Music in Film: Only Lovers Left Alive and The LEGO Movie

Ivan checks out the music to a pair of very different films. He also sings Everything Is Awesome.

Buying, streaming, downloading, spinning. However you choose to own or listen to music, that very act is part of what defines us: the desire to consume music, as a form of expressing ourselves, as a way of filling our time, or as a way of sharing our experiences with others. It’s that universal thread that lets me draw an incredibly forced parallel between two seemingly opposite movies: a stoner-vampire flick starring Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton… and a family-friendly comedy made out of tiny, yellow, plastic bricks.

Only Lovers Left Alive

“You’re just a couple of condescending snobs!” shouts young neck-biter Ava (Mia Wasikowski) to sister Eve (Tilda Swinton) and her partner Adam (Tom Hiddleston). In many ways, she’s right. After all, once you’ve been alive for centuries, you know what you like.

For director Jim Jarmusch, part of what he likes is music: his band, Sqürl, co-created the soundtrack for the music with composer Jozef Van Wissem. His main character is a musician. Even the camera emphasises the importance of music in the film, spinning round on top of a vinyl record.

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Turning the vampires more into humans than monsters, they populate their eternal timelines with literature and songs – they thirst for culture. Adam collects exotic guitars and spends his nights releasing albums anonymously online, avoiding the teenagers who track him down like a celebrity. For him, the world of iPods is like garlic; he treasures physical music, music with a past. He lives in Detroit, the once-booming home of Motown. Driving through the dark streets, they stop in a car. “That’s where Jack White grew up.”

The soundtrack, then, becomes a part of that obsession. It’s not all Jarmusch and Van Wissem’s own composition: the main characters dance to Charlie Feathers’ Can’t Hardly Stand It as reverently as if it were Mozart. “I once gave Schubert an symphony,” says Adam, at one point. “Well, the adagio.” The original music that is there, though, feeds on that range of influences – or, more accurately, influences everything else, thanks to Adam’s immortal career – taking centuries of classical, pop and more and combining them into the ultimate compilation album.

Tracks such as In Templum Dei and Our Hearts Condemn Us hark to Eve’s hometown of Tangier, with strings twanging through slightly progressing chords, altering by semi-tones as they loop over on themselves. That repetitive cycle of their endless existence is even more pronounced when Jim starts repeating tracks within the movie. Streets of Tangier introduces percussion and even more backing instruments to drive the tempo up to dangerous levels, while Sqürl injects darkness into the film’s heart: a burst of rock, with hints of Kurt Cobain, Pink Floyd and countless others, that is exactly the kind of things a mopey teenager would write if they were cooped up in a house since the 1700s.

Through the musical haze cuts the standout Hal, sung by the fantastic Yasmine Hamdan. The Lebanese singer blends Arabic vocals, synth backing and lively drums to create a haunting piece that literally stops our vampires dead in their tracks in the middle of Morocco: the sound of an ancient culture colliding with the modern world. The result is a hit more powerful than a rush of blood to the fangs, and one that reignites our drifting musician’s thirst all over again. A mesmerising cocktail.

The LEGO Movie

If Only Lovers Left Alive is a soundtrack about devouring music, The LEGO Movie tackles media consumption in a very different way: by satirising it. How? Everything Is AWESOME!!! (to give it its correct title), which may be the most annoyingly infectious song written in the past decade. With its simplistic chord structure, fast electro beat and cheerful lyrics (sung by Tegan and Sara and rapped by The Lonely Island), it’s the perfect earworm, as any parent who has seen the movie and subsequently invested heavily in earplugs will know.

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The song was written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and ties in seamlessly with the film’s wider themes of working together. “Lost my job it’s a new opportunity / More free time for my awesome community” say the lyrics, adding “It’s awesome to win and it’s awesome to lose”. Those pro-team, anti-individual messages are embedded in the song’s chirpy tone, turning the crowd-pleaser into a crowd-suppressor for evil overlord President Business, who pumps it out non-stop through the radio to mollify his subjects.

It’s a smart piece of writing, which takes music’s power to bring listeners together and flips it on its head – and it’s one that composer Mark Mothersbaugh carries throughout the movie. After working with the directors on 21 Jump Street and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the composer continues his brand of energetic, pulsing music (he also did those jolly beeps and boops in The Life Aquatic), adding that driving rhythm and synth accompaniment underneath Everything’s subversive words. He then does something equally interesting: he puts Emmet’s theme at the heart of the chorus.

A simple step-up-step-down refrain that whips along at a hyperactive pace, it’s an excited melody for an excitable man, happy to be part of the President Business-controlled group. Emmet’s Morning makes that clear, as he runs about greeting the day. It returns multiple times, most notably at a slower pace on I Am a Master Builder, as Emmet embraces his ability to be an individual against the acoustic crowd.

Romantic interest Wyldstyle gets her own theme tune (another basic tune based around a plagal cadence), which is also reworked from a gentle swoon into a more dynamic number in Escape, combining with Emmet’s theme to make a thrilling action track.

You get the sense Mothersbaugh had the most fun, though, with the genre-hopping LEGO worlds, which range from Cloud Cuckooland (the introduction of which is heralded by a 40-piece choir) and Submarines and Metal Beard (rocking guitars to a swaying sea-shanty rhythm) to the Morricone-tinged Into the West, which throws in everything from whistles and boings to trumpets and banjos – and, on Saloons and Wagons, a honky-tonk rendition of Everything Is AWESOME!!! on a saloon piano.

It’s a breathtaking range of sounds and styles, which rush past in a wave of ideas to match the movie’s breathtaking display of imagination; you can almost hear Mark rapidly clicking the musical blocks together while the stop-motion/CGI chaos unfolds. But the thing that gives it a real sense of creativity is the way it uses both real and virtual instruments; Mothersbaugh recorded two soundtracks, one orchestral and one electronic, giving Lord and Miller the chance to switch between them. The shifts from one to the other, and frequently the combination of both, add that sense of cinematic scale you normally only hear in your head when you’re playing with LEGO.

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Like the movie itself, though, the soundtrack’s show is stolen by Will Arnett, whose LEGO Batman gets the chance to contribute two (partly improvised) tracks to the mix, each of them hilarious bouts of loud, whiney rock that scream his inner turmoil for everyone to hear. “DARK! BROODING!” he yells, with a voice like Christian Bale after gargling gravel. “THE OPPOSITE OF LIGHT! CURTAINS DRAWN! OTHER PLACES THAT ARE DARK!”

You’d be singing it all day – and praying for The Dark Knight: The Musical – if it wasn’t for Everything Is AWESOME!!!. That song makes a reprise at the end in several different covers, just to prove its ubiquitous appeal to all the different crowds in the audience. An unplugged track by Shawn Patterson and Sammy Allen turns it into a rousing ballad of harmonies and guitars, an inspirational number but, crucially, not an infectious one. That curious catchy quality is reserved for its up-tempo counterpart, that hectic mix of silly rhymes, positive messages, relentless drums – and, amid it all, one character’s theme swamped by commercialism. It’s a nifty comment on society and consumerism wrapped up in an irresistible package. There’s even a karaoke version. You can bet it will be downloaded by the millions.

You can read Ivan’s previous instalment of Music In Film here

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