“Sometimes the music comes first,” Wes Anderson confessed in the liner notes of the soundtrack for Moonrise Kingdom. Literally, his film begins with a child putting on a record as the camera pans around the seaside house where the protagonist Suzy and her family reside. The record—Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to The Orchestra”—is meant to be an introduction to symphonic music for children, in which a narrator breaks down the orchestra’s performance into the different families of instruments, only to have them play altogether again at the end of the piece. The structure of Britten’s composition is a perfect metaphor for Anderson’s film—the many details and elements shine splendidly on their own while they all come together quite swimmingly in one singular movie.
The above quote from Anderson is actually referring to another work by Britten, “Noye’s Fludde” (Noah’s Flood), which serves as the inspiration for this film. The English opera was written specifically to be performed in churches by mostly amateur performers, which Anderson had experienced as a child when he attended St. Francis Episcopal Day School in Houston. Aside from being the backdrop of the film’s two prepubescent lovebirds’ initial meeting, the opera is not overtly referenced in the rest of the film. More importantly, Anderson is drawing from the feelings he had from that age in his own life. Whether it is the disaffected youth in Bottle Rocket or the extracurricular troublemaker Max Fischer in Rushmore, Anderson’s characters unassumingly carry a piece of him with them. The bond between the filmmaker and his characters is the key to the emotional authenticity of his films. No one is going to deny that his films are almost always centered on upper middle class white people (except Fantastic Mr. Fox) but that in itself is not a valid cause to dismiss his films. Without a doubt, being white and being a brat are traits that are ingrained in many of his characters. But I see it more as a reflection of his self. Chances are that it would be disingenuous for Anderson to recreate some personal epiphany through the eyes of a teenage lesbian from the projects (not that it’s impossible!). His movies never set out to be serious or profound, but there is a certain emotional depth that is masked behind the visually spectacular.
Now let me continue to discuss Anderson’s choice of music because it undeniably plays an important role in every single one of his movies. His uncanny use of underappreciated pop music has reached its pinnacle with The Royal Tenenbaums yet The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou teeters on the verge of self-parody despite its attractive soundtrack. At his best, in scenes such as the slo-mo introduction of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margo set to Nico’s “These Days” in The Royal Tenenbaums, the music-oriented sequences of Anderson’s past films are often beautifully designed individual set pieces. Moonrise Kingdom is a step away from that direction as his preference has drifted towards mostly instrumental with the exception of a few Hank Williams songs and one Francois Hardy record. Anderson is hardly the first filmmaker to frame his scenes with an obscure pop gem but he is unquestionably one of the best in the practice and his followers are in abundance. One could sprinkle the classics of The Kinks or Nick Drake in a ninety-minute movie (like Jason Reitman’s Juno or Zach Braff’s Garden State) but so could a twenty-second long television commercial. But his imitators have often ended up with an empty-shell of a scene because their vision was never that compelling to begin with and a good song just could not be held responsible for the heavy lifting. On the other hand, Anderson’s movies and its soundtrack are joined at the hip. Case in point: The prank wars sequence between Max and Mr. Blume in Rushmore was conceived with The Who’s “A Quick One (While He’s Gone)” in mind. Music plays a huge role in his creative process rather than just a supporting role for the end product. In the case of Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson may have very well made a totally different film had he not been exposed to Britten’s music at a young age.
The mini-music-video style has made way for the comparatively low-key use of classical music, but Anderson remains as in tune with the harmony between sound and image as ever. Aided by composer Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful original orchestral suite, the multiple Britten pieces set the tone for the preteen runaways’ innocent longing and appetite for wonderment in the woods of a northeast island. In contrast, Hank Williams’s signature cry breaks signal the unfulfilled desires of the adults. I am very fond of how “Kaw-Liga” acts as an emotional link between the two worlds. On one hand there is an unrequited love story sung by a lovelorn Hank in the verse. On the other hand, the up-tempo chorus hints at a sense of adventure (not to mention the cheeky pun on the wooden Indian). The improbable yet convincing combo of humor and sadness is one of most endearing attribute of a Wes Anderson movie.
This is part one of our essay on Moonrise Kingdom, in which we focus on the music in Wes Anderson’s film(s).