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David Ehrlich

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David is the Senior Editor of Film.com. His interests include the New York Rangers, movies about movies, and regretting this personal bio.

The 10 Best Music Moments from Sofia Coppola Movies

lost in translation

From the start of her career as a filmmaker, it was abundantly clear that music was vitally important to Sofia Coppola, textually woven into the sinews of her work where so many other directors with her affinity for soundtracking were content to use the perfect pop song as mere window dressing. Few first-time directors have the funds and wherewithal to hire ambient pop wizards Air to score their debut feature, but Coppola has always made the most of her access. Refusing to rest on her laurels – she worked in close tandem with the French musicians to create a woozy soundscape that anchors “The Virgin Suicides” in the mode of a morbid reverie, the soft jazz bridges of “Playground Love” and ghoulish guitars of “Ghost Song” resulting in a consistent tonal groove that carries the Lisbon girls to the great beyond. Songs like “The Word ‘Hurricane’” and the haunted “Suicides Underground” actively incorporate the script into their sonic decay, setting the tone for how inextricable the music of Sofia Coppola’s films has been from her narratives.

Of course, “The Virgin Suicides,” and all of Coppola’s subsequent films, also illustrated her genius for finding the perfect pre-existing pop song to pair with a given moment, challenging the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Wong Kar-Wai as the modern masters of soundtracking. “The Bling Ring,” which expands to theaters across the country on Friday, is further proof that Coppola’s movies can still immediately and forever recontextualize a song – hearing the crunchy opening riffs of Sleigh Bells’ “Crown on the Ground” over the film’s trailer was enough to make me feel as though the indie rock stomper had finally found its true purpose (in this Pitchfork interview with Coppola and her mighty music supervisor Brian Reitzell, the director reveals that she actually wrote the opening scene to that song and played it on set for her actors).

Let’s go ahead and call the opening moments of “The Bling Ring,” which splash Sleigh Bells over the title treatment, the 10th best music moment from Sofia Coppola films, and begin to count down the top nine.

Note: I restricted this list to non-diagetic music, nothing that plays on the screen. So don’t hold your breath for karaoke.

9.) Song: “The State We’re In

Artist: The Chemical Brothers
Film: “Lost in Translation”

You wouldn’t necessarily know it from how Coppola features the song at a pivotal moment in “Lost in Translation,” but “The State We’re In” is one of the The Chemical Brothers’ most languid songs, the brunt of its nearly seven minutes lost in a heavy stupor, blissed out but immobile. The dreamy female vocals croon “There’s no escaping now / let me show you how / what it feels to be true,” the music bubbling with the unrealized promise of something better, something just out of reach.

And then, 258 seconds in, it pops. That’s where Coppola picks it up, as the tune crests over from the haze of its first portions to its sublimely wordless climax. After exchanging a number of coy flirtations, Bob (Bill Murray, duh) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson, come on you’ve all seen this movie), have decided to break free from their monolithic Tokyo hotel and enjoy a night on the town together. Bursting from the ennui of their respective lives and enjoying their first happy moments in who knows how long as they meet up with some friends at a club, the song perfectly captures the state they’re in (sorry), two people finally unencumbered by themselves. The explosions of light being projected against hanging orbs sufficiently illustrate the ecstasy of the moments, so that Bob and Charlotte are freed to be in it as purely as possible.

8.) Song: “What Ever Happened”

Artist: The Strokes
Film: “Marie Antoinette”

No one said being queen was easy. Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and the lover of a random soldier with whom she is deeply infatuated, is forced to ask her husband for permission to be excused from an afternoon card game. She’s trapped in a palace she seldom leaves and a marriage she never wanted, her moments of limited freedom dwindling into nothingness as she nears the end of her short life. She has no choice but to be grateful for the few short seconds she can steal for herself, away from the eyes of her minions and the weight of her nation.

She imagines her lover on horseback on the field of battle, and then runs through the gilded halls of Versailles just so that she can flop on her (ridiculously fluffy) comforter and luxuriate in her own thoughts. It’s an instance of unbridled enthusiasm from a girl who’s beginning to confront the smallness of her life, desperate for the concentrated howl of a Strokes song into which she might disappear for a minute or three. There’s no real solace, no real comfort, but in that moment we feel how alone she is nearly 200 years before the advent of rock n’ roll.

Also Check Out: The Films of Sofia Coppola, Ranked from Worst to Best

7.) Song: “Alone in Kyoto”

Artist: Air
Film: “Lost in Translation”

The “Alone in Kyoto” sequence is essentially a three-minute interlude in the middle of “Lost in Translation” in which Charlotte takes a brief leave from the Tokyo megalopolis and hops a bullet train to the most beautiful and serene city in the world. There isn’t much to it, really – Charlotte rests her head (ensconced in her giant headphones) against the window of the speeding Shinkansen, she observes a traditional wedding ceremony from a distance, and knots a private paper wish around the branch of a tree just before dusk.

It’s a passive sequence, one that both entreats and refutes baseless accusations of Orientalism, and it’s scored from start to finish to the meditative strains of Air’s “Lost in Kyoto,” which would later wind up as the final track on their (best?) record, “Talkie Walkie.” It’s pretty, but not exclusively for the sake of being pretty, the music allowing us to slip inside Charlotte’s headspace and feel how her sadness has become tinged with wonder, which is enough to convince us that she’s not hopeless.

6.) Song: “Natural’s Not In It”

Artist: Gang of Four
Film: “Marie Antoinette

“Remember Lot’s wife / Renounce all sin and vice / Dream of the bourgeoise life / This heaven gives me migraine.”

Accompanying and completing the blissfully confrontational opening salvo of Coppola’s third film, Gang of Four’s riotously pissed post-punk ditty immediately informs us that this Marie Antoinette will not be so quietly judged. On the contrary, she isn’t merely aware of your preconceptions, but also blithely indifferent to them. Lounging around Versailles twixt a mess of tiered pink cakes, Kirsten Dunst offers a parodic embodiment of the reviled young queen, while the crunching riffs serve as history’s response to her reign. But, just before we cut to the title card, Dunst offers a knowing look to the camera, a defiant expression of “so what?” that embarrasses our understanding of the young queen as a historical character, entreating us to understand her as a person like any other.

5.) Song: “Love Like a Sunset”

Artist: Phoenix
Film: “Somewhere”

I suppose that one of the upsides of marrying a musician is that it’s pretty easy to score the film rights for their music and / or convince them to rework their songs for the benefit of your movie. Sofia Coppola used Phoenix’s “Too Young” in “Lost in Translation,” and something sure must have clicked because “Somewhere” was the first film she made after the hiatus that resulted from the director having a baby with the band’s lead singer.

The film, Coppola’s most spare and simple work, relies on music far less often than one might have expected in the wake of “Marie Antoinette,” but this tender father / daughter story about the unbearable lightness of being famous certainly makes the most of its few non-diagetic cues. The somewhat divisive final moments of the movie follow fading movie star Johnny Marco as he finally checks out of his Chateau Marmont bungalow and ducks into his sweet black sports car for yet another drive.

As he wheels through downtown Los Angeles and eventually into the desert beyond the city, Coppola stretches a warbling synth note from the centerpiece of Phoenix’s “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” album, electronic noise mixing with the grunts of the Lamborghini’s engine as we feel Marco pulling up to a precipice of some kind. As he steps out of the car and confidently strides over a hill into the great unknown (approaching “Somewhere,” as the film’s detractors might say while rolling their eyes), the music finally breaks with the gloriously cathartic strum of a guitar, and we feel the relief of a man who finally knows where he’s going.

4.) Song: “I’ll Try Anything Once”

Artist: Julian Casablancas
Film: “Somewhere”

When the signature sound of Julian Casablancas’ hyper-modulated voice first bleats onto the soundtrack, it sounds like it’s wafting in from a tinny little radio on the far side of a patio. It’s lovely but faint, creating a moment so precious that acknowledging it might make it disappear. On a sublime, sun-dappled Los Angeles afternoon, Johnny Marco is finally a father again, spending some quality time with his oft-neglected daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning). For the first time in a long time (maybe ever), they’ve carved out a pocket of space to just be. They play ping-pong, enjoy an underwater tea party (it’s the cutest), and then – in the film’s signature shot – sunbathe by the pool in silence as Harris Savides’ camera slowly zooms out.

So many of Sofia Coppola’s most memorable music moments capture her characters in the moment of their greatest bliss, whatever that might look and sound like. This is the happiest moment of Johnny Marco’s life, and there’s something so casual about Casablancas’ vocal delivery that puts everything in its right place. The song sounds like it was recorded on a hungover Sunday morning, while dozens of half-naked partiers lay face down on the living room floor, which can be such a wonderful time to be alert and alive.

3.) Song: “Crazy on You”

Artist: Heart
Film: “The Virgin Suicides”

Regardless of the context, perfect music cues always arrive with that same chill.

Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), who recently emerged from baby fat to the delight of girls and their mothers alike, has finally talked himself into a date with Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst, natch), the prettiest doomed girl in town. After an impossibly awkward evening spent huddled around the living room TV, Lux’s dispassionate parents serving as watchful chaperones, Trip is forced to make his leave, his teenage thirsts must decidedly unquenched. You can practically hear the Snoopy music playing as Hartnett, swagged out in his “That 70’s Show” bests, mopes his way back to his car. But then, from out of nowhere, Lux appears, tearing the passenger door open and pouncing on the boy behind the wheel as Nancy Wilson’s angular chords sear the scene into Trip’s memory.

Coppola most often uses music to amplify an image (rather than destabilizing it, as can be heard in the closing credits of just about every HBO / AMC show, these days), and by smothering this heated kiss with the perfect song, it’s made abundantly clear that Trip will remember this moment for the rest of his life, the calcified bliss that he’ll constantly revisit but never re-live.

2.) Song: “Sometimes”

Artist: My Bloody Valentine
Film: “Lost in Translation”

As their night on the town winds down, Charlotte and Bob take a cab back to their hotel, the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Never mind why they’re riding over the Rainbow Bridge on the outskirts of the city, the bombastic wall of fuzz provided by a standout track from My Bloody Valentine’s seminal shoegaze album “Loveless” is enough to obliterate everything that isn’t completely essential. This music cue works for all of the same reasons the song does, but the genius of its selection on the soundtrack lies in how Coppola doesn’t double down on the track’s ethereal beauty, but instead relies on the rumbling distortion to bleed between scenes.

Bob is asleep in the backseat of the cab, so we see Charlotte, eyes popped with the neon of downtown Tokyo, as Kevin Shields’ gauzy vocals carry her back to her hotel. Then, as the lyrics subsumed into noise, we cut to the Park Hyatt hallway, where Bob literally carries Charlotte the rest of the way. It’s a subtle transition, but when you consider that the sequence is immediately followed by an agonizing phone call between Bob and his frustrated wife, it’s clear how this one cacophonous pop tune so clearly charts the distance between Bob and Charlotte, delineating the empty drone of their separate lives and the passing, barely possible frequency they find in all that noise.

1.) Song: “Just Like Honey”

Artist: The Jesus and Mary Chain
Film: “Lost in Translation”

It’s ironic that, for all of the brilliant marriages of sound and image that can be found in Sofia Coppola’s films, the most famous scene she ever shot hinges on a moment we can’t hear. Nevertheless, that sweet frustration is erased moments later with the staccato thumps of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey,” which Bob Harris’ drive back to Narita Airport will suddenly transform into the most bittersweet rock song ever written. The hollow percussion clues you in to the fact that you’ve arrived at the film’s final scene, which is a gut-punch unto itself, but then – after Bob returns to his cab and releases a contented “alright” – the song seems to collect almost all of the story’s disparate emotions into a single moment.

“Just Like Honey” isn’t a sad song, but the lyrics are fittingly rich with unresolved desperation. It isn’t necessarily a happy song, but those soaring guitar licks are knowingly triumphant, almost in spite of themselves. The words can be interpreted in any number of ways (literally they speak in part to Bob’s enchantment with Charlotte, and in part to the difficulty of returning to his wife, but you just try and convince me that it’s not really about cunnilingus), but every reading feels right. Wistful, wanting and somehow still victorious, “Just Like Honey” ends Coppola’s best film on a note that feels perfectly “alright.”

P.S. I will totally regret not including Squarepusher’s “Tommib” on this list.


Categories: Features

Tags: Colonel angus, Lost in translation, Marie antoinette, My bloody valentine, Sofia coppola, Somewhere, Soundtracks, Squarepusher, The Bling Ring, The Strokes, The Virgin Suicides

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