Wes Anderson flexes musical muscle in The Royal Tenenbaums

Wes Anderson, film director known best for emergent classics like The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore clearly knows what he’s doing with film — but can we say the same about the use of music in his films?

The Royal Tenenbaums proved definitive in capturing the feel of music in a Wes Anderson film; by now, it has become a trait of his cinematic auteur theory. The overarching style — especially as it’s exercised in the film — is most crisply defined by the Mutato Muzika Orchestra’s rendition of the Paul McCartney-penned classic, “Hey Jude.” Replete with harpsichord, the track defines the mood and feel of the film as a whole.

While we may be able to attribute much of the musical consistency across Anderson films to the use of the Mutato Muzika Orchestra — the Mark Mothersbaugh-helmed production company has also made at least some appearance on Anderson’s Bottle RocketRushmore, and The Life Aquatic — we can pinpoint some other important attributes of Anderson films that extend beyond Mutato Muzika.

Indeed, while The Darjeeling Limited — a film that largely makes use of Indian music and The Kinks — doesn’t feature the contributions of Mothersbaugh, there’s a keenness to the use of popular music that gives us that patented Anderson feel. Throughout the two hours of the film, we’re treated to songs from The Rolling Stones, Nico, The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, The Ramones, and The Clash, but it’s when we hear Nick Drake and Elliott Smith in the most tragic of circumstances that we really get a grasp on what Anderson was attempting with music in the film.

Yeah, we get The Beatles through Mutato Muzika, and it’s great, and it’s fun, and it’s poppy — there’s an overwhelming inventiveness that helps define the film. There’s no real denying that. However, when we hear “Needle in the Hay” and “Fly,” we realize that our expectations musically have been built and torn away. It’s in the surprise of suicide that we find the absolute power of pop music accompanying visuals.

The typically upbeat music set ironically against the bulk of the film — not a necessarily happy affair, and most certainly an awkward one — is clever, but when the film’s narrative and the music’s narrative coincide so strongly, we’re left staggering. The Royal Tenenbaums starts as a relatively simple affair and ends as a tale with real strength and emotion.

Through music, Anderson takes us on an unrivaled cinematic journey. The power of transition — an idea not made subtle in the film’s eventual climax — allows us to experience something that, without music, would just be a dull affair with sad, awkward characters filled with angst and ranting. Sure, it would be visually intriguing, and the character depth may even remain, but there’d not be much reason to care for the lot of them.

Instead, we’re given something with dignity, grace, and unmistakeable style. Anderson, through thematic musical elements, gives us distinguished, neurotic, and noble characters — and we’re given some reason for the undeniable sympathy they evoke.

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