At this stage in his career, it’s simply a fact that - by any measure - Wes Anderson is one of cinema’s greatest auteurs. The Texan-born director has created one of the most instantly recognizable visual styles in cinematic history, one that is rife with pastel colors, ultra-symmetrical compositions and a near manic attention to the tiniest of details.
But just as key to the Anderson aesthetic is his use of music, an elemental force in every one of his films. Far from being used in the background, his expertly-curated use of familiar rock and pop staples are a character entirely to themselves, often providing a scene’s emotional catharsis.
Ahead of the release of his latest opus Isle of Dogs, we’ve taken a look at some of Wes Anderson’s most essential musical moments. Browse our picks below.
"He's one of the worst students we've got."
Movie: Rushmore (1998) Artist: The Creation Song: "Making Time"
One of the most distinctly Wes Anderson qualities of them all (and certainly the most frequently-parodied) is his use of a 'list' montage; presenting a rapid fire set of tableaus more eye-catching than the last with text overlaid in service of presenting an exhaustive catalogue of subjects or materials.
In one of his earliest and best uses of the technique, the director gives us an iconic introduction to Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), precocious student of the Rushmore Academy and undisputed king of extracurricular activities. Cheekily set to British '60s rock band The Creation's "Making Time", it perfectly sets the tone for the misadventures of the unlikely hero soon to follow.
"As always, she was late."
Movie: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Artist: Nico Song: "These Days"
When he's not overloading the senses with quick cuts, Anderson often employs sudden moments of slow motion; designed for maximum emotional impact. One of the most bracing examples of this technique is the arrival of Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) to pick up her brother Ritchie (Luke Wilson) in The Royal Tenenbaums.
Nico's cover of folk-rock staple "These Days" is a song that is heavy with heartache and repressed yearning, the guitar gently plucking beneath an anguished meditation on days of the past long gone. It's placement in this scene is able to express the emotional upheaval of both characters and their forbidden love for each other in what would normally take pages of dialogue in seconds. Not to mention that it weirdly pairs perfectly with images of Gwyneth Paltrow's hair blowing slowly through the breeze.
Movie: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Artist: Ramones Song: "Judy Is a Punk"
In what could have been stated in a single line (that Margot is indeed having an affair), Anderson brilliantly opts for one of his breakneck speed montages that inevitably serves as the funniest moment in the somber The Royal Tenenbaums.
No better soundtrack could possibly have been chosen to chronicle the misdeeds of Margot than Ramones, purveyors of the quintessential sound of 'rebellion.' And in a film filled to the brim with classic rock, this brief cut from Ramones' landmark self-titled debut delivers the biggest impact of the bunch.
"I'm going to kill myself tomorrow."
Movie: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Artist: Elliott Smith Song: "Needle in the Hay"
Just as Ramones are the ideal musical cue for all things mischievous and rambunctious, the work of Elliott Smith seems custom made for uh, er, wrist-cutting. Almost painfully fragile, Smith (rightfully) became iconoclastic in '90s indie rock, pairing richly-woven sonic textures with his delicate coo of a voice.
Naturally, Anderson thought to use Smith to soundtrack what might be the darkest scene he's ever committed to film. The Royal Tenenbaums is riddled with standout imagery, but the dead-eyed visage of Ritchie in that very blue bathroom slowly and determinedly shearing himself is among the most memorable.
"The Belafonte at sea."
Movie: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) Artist: David Bowie Song: "Rebel Rebel", "Life on Mars?", "Ziggy Starudst", "Rock n' Roll Suicide", "Queen Bitch", "Space Oddity"
Even the most die hard Wes Anderson fans may find The Life Aquatic to be a bit too whimsical; for the director known for quirkiness, his 2004 nautical adventure is the towering apex of his quirk.
Case in point? Hiring Brazilian singer Seu Jorge to act as a pseudo-Greek chorus for the film, encircling the characters and commenting from afar with a series of early David Bowie covers. Nearly half of the late rockstar's masterpiece album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust finds its way into the film, as do choice cuts from Hunky Dory and Diamond Dogs. The OG Bowie recordings appear twice during the film, but it's Jorge's minimal, folksy interpretations of these classics that give Life Aquatic its distinct flavor of (space) oddity.
"Tell them if they don't get off my boat right now there's going to be a major shit storm."
Movie: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) Artist: Iggy & the Stooges Song: "Search and Destroy"
Bowie wasn't the only glam-icon to appear on The Life Aquatic soundtrack; naturally, Iggy Pop is there too. To score the climactic scene of Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) shooting at pirates in a bathrobe, Anderson chose the volcanic opening track to the Stooges' masterpiece, Raw Power.
Aside from one injury here or there, Anderson cuts out virtually all sound effects from the rampaging battle, allowing the caterwauls and screams of Iggy Pop to do the work instead. The only thing that would get your adrenaline up more than the godfather of punk screaming about having "a heart full of napalm" is watching Bill Murray toss a grenade to that very same line.
"I wonder if it remembers me."
Movie: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) Artist: Sigur Rós Song: "Starálfur"
Ever since they first burst onto the international scene, Icelandic post-rock outfit Sigur Rós have carried with them a sense of divinity; of the great unknown. Singing in an invented language over lush orchestral arrangements, their music is practically designed for those moments in life that feel transcendent.
It's a testament to their power that they can score a scene of a ragtag group of sailors encountering a stop-motion puppet creature called a 'jaguar shark' and turn it into a moment of profound catharsis. Anderson must have known that few other musicians' work could be capable of grounding such absurdity with real emotional weight.
"Maybe we could express ourselves more fully if we say it without words."
Movie: The Darjeeling Limited (2007) Artist: The Rolling Stones Song: "Play With Fire"
After the wall-to-wall insanity of Life Aquatic, Wes Anderson significantly pared things down with his next feature, the understated character study The Darjeeling Limited. It depicts three brothers on a cross-country trip through India, slowly coming to terms with the death of their father and making their way to their mother who has holed up in a convent in the countryside.
Nearly the entire film is a journey to see her, and their long-anticipated reunion is spent in... silence. Anderson fills this silence with an early classic from The Rolling Stones, letting the melancholic tones of Mick Jagger and a plinking harpsichord bear the emotional brunt of the entire film. In a moment of overt surrealism, the camera suddenly keeps panning past the family to revisit every other character we've met during the film, uniting everyone in a shared feeling of loneliness and longing.
"You wrote a bad song Petey!"
Movie: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Artist: Jarvis Cocker Song: "Fantastic Mr. Fox AKA Petey's Song"
Far and away the most 'meta' musical moment on this list, Fantastic Mr. Fox breaks from the storyline of woodland animals stealing vittles from evil farmers to visit an impromptu folk band singing of their plot. The singer - Petey - is voiced with true aplomb by Britpop legend Jarvis Cocker who manages to wring quite a bit of meaning from lines like "zippy-zee, zappy-za / Yappy-yo, goggle-gum".
And just when the viewer has calibrated itself to adequately process the ragtime-folk musical number rehashing the plot of the film they're in the midst of watching, Anderson ends the shenanigans with the villain of the film marching on screen to declare that it's "a bad song". It's inspired, it's out of no where, and it's a totally Andersonian ploy.
"I got sand in my mouth."
Movie: Moonrise Kingdom Artist: Françoise Hardy Song: "Le Temps de L'amour"
The Wes Anderson trope of precocious children is exemplified in his 2012 feature Moonrise Kingdom, a breathless adventure/romance between two preteens who are the most grounded, level-headed duo in a sea of befuddled adults.
Soundtracking a love scene between two minors is a task that must be done with care and taste, and Anderson hits it right out of the park. In an homage to the films of the French New Wave, he strikes a perfect balance between earnestness and hilarity, depicting a courtship through dance that is dead serious for those involved but laugh out loud hilarious for the viewer.
Wes Anderson's 'Isle of Dogs' is out everywhere on March 23. Read why it's his most political (and possibly best) film here.