Music of the Movies: Spike Jonze

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Despite only having directed four feature films, Spike Jonze has become a household name for cinema enthusiasts everywhere. Known for his innovative directing style and his choice of quirky, absurdist and unusual subject matters, Jonze has also perfected some shining examples of aural-visual exploration through his movies, in the process creating some of the most affecting audial moments on screen.

Perhaps Jonze’s most memorable musical collaboration to date has been with Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who composed and recorded the score and soundtrack for Jonze’s beautiful adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic Where The Wild Things Are. Performing under the guise of Karen O and the Kids, the entire film is scored with carefully measured undertones, at times soft as a kitten’s fur and at other times as raucous as a room of over-excited kids. The anthemic strokes of All is Love have the feel-good vibe of the summers of youth where you were on top of the world and nothing could stop you, echoed perfectly in the protagonist Max’s rebellious and inspiringly youthful desire for excitement and fun. This sense of unbridled energy is exuded from the screen after Max is announced as the King of the Wild and proclaims “Let the wild rumpus start!”, the pulsing acoustic vibes of Rumpus chasing along with Max and the creatures of his wonderful imagination as they run wild and unstoppable.

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The real beauty in this soundtrack seeps through in the more tender moments of the film, with pieces like the gorgeously sparse Worried Shoes captivating the emotive gravity of the film. As the piano plays against the accordion and xylophone, set against the soothing and raw tones of Karen O’s vocals, the audience is transported back to that place in the mind of their youth: scared, lonely and uncertain. So few musical moments in cinema can illicit this very specific and very deep emotion but Where The Wild Things Are, with its whimsical charm and incredible cinematography complementing the same, creates a stunning landscape of sound and motion to capture the imagination and tap the emotional reaches of viewers of any and every age.

While Jonze’s cinematic canon is not as full as other film makers,the deft musical choices in his films are surely in part due to extensive experience and expertise as a music video director. Jonze has directed some of the most iconic videos in modern music, including the over-the-top big-ensemble video for Bjork’s It’s Oh So Quiet, Christopher Walken’s quasi-fantastical office dance craze montage for Weapon of Choice by Fatboy Slim and the Kings of Hip Hop Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Otis, to name but a few. All Jonze’s collaborations with new, innovative and groundbreaking bands and musicians have had a notable impact on not only the way he directs, but in his musical choices for the films he makes.

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Aside from his blockbuster releases, Jonze has a number of festival-circuit short films to his name, including the touching short I’m Here. Although shamelessly commercial in it’s advertising of Absolut Vodka (as it was funded by the company), the simple story of two robots falling in love is underscored cleverly, with main appearances from New York noise pop duo Sleigh Bells – the song A/B Machines thrashing out like a revelation against the setting.

Jonze’s earlier feature films, while being less musically-driven, show a more traditional and subtle use of cinematic music to set tone and atmosphere. His outstanding debut, Being John Malkovich, opens to the harsh strings and crashing timpani of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (Second Movement). This accompanies a puppet performing the comically named ‘Craig’s Dance of Despair and Disillusionment’, and the comical juxtaposition of the violent and throbbing urgency of the piece creates a stirring and intriguing opening to the film. Again in the director’s second feature film, Adaptation, more classical orchestral music is used to underscore the tension of the scenes in a very subtle and deft stroke.

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As seems to be emerging from his more recent films, Jonze has an incredible penchant for connecting with the viewer’s emotional resonance. This is felt throughout his most recent film, Her. This awards season sensation sees Joaquin Phoenix fall in love with his operating system in a not-so-distant future where everything is automatic and waistbands are once again high. The score, mainly composed by Arcade Fire whilst writing their most recent album, has earned them multiple award nominations and gives a perfect frame to the world into which the viewer is pulled from the outset of the film. Cleverly intertwining electronic and acoustic sound, the underscoring of the film gives a woody and rich tone to the picture, as well as individual tracks such as Supersymmetry and When You Know You’re Going to Die tugging the heart strings in just the right places. One of the most touching moments on the film is when the two heroes of the film sing together The Moon Song over the solitary strumming of a ukulele. Written by Karen O, the song showcases Scarlett Johansson’s endearingly smoky and sullen vocals beautifully, as we see the first time that the two really fall in love.

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Often mixing music styles into a glorious melange of sound and expression, Jonze’s incredibly visual and creative cinematic flair lends itself to a very interesting and inventive musical style. With each piece of music used is just as moving, elating or emotionally raw as it needs to be, Jonze always seems to emit an understated excellence in his film scores creating an often beautiful and always powerful aural image and filmic experience.

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