The Music of Sofia Coppola
"I enjoy movies when they're sincere, from personal experience. I like taking your time meandering with the music. There's so much that isn't said in a look. I like observing things. I'm not interested in a lot of dialogue." - Sofia Coppola, 2003
For Sofia Coppola, music and cinema go hand in hand. The precocious daughter of Francis Ford Coppola got involved in movies before her love of music had even had a chance to develop – she appeared in The Godfather when just a few months old – but as both an actress and then a writer-director there has been a strong thread connecting these two major passions.
In the following series of articles, Nick Dawson examines the role that music has played in the work of Sofia Coppola, from her early days directing and appearing in pop promos for bands like Sonic Youth and the Flaming Lips through to her 2010 Venice Film Festival-winning Somewhere, which was scored by the French band Phoenix.
In his look at music in the work of Sofia Coppola, Nick Dawson considers the Oscar-winner’s creative output prior to her debut feature, The Virgin Suicides.
In his appreciation of Sofia Coppola’s use of music in her work, Nick Dawson moves on to The Virgin Suicides, Coppola’s feature debut.
Nick Dawson examines the sounds of Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning second feature, Lost in Translation, which has a major soundtrack contribution from My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields.
In the penultimate part of his look at the Somewhere director’s use of music, Nick Dawson turns his attention to Sofia Coppola’s historical biopic Marie Antoinette.
Nick Dawson concludes his survey of the musical palette of writer-director Sofia Coppola with a look at her Venice Film Festival-winning Somewhere.
The Music of Sofia Coppola: The Early Work
Throughout the 1990s, there always seemed to be a “Sonic Youth connection” for Sofia Coppola’s projects.
In 1990, Coppola appeared in the music video for Sonic Youth’s “Mildred Pierce” (a song referencing the classic 1945 Joan Crawford movie), and in 1994 the seminal rock band’s frontman, Thurston Moore, returned the favor by appearing on the Comedy Central show Hi Octane. Co-directed and co-hosted by Coppola and her best friend Zoe Cassavetes (the daughter of indie directing great John Cassavetes), Hi Octane spotlighted musicians that Coppola loved such as Mike Watt (of The Minutemen and fIREHOSE), Beck, the Beastie Boys and Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers. (Coppola’s future husband Spike Jonze, who had directed videos for both Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, also directed segments of the show.)
During the 1990s, Coppola also appeared in the music videos for The Black Crowes “Sometimes Salvation” and Madonna’s “Deeper and Deeper” (both in 1992), and was directed by Jonze in the promo for The Chemical Brothers’ 1997 song “Elektrobank.”
As a director, Coppola cut her teeth directing pop promos for power rock combo Walt Mink’s 1993 song “Shine” and oddball indie darlings The Flaming Lips’ 1996 track “This Here Giraffe.” The former was a sunny celebration of summer that gave a hint of the gauzy, hazy, bleached out look of The Virgin Suicides, while latter took the Flaming Lips to see a real giraffe in a zoo.
Following 1996’s short film Bed, Bath and Beyond, which she co-helmed with actress friend Ione Skye and Hi Octane producer Andrew Durham, Coppola made her solo directing debut in 1998 with the 14-minute Lick the Star. Made just a year before The Virgin Suicides, the stylish, black-and-white short Lick the Star acts as a companion piece to Coppola’s first feature film. Like The Virgin Suicides, it looks at death from the perspective of teenage girls: it’s about a group of 7th grade girls who, inspired by V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic, hatch a plot to slowly poison the boys at their school with arsenic. Musically, Lick the Star sources female pop punk with tracks by The Amps (headed by Kim Deal, formerly of The Pixies and The Breeders), Belinda Carlisle’s seminal girl rockers The Go-Go’s, and Free Kitten, featuring Pussy Galore’s Julia Cafritz and Sonic Youth’s singer-guitarist Kim Gordon.
The Music of Sofia Coppola: The Virgin Suicides
There is a Sonic Youth connection through much of Sofia Coppola’s work in the 1990s, and it also extends to Coppola’s first feature: in 1995, the band’s frontman, Thurston Moore, gave Sofia a copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’ 70s-set novel The Virgin Suicides, about a group of troubled, blonde, beautiful sisters in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. When Coppola approached turning Eugenides’ work into a film, she enlisted the help of Brian Reitzell. Though now an experienced music supervisor, Reitzell had then never worked on a film before; a former drummer in the band Redd Kross, he knew Coppola because of his relationship with Stephanie Hayman, one of Coppola’s oldest friends and also her co-screenwriter on Lick the Star. (Once again, there is a Sonic Youth connection as in the mid-90s Coppola and Hayman co-founded the clothing line Milk Fed together with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon.)
“Sofia Coppola asked me to work on the film The Virgin Suicides as a music supervisor,” Reitzell recalls, “but neither of us knew what that was. She needed some ’70s music and I was unemployed. I had quit the band I’d been in for eight years and I wanted to play weird instrumental music. What better place to do it than in films?”
Together, Coppola and Reitzell handpicked music that evoked for them the feelings of being a teenager in the mid-70s. They selected songs by artists such as The Hollies, ELO, Styx, 10CC, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Carole King, Al Green and The Bee Gees, as well as multiple tracks by both Todd Rundgren and Heart. They also included five songs by the contemporary Canadian power pop outfit Sloan (all but one from their 1996 album One Chord to Another), an anachronistic choice which worked because the band’s sound captured the feel of 70s rock just as much as any of the other artists used in The Virgin Suicides.
Coppola had written the screenplay to The Virgin Suicides while listening to the music of the French electronic duo Air, and in 1998 Reitzell had drummed for the band on their tour to promote their second album, Moon Safari. So it seemed a natural choice that Air’s Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel would write the score for the movie. “The music [by the group Air] really helped a lot,” Coppola told interviewer Jeffrey M. Anderson. “I wanted to work with them because they have that kind of dreamlike sound. I listened to their music a lot when I was writing the script."
Rather than just writing short musical cues for The Virgin Suicides, Air created a cohesive album of music which stayed true to the ethereal quality of Moon Safari while organically incorporating elements of 70s retro rock. “A collection of predominantly short, somber instrumental pieces,” wrote music reviewer David Browne in Entertainment Weekly, “the music is shrouded in a sort of smoke-machine haze, giving the record the feel of a great lost art-rock album of the '70s.”
In Rolling Stone magazine, James Hunter ran with the idea of Air’s album being a piece of classic 70s rock and broke down the different musical influences he detected: “The tone is set by a Bowie-tinged song of youthful love and sadness titled "Playground Love." Thereafter, gnomic music of synths and saxes and ironies burbles and bubbles along, broken up by dance beats on up-tempo moments like "Empty House" and "Dead Bodies," where Air finally resurrect their old Bacharach-esque swirl. "Bathroom Girl" luxuriates in a slowed-down Beatlehead melody; "Cemetery Party" works a lacy bunch of synth and guitar stylings atop a stark electronic stutter. "Dirty Trip" blooms and broods, rather like a tiny tribute to Seventies Pink Floyd. The album is exceedingly strange yet scrupulously crafted and intelligent.”
The Music of Sofia Coppola: Lost in Translation
After creating a haunting and memorable score for The Virgin Suicides, Air returned for Sofia Coppola’s next film, the 2003 Focus Features movie Lost in Translation, though this time Dunckel and Godin only contributed one new track, “Alone in Kyoto.” Reitzell, also reprised his role as music supervisor, and from the beginning of Coppola’s creative process on Lost in Translation his contribution was essential. "I trust Brian," Coppola told the Los Angeles Times in 2003. "He's got an incredible knowledge of music. I mean, he knows everything. It's encyclopedic. I knew I wanted him involved from the start, so I told him a little about the story I was about to write, about the characters, and about the kind of feeling I wanted to create around them."
Coppola had become inspired to write the film after spending time in Tokyo in 2001, and asked Reitzell to find music that would evoke a "sense of disassociation, of being in this kind of unfamiliar, alienating world.” Reitzell’s own experiences in Tokyo helped him key into the feeling she wanted, and he created mix CDs entitled 'Tokyo Dream Pop 1, 2 and 3.'
“Brian got involved at the script stage because he gets what Sofia is trying to relay,” explained Lost in Translation’s producer Ross Katz. “It's something that is hard to capture on the page, but Sofia knows exactly how to shoot it and Brian knows how to help find the sounds.” Coppola affirmed, "He captured something beautiful with the music that I couldn't convey with just words and images. He made it magical."
Interestingly, Japan was not only the setting for the creative conception of the movie but the place where Reitzell had a major breakthrough in his work on the soundtrack. In 2002, Reitzell was touring in Japan with Air and found himself hanging out with My Bloody Valentine’s legendary lead singer Kevin Shields, who at the time was playing guitar with seminal indie band Primal Scream. At one point, Reitzell casually asked the famously reclusive Shields if he’d be interested in writing some music for the Lost in Translation soundtrack. ("They said I was crazy, that it wasn't going to happen," Reitzell recalls.)
Sofia Coppola is a huge My Bloody Valentine fan, declaring the band’s classic shoegaze album Loveless to be ''Great, romantic, and melancholic and dreamy, one of my favorite records.'' Coppola told Hot Press, “I got it when I was in my early twenties and I would just sit in my house and listen to it over and over again. When we came to do the soundtrack for Lost In Translation, myself and Brian Reitzell talked about how great it would be to get Kevin, although we weren't too sure if he would do it.”
Shields’ guitar fuzz pop was a perfect match for the sound that Coppola and Reitzell were creating for the movie, and it transpired that Shields was also a fan of The Virgin Suicides. So when Reitzell reconnected with Shields in 2002, things just clicked: “They had a My Bloody Valentine song already and they thought they should get me involved just to kind of bias the feel towards that (sound),” Shields recalls. “Brian's really smart about that and just thought maybe they should approach it like, 'It would be nice if maybe you could do something as it pans across the cityscape.' Before the film was finished I was getting scenes of Tokyo, no actors in it."
Shields was also a great fit for Lost in Translation because he was not a movie composer, and Coppola wanted someone who could bring a new perspective to her film. “I wanted there to be a different context, so it didn't just feel like a typical movie,” Coppola told Salon’s Brian Libby. “It never even occurred to me to use a more traditional score or composer. For this one I loved working with Kevin Shields to create this kind of romantic melancholy, with a sort of droopiness too. It's such a huge part of the atmosphere.”
In addition to the My Bloody Valentine song "Sometimes" (from Coppola’s favorite MBV album, Loveless), Shields wrote the new tracks "City Girl," "Goodbye," "Ikebana" and "Are You Awake?" for the movie. Additionally, Reitzell himself penned some instrumental music and his band TV Eyes contributed the song “She Gets Around.” The “Tokyo dream pop” sound was reinforced by selections from shoegaze heroes The Jesus and Mary Chain, and electronica acts like Death in Vegas, Squarepusher and Sébastien Tellier. Also featured was the song “Too Young” by French pop outfit Phoenix, whose lead singer Thomas Mars (under the pseudonym Gordon Tracks) had previously sung vocals on “Playground Love,” the lead single off Air’s Virgin Suicides score.
Music is not only extremely important in setting the mood of Lost in Translation, but also functions as an important part of the story. One of the film’s major themes is cultural difference, and music acts as a bridge between Japanese and American cultures for Lost in Translation’s main characters, Bob and Charlotte (played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson). One way in which they merge with Japanese nightlife is by going to a karaoke bar, in which the songs being sung act as a universal language, perfectly exemplified by Fumihiro Hayashi’s energetic rendition of the Sex Pistols’ "God Save the Queen."
However, even more than just a cultural common ground, the specific songs that Bob and Charlotte sing at the bar – he chooses "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" by Elvis Costello and Roxy Music’s "More Than This" while she does a version of "Brass in Pocket" by The Pretenders – are part of an ongoing dialogue which mirrors the progression in their relationship. For a more detailed examination of this, check out critic Stephanie Zacharek’s thoughts on this scene in our REWATCH: Lost in Translation video.
The Music of Sofia Coppola: Marie Antoinette
On Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola felt that “music supervisor” failed to sum up the level of Brian Reitzell’s creative involvement on the film. So instead, she created a new job title, naming him the film’s “music producer.” Over the course of making The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, Coppola and Reitzell had developed an implicit understanding of each other’s artistic sensibilities. Indeed, their creative partnership had been so successful that it seemed natural that Reitzell should reteam with Coppola on her third film, 2006’s Marie Antoinette.
From the start, Coppola’s biopic of the much-maligned French queen was not going to follow the rulebook: after reading Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey, she was inspired to make a film about a teenage girl with the eyes of the world on her, rather than pursue a staid historical drama in which period authenticity was paramount. And, in many ways, Coppola’s ideas on the role that the music should play were her most revolutionary in the film.
The start of opening credits of Marie Antoinette brilliantly establish that this is no ordinary historical biopic: we first hear Gang of Four’s strident, angular post-punk classic “Natural’s Not In It,” and then see Marie Antoinette (played by Kirsten Dunst) lounging in luxury on a chaise longue, surrounded by elaborate cakes, and being dressed by her maid. The combination of sound and image are anachronistic, yet make an instinctive sense.
''My introduction to 18th-century France was from New Romantic music, from the imagery of Bow Wow Wow and Adam Ant, and Vivienne Westwood, and the whole scene that was going on post-punk, when I was an adolescent,'' Coppola told Entertainment Weekly. ''That was probably my first impression of that period, through their take on it.''
Coppola was herself a teenager when post-punk and New Wave gave her a first glimpse of Marie Antoinette’s world, so she decided that the music of that era would provide the ideal starting point for the film’s soundtrack. Bow Wow Wow, a band started by the Sex Pistols’ impresario Malcolm McLaren to promote Vivienne Westwood’s New Romantic clothes, provided particular inspiration. In addition to three Bow Wow Wow songs being used in the film, Coppola found a touchstone in the cover image of the group’s I Want Candy: Anthology record, a reimagined take on Édouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l'herbe via Westwood’s extreme punky clothes and wild palette. Bow Wow Wow’s lead singer, Annabella Lwin – picked by McLaren to be in the band when she was just 14 – provided a perfect punk parallel to Marie Antoinette, who was 14 when she became Queen of France.
At Coppola’s request, Reitzell created a series of “Versailles” mix CDs to conjure up a revisionist take on the spirit of the resplendent French royal palace via early 1980s music, and then set about diversifying his musical palate by listening to a lot of opera and baroque chamber music. “We decided early on that our approach would be a collage of different kinds of music," says Reitzell. “The soundtrack is a double disc, a post-punk-pre-new-romantic-rock-opera odyssey with some 18th century music and some very new contemporary music.”
The soundtrack is ultimately an ingenious mix of old and new. The artists who have multiple tracks on Marie Antoinette soundtrack run the musical gamut from classical (baroque soprano Agnès Mellon and the chamber ensemble Les Arts Florissants) to New Wave (Bow Wow Wow) to shoegaze (contemporary Swedish band The Radio Dept.) to electronica (Aphex Twin). However, the line between old and new is also consciously blurred. For instance, the haunting classical piano music in the film which is reminiscent of Erik Satie is in fact by Dustin O’Halloran, the guitarist and keyboard player from dream pop band Devics. And two of the three Bow Wow Wow songs featured in the film were given new life by being remixed by Kevin Shields, returning to work with Coppola and Reitzell once again after their success on Lost in Translation.
“The eclectic blend of sounds,” Reitzell told film critic Emanuel Levy, “makes it a lot easier to put yourself in the movie. The music resonates because it shows how these people really were. For most of the movie, Marie Antoinette is an adolescent and it would have been a lot harder to get across her teen angst with a Masterpiece Theater type of soundtrack.”
In his review of Marie Antoinette, Roger Ebert underlined that it was exactly the film’s musical choices that allowed modern audiences to understand Coppola’s teenage heroine. “Many characters in historical films seem somehow aware that they are living in the past,” Ebert wrote. “Marie seems to think she is a teenager living in the present, which of course she is -- and the contemporary pop references invite the audience to share her present with ours.”
The Music of Sofia Coppola: Somewhere
Throughout Sofia Coppola’s career as a feature film director, one constant has been the involvement, in one way or another, of Phoenix’s lead singer Thomas Mars. For The Virgin Suicides, Mars (under the pseudonym Gordon Tracks) provided vocals for Air’s hauntingly beautiful theme song, “Playground Love,” and also had a cameo in the music video for that song, which Coppola co-directed with her brother, Roman. Phoenix’s song “Too Young” was featured in Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation. And in Marie Antoinette, the band appeared as lute players who serenade Kirsten Dunst’s young queen with the song “Ou Boivent Les Loups” (which Phoenix wrote especially for the movie).
Somewhere is a film which deals with ideas of home and family, so it’s very fitting that Coppola chose Phoenix to write the score. In her 2003 profile of Coppola, Lynn Hirschberg of the New York Times described Sofia and Brian Reitzell going to watch Phoenix record some new tracks:
“The band plays their latest track. It was an infectious pop song. Sofia leaned back in her chair at the console, surrounded by seven boys. ‘That song makes you want to be in love,’ she said. ‘Let's hear it again.’ The song played. ‘I'm right at home,’ Sofia said. She had found new members of the family.”
Hirschberg’s capturing of the situation was remarkably prescient, as Coppola and Thomas Mars now have two children together, and Phoenix are indeed new members of the family.
Coppola asked Phoenix to contribute music to Somewhere, as she felt their two-part song “Love Like a Sunset” (from the band’s 2009 hit album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix) created the perfect mood for the film. “She asked us to do some music, very in the spirit of ‘Love Like a Sunset,’ so we tried to put that track and elements of the track in the movie, and it worked well," the group’s guitarist Christian Mazzalai told MTV. "And then we wrote very small pieces of music, very minimal music for the movie too. ... We're very proud of it.”
The band consciously took a very subtle approach, writing a score that blended with the sounds of the movie rather than imposing or being overtly obvious. “It's very minimal,” Mars said in an interview with the BBC. “It's almost like sound design. It wasn't like writing songs, it was more about trying to make a sound that fits with a Ferrari and the city of Los Angeles's theme. It was more of an engineer work than a composer.”
To the band, however, this approach was very satisfying. “This is the first time we feel [that] the music fits to the picture,” says Deck D'Arcy, Phoenix’s bassist. “We've [been on] many soundtracks before, and it's always weird for us — producers must like [our songs], of course it if they use them — but for us, it's always weird to see them in the films.” Mazzalai adds his agreement, saying, “This is the first time we feel like the images match the music [in a film].”
The airy nature of Phoenix’s score chimes perfectly with the general musical approach Coppola takes with Somewhere. Whereas her three previous films heavily feature music, both diegetic and non-diegetic, throughout, Coppola’s new film is markedly sparse in terms of the number of tracks used. Indeed, Somewhere’s soundtrack album, which is comprised of 15 compositions, makes up the entirety of the music used in the movie – with the exception of Phoenix’s score.
Almost all of those songs are rooted in the world of the movie, rather than being laid over the action by Coppola. When Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) and his daughter Cleo duel at Guitar Hero, they play along to “So Lonely” by the Police and T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy.” The blonde twins who regularly visit Johnny to dance for him blast out "My Hero" by the Foo Fighters and “1 Thing” by Amerie on their boombox. In a party scene, Dorff and company listen to "Love Theme From Kiss" by Kiss and "Look" by French musician Sebastian Tellier (whose song “Fantino” was featured in Lost in Translation).
When Cleo goes to practice her ice skating at Pickwick Ice, she performs to Gwen Stefani’s “Cool,” a song Coppola had set her heart on using. The track is “a sweet song,” says Coppola, “and you believe that an 11‐year‐old would be ice‐skating to it. I’m so happy we got that song, because I love the way it works with that [sequence]; it’s so sincere.” Additionally, the live performances of “Teddy Bear” by Romulo, the Chateau Marmont’s singing waiter, and Paolo Jannacci’s “Che si fa” – which plays as showgirls dance around Johnny on-stage at an Italian awards show – are at the very heart of the scenes in which they feature.
The notable exceptions are Phoenix’s "Love Like a Sunset Part I” and "Love Like a Sunset Part II" by Phoenix, which are heard over the opening and closing credits, respectively, and “I'll Try Anything Once” by The Strokes. The latter track – featuring just tinny keyboard and the stripped down vocals of singer Julian Casablancas – provides a musical backdrop to scenes of Johnny and Cleo playing ping pong and then lying on sun loungers by the Chateau Marmont’s pool. The contemplative lyrics, about the right and wrong decisions one makes in life, provide a poignant counterpoint to the images of an often-absent father finally connecting with his daughter.