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How to Tell a Story with Music: A Look At Wes Anderson’s Famous Scores

Wes Anderson is a divisive director. Some moviegoers resonate with his idiosyncratic style, while others loathe it. But wherever you land on the spectrum, you can’t deny how masterfully he utilizes music. We take a deep dive into his uncanny ability for finding just the right song for just the right moment, whether that’s how he distinguishes between songs and scores or how he uses music as a way to interpret the stories he tells.

When to Use a Score Versus a Song

From his first feature film Bottle Rocket to his latest achievement Isle of Dogs, Anderson uses a combination of a score and a soundtrack in every work. No matter the project, the director has a meticulous plan for how he will use the two together–and it always depends on the moment.

When it comes to scores, Anderson works primarily with Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh and French composer Mark Alexandre Desplat, who also composed The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Shape of Water. Anderson only deviated from these two composers on one film, The Darjeeling Limited, for which he used the scores of famous Indian director and composer Satyajit Ray to honor the culture in which the movie is set.

Anderson and his music supervisor, Randall Poster, collaborate with Mothersbaugh, Desplat and others to make original music that compliments and supplements the story–usually the tone or the setting–while using existing music to overtake the story.

Anderson uses scores in the background, careful not to steal attention away from the moment or scene, while he uses soundtracks in the foreground, to purposefully overtake the moment or scene. The latter allows for the song to become a character in and of itself, with a life and story of its own. Though Anderson doesn’t establish a hard and fast rule, it’s something for filmmakers to note as a potential way of deciding when to use a score or soundtrack in your film: scores for background and soundtracks for foreground.

Making Your Film Feel Timeless

It’s hard to think of another director who uses oldies as frequently and effectively as Anderson. He’ll use everything from radio hits to deep cuts and hidden gems from the likes of The Kinks, Cat Stevens, The Zombies and The Beach Boys.

Anderson creates nostalgia, not necessarily to take viewers back to a certain time or place but to establish a universality and timelessness, getting his films out of the here and now. If you didn’t know the release date, for example, you might have trouble dating his movies–and that’s a good thing.

The way Anderson uses timeless music should urge filmmakers to consider the limitations that might exist when only using modern music and how that fixes their work in a specific context and sometimes even puts a ceiling on their work. As his filmography pays testament, Anderson helps us see the power of nostalgia.

The Timing of Anderson’s Music

Anderson’s approach to music ultimately hinges on timing. If the sound is not working precisely together with the image, nothing else matters. He accomplishes his seamless timing in three distinct ways: in the use of montage, slow motion and by always connecting a theme in his story directly to a song.

Music and Montage

First, let’s talk about montage. Anderson uses it in every one of his movies, and it’s one of the primary places where we see his musical selections come to life. Some of the most pertinent and poignant musical moments emerge when the dialogue fades, and Anderson brings together a momentous song with a series of cuts.

Music and Slow-Motion

Second, let’s talk about slow-motion. There probably isn’t a director working today who has achieved as many cathartic, poignant slow-mo moments as Anderson, moments that would never be achieved without the right music. This music comes in at the perfect moment and guides the steady movement of the characters, while subtly spelling out how we might see and interpret the moment.

Music and Theme

Anderson always connects the lyrics or the ideas behind a song to the heart of his movie or a particular moment. This allows the song to function as a set of lenses that help us view or interpret his movie.

Filmmakers, in particular, should consider Anderon’s approach, specifically how songs can serve as more than a technical device to move along the pace of a film or to make a particular scene more entertaining or emotionally compelling. Songs, especially when used in conjunction with distinct camera and editing techniques like slow motion and montage, become commentary for how you want viewers to see and think about your work. In this sense, they act as a central part of the narrative, becoming as big and significant as the characters themselves.

Learning From the Best

Anderson and his films demonstrate the unending possibilities of how a score and a soundtrack can not only supplement but carry forward a scene, story or character. So, whether you’re working in advertising, making narrative films or shooting weddings, filmmakers should pay close attention to the music of Wes Anderson. The director serves as a great model for creating a beautiful, cathartic collision of sight and sound within filmmaking; there’s so much that we can glean from his technique.