budget, low-feeling movie music that the time had come for a true revenge of the nerds. And as we have seen in the past few movie seasons, the nerds are winning.

Soundtracks composed by singer-songwriters aren’t new. In 1967, The Graduate exhilarated audiences with its go-along-with-the-script hits by Simon and Garfunkel, making film history. Adding to that moody Greek chorus is the collection of Cat Stevens songs that fuel the lonerish poignancy of director Hal Ashby’s 1971 cult classic, Harold and Maude. In what feels like a cinematic callback to that film, Wes Anderson, everyone’s favorite nouvelle vague soundtrack stylist, used Cat Stevens’s “Here Comes My Baby” to moving effect in his seminal piece, Rushmore. The list of directors incorporating music into the narrative strain of their movies is long: Jim Jarmusch has a deep history with like-minded musicians, especially Tom Waits. Gus Van Sant pulled the late Elliott Smith out of an obscure corner of Portland, Oregon, and ultimately onto center stage at the Oscars when, in 1997, he included several songs by Smith on the soundtrack for Good Will Hunting. Nominated track “Miss Misery” may have lost out to “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic, but the quieter voice had been heard. More were sure to come.

Indeed, right now we are in a particularly fertile moment in movie soundtrack songwriting. To understate, yes, it’s a good time to be a singer-songwriter—a modest singer-songwriter—in the movies. Paul Thomas Anderson captured the lure of the low-key in 1999’s Magnolia when he featured a whopping eight songs by L.A.’s interpreter of maladies, Aimee Mann. It just took the rest of the town a little time to catch up. And “wise up,” as Mann sang in one of her more cryptically catchy ballads. The collaboration between Mann and Anderson was an easy one. “I was getting ready to make a record while Paul was preparing to write a screenplay,” Mann says. “We were good friends and talking a lot so we were on the same page about a lot of things. We were naturally parallel and then… intersected.”

image Kimya Dawson, whose songs gave Juno a compelling voice.

Mann’s reputation as a precise lyricist whose stock and trade is music filled with troublesome characters made her a perfect partner for a screenwriter who populated his movies with lots and lots of people, each more wrecked than the last. Anderson even pulled a line from Mann’s Magnolia track, “Deathly,” for his script. Drug addict Claudia, played by actress Melora Walters, says to John C. Reilly’s complex cop, “Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?”

But that kind of give-and-take is rare. As Mann can attest, it is far more common for songwriters, especially ones with cult followings, to find themselves in the baffling quicksand of “work-for-hire.” The author of “Save Me” and “Wise Up” (both from Magnolia) was once asked to write a song for a big movie, a movie with needs, a movie that was supposed to do as well as, say, a Taco Bell Gordita. On a 10-person conference call to discuss the track Mann was told, “We need the song to be more positive. We want it to be an anthem.” She then says, her voice curdling in disgust, “And, I swear to God, someone actually said, ‘We want it to sound more like a hug.’ H-U-G.” In other words, they wanted an Ewok song. But Mann takes her solace in doing her work her way and will never again try to be something she’s not. Following up 2005’s The Forgotten Arm is the just-released @#%&! Smilers (Superego Records). The Forgotten Arm was conceived as a soundtrack to an imaginary movie (think Badlands without all the murder). A collection of unlinked vignettes, largely about life in L.A., @#%&! Smilers shows Mann’s narrative range and operates as an ensemble piece; less Terrence Malick and more Robert Altman.

Where, then, does an artist like Kimya Dawson, Juno’s main voice, fit in? Formerly of the band the Moldy Peaches and now a solo artist, Dawson had no hand in Juno director Jason Reitman’s decision to use her songs in his film. She is an innocent bystander to the success of the movie, but you can’t think of Juno the girl without also hearing Dawson. Her fingerprints are all over the thing. Reitman’s first choice was “Anything Else But You” because, as Dawson says, “It was the perfect song for the characters to sing to each other.” So, while she could never have planned it, Dawson, who writes solely to process her own life, wound up speaking intimately for these two fictional characters.

But this syncing up is just a happy accident. “I can’t tell someone else’s story,” says Dawson, “I don’t have enough information.” This is not the way of the screenwriter, who must tell someone else’s story. The fun comes when the two missions crash into one another and make something entirely new and that succeeds on its own terms. I think it was Ingmar Bergman who said it was like getting peanut butter in your chocolate. Or was it like getting chocolate in your peanut butter? The point is, it worked and the combination is a classic.

Surprise and synergy also drove Nick Urata of DeVotchKa! in his contributions to Little Miss Sunshine. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris heard a track by the band on Los Angeles public radio station, KCRW, and decided that was the sound they wanted for their Little Movie That Could. Says Urata, “It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. The station rarely plays us.” It was a chance encounter to be sure, but not a random act of directorial chutzpah. A New Yorker transplanted to Denver, Urata had been spending a lot of time bouncing around the Southwest on tour. From his van window, he saw terrain such as Red Rocks Canyon and vast stretches of desert. “For a kid from New York, it was like traveling through a John Ford movie and we did it so many times it began to influence the music. It was romantic. Whenever I got home to Denver I would try to recapture that feeling in the songs I was writing.” When Dayton and Faris screened movie footage for Urata, he saw, much to the amazement of his goose-bumped skin, that their little yellow VW bus was wheeling along the very stretch of highway that inspired the song they heard on the radio.

The grandeur of big skies and tiny people may have given Urata a heavy dose of mood music, but it was the story that sent him deeper into himself, while providing him something powerful to write to. “I was hooked by the sense that things were pretty damn tragic and the world is falling apart,” says Urata. “But then, you take a step back and notice how beautiful everything is.”

imageAimee Mann, photographed at her local haunt, Café Largo, in Los Angeles, by Sye Williams.

DeVotchKa!’s new album, A Mad And Faithful Telling (Anti Records), continues the landscaping of experience through the band’s many influences, from Greek folk music to Mariachi bands, not to mention the greatest hits from the land of the Romani. What is different since Little Miss Sunshine? “I’m drawn to larger themes. I used to just write long love songs. In songwriting, so much is intangible, and left to chance.”

Yes, the intangible. And that’s where the new crop of soundtrack artists do their best work. Success depends on the gut for its cues and good chemistry. Balls don’t hurt, either. To this writer, the collaboration that gives the present time its closest cousin to The Graduate is last year’s Into The Wild. Director Sean Penn could have put together a worshipful list of songs from the film’s setting in the early ’90s, that not only told us of seeker Chris McCandless’s need to flee society, but that also oozed hipster cred. There are plenty to choose from—Nirvana comes to mind. Instead, Penn worked with one artist, Eddie Vedder (no stranger to the early ’90s), to narrate McCandless’s journey via song. One form of creative solitude supported the other and, together, they guided us along on a quest for answers that drives us all. Who, for example, has not felt profound loneliness? “Hello darkness my old friend/ I’ve come to talk with you again.” That darkness is the packed movie theater and in it we are gathered together to witness something alive, and changing right before our eyes—and ears.