You can tell immediately when you’re watching a Woody Allen movie. Not just from the opening credits (Windsor Light Condensed on black title cards) but from the music. Woody loves the stuff – he’d rather play clarinet with his band than go to the Oscars. He loves it so much that he joins the list of directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese who are known for using popular, pre-existing music in their soundtracks. The man has directed an astonishing 43 films in his career. Just seven of those have original scores.
Allen started his career with none other than Marvin Hamlisch, who would go on to score The Spy Who Loved Me. Working on Bananas after Take The Money And Run, Hamlisch’s hyperactive music was the perfect match for Allen’s haphazard comedy.
Hamlisch was replaced by Mundell Lowe (of Hawaii Five-O fame) for Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask, delivering an irrepressible blend of trumpets, sex and lyrical guitar work. Then, the original music stopped – until Cassandra’s Dream, 35 years later, when Phillip Glass picked up the baton.
Since then, Woody has toyed with both scores and jukebox soundtracks, often using music from a specific country to set the tone in his travelogue years: pre-existing Spanish music accompanied Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Italian classics from Volare to Nessun dorma serenaded To Rome With Love; while Midnight In Paris had a charming French feel captured by Bistra Fada, an original piece from France-born Brooklynite guitarist Stephane Wrembel, whose fingers meander up and down the frets like Owen Wilson wandering the Seine.
Blue Jasmine‘s soundtrack is a happy mix of both. Or rather, it’s a really good mix for a horribly sad film. Christopher Lennertz’s original music fills in the discordant beats between songs, but the mood is built around Rodgers and Hart’s Blue Moon – you know the song Blue Moon. It was playing when Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) met her husband, she tells anyone within earshot every five minutes. And so this well-worn standard becomes her theme, a fragment of her memory looming in the background.
Conal Fowkes – a regular in Woody Allen’s Jazz Band and Cole Porter’s stand-in for Midnight In Paris – takes to the keys for the tune, dialling up the blues to match her depressed flashbacks, the odd flourish between straight lines almost hinting at her mental unrest.
Woody’s choice of music excels even further with Black Snake Blues by King Oliver, which plays just after a major argument. As Cate composes herself on the pavement, a cowbell starts to yelp every few bars. You could almost swear she was crying. All the while, Jimmie Noone and his Apex Club Orchestra’s Blues (My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me) twangs a guitar, audibly plucking at Jasmine’s nerves until they threaten to snap.
It’s a fantastic reminder of Allen’s knack for assembling a soundtrack that goes all the way back to Bananas. The films may be good or bad, but they all have one thing in common: a cracking song selection.
To prove it, here’s a run-down of Woody Allen’s top 10 musical moments:
10. Troika – Sergei Prokofiev (Love And Death)
Woody Allen put Prokofiev all over the place for Love and Death, using Sergei’s Soviet scores for Alexander Nevsky and Lieutenant Kijé to add a period Russian air to his story of a scholar – played, of course, by the bespectacled American – forced to join the army. Bizarrely, it works, just enough to heighten the absurd juxtaposition of Tolstoy and Allen’s fast-talking coward. For many people, hearing Troika conjures up images of Christmas. After seeing this, though, it’s only make you think of sleet, herpes and your own impending mortality.
9. Quiero La Noche – Marvin Hamlisch (Bananas)
The main theme for Bananas announces Woody’s early career with the loud brass of a cheesy TV news show before finding its groove in a silly, offbeat tune, in which a clarinet squawks over a jaunty Latin American guitar. Throwing in out of control piano licks and reckless drum rolls, the soundtrack develops in bursts of 60 to 90 seconds – a natural fit for his early, funny work.
8. String Quartet No. 15 in G major, D. 887 – Franz Schubert (Crimes And Misdemeanours)
If Woody divided fans with his serious work among the comedies, Crimes And Misdemeanours is a master class in balancing the two – and turning them into two parts of the same existential dilemma. Woody’s choice of music is equally astute, starting with the usual standards before a standout segment in the middle introduces death to the chaos. On the soundtrack? Schubert’s String Quartet No. 15 in G Major, a piece that shakes and spikes with quivering tension as the hint of something violent lurks beneath a happy surface. Combined with a 54-second shot of Martin Landau’s face, it’s a bold statement from a director who wasn’t afraid of Franz, even when at his most frivolous.
7. Limehouse Blues – Emmet Ray (Sweet And Lowdown)
Woody has a thing for guitars. They pop up in almost all of his films – before Midnight’s Stephane, he hired guitarist Trevor Rabin to do the original music for You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger – but anyone who knows guitars knows that the best of them all is Emmet Ray. Woody even made a film about him, Sweet And Lowdown. With the arrangement skills of Dick Hyman and the technical ability of Howard Alden, Emmet’s a marvel every time he plays, not least because he looks an awful lot like Sean Penn. Just look at the way his head jiggles as he plays Limehouse Blues. It’s like watching Django Reindhart unchained.
6. The Chameleon – Dick Hyman (Zelig)
An astonishing technical achievement as well as a witty social commentary, Zelig is one of Woody’s best. Inserting his shape-shifting oddity into a string of historical events, Allen hits every detail spot on – right down to this ditty from Dick Hyman, The Chameleon. Like Emmet Ray, you could easily mistake it for being real. There’s even a dance to go with it.
5. Agita – Lou Canova (Broadway Danny Rose)
Nobody knows Broadway like Danny Rose, an agent to everyone from balloon folders to washed-up singer Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte). Blind luck sees Lou become a hit, especially his signature number, Agita – a song about indigestion. Nick bellows the nonsensical lyrics with such gusto that audiences must have been taken by surprise when Woody chose to play it over the opening credits. You couldn’t pick a less suitable companion for Gordon Willis’ gorgeous monochrome cinematography, but together they conjure up a believable Broadway, a world so corny it must be true.
4. In The Mood – Glen Miller (Radio Days)
You could pick any musical number from Radio Days and be impressed. A literal jukebox soundtrack, Woody’s semi-autobiographical comedy jumps back to his childhood through music, using the tunes on the family radio to set the scene. From Harry James’ superb Flight Of The Bumblebee at the start to a skit where two burglars end up having to Name That Tune (spoiler: it’s Dancer In The Dark), the film is a playlist of great moments. Top of the list? In the Mood. Glen Miller tootles along in the background as Allen introduces his family. Halfway through, his mum shouts at him: “Pay more attention to your schoolwork and less listening to the radio!” You can’t blame him.
3. Stardust – Louis Armstrong (Stardust Memories)
“I guess it was the combination of everything, the sound of that music, and the breeze, and how beautiful Dorrie looked to me… everything just seemed to come together perfectly.”
So narrates Woody in a film within a film – only for an audience to boo him for being sentimental. The title of Woody’s witty take on Fellini’s 8½ comes from Louis Armstrong’s legendary alternate take of Stardust, where he sang the word “memory” instead of melody. Even without using that version of the track, you can hear the nostalgia, emotion and neurosis humming in the background.
2. I’m Thru With Love – Goldie Hawn (Everyone Says I Love You)
Ev’rybody Says I Love You manages that rare feat of simultaneously being a fantastic musical and a downright terrible one. Covering existing standards with an untrained cast, he got everyone from Edward Norton to Natalie Portman to sing their feelings with a charming realism. The pinnacle of the film, though, comes as I’m Thru With Love (the sorrowful signature of Woody’s divorcee) is sung by him and Goldie Hawn on the banks of the Seine. Their swooning dance leaves them walking on air; a magical collision of fantasy and shameless romance. Spellbinding.
1. Rhapsody In Blue – George Gershwin (Manhattan)
What else could it be? Gershwin’s aching clarinet-led mix of jazz and symphony orchestra is one of the finest compositions of all time, carrying enough grandeur and ambition to match the Manhattan skyline – and Woody knew it. Together with an eruption of fireworks, the opening of Allen’s masterpiece explodes with the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat: a promise that New York was his town. Thanks to Rhapsody In Blue, it always will be.
What are your favourite Woody Allen music moments?
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