On the Welcome Resurgence of the Art Film Soundtrack

The unsettling score to Wild, Wild Country makes me happy that weird soundtracks are cool again

Wild Wild Country

When the vinyl resurgence hit in the early aughts, my most prized possession was an original pressing of Nina Rota’s score to Fellini’s first color feature, Juliet of the Spirits. Part of this was liberal arts fetishization, sure—Fellini was conversational bird food at hipster parties—but the appeal of a warm analogue recording to a beloved classic film should not be understated. That record was near-mint, and sounded better my shitty dorm room combo player than the audio in the restored Criterion print. The $40 price tag was easy to justify, too, as I told myself that subsisting on weed and ramen alone for the next week would be just fine.

Since vinyl’s return to popularity, soundtracks to art films and documentaries have certainly become more available, which I also attribute to the newfound trends of releasing soundtracks as limited pressings during Record Store Day and unexpected places selling records (The Strand, fashion boutiques, or the horror-themed bar, “House of Wax” in Downtown Brooklyn’s Alamo Drafthouse, with its record shop pop-up that sells soundtracks exclusively). This month alone, I’ve received emails for a whopping five tracks shared in advance of the release of Thom Yorke’s soundtrack to the just-released Suspiria remake.

Thom Yorke Suspiria, XL Recordings 2018

That volume of hype definitely has something to do with Yorke’s name being attached to the picture, and director Luca Guadagnino’s involvement, but it’s nonetheless telling of the increased resonance that soundtracks have, both from a promotional standpoint and an extension of the film itself, in today’s streaming climate.

It’s also telling that small, arty labels are starting to take these soundtracks seriously beyond limited pressings. Suspiria may be released on the massive Beggars Group subsidiary XL Recordings, but consider the avant label Western Vinyl releasing composer Brocker Way’s fantastic score to Wild, Wild Country—a Netflix docuseries about the Rajneeshpuram cult in Oregon—for a better indicator of this trend.

Wild, Wild Country already had a soundtrack full of songs with verses and choruses—the untamed American Dream was telegraphed into each episode of the series through artfully placed alt-country tunes from singer-songwriters like Marlon Williams’ “Dark Child” or Bill Callahan’s title track, which closes out the final episode credits crawl. These songs did everything that a soundtrack is supposed to do, teasing out the story’s themes and bringing to a head the idea that a cult taking over a small town couldn’t have happened anywhere but here in America.

But those ideas only spoke to half of the story. For all the moments wide-eyed American optimism, a sinister abstraction that pervaded the landscape needed to be teased out, too. That’s where Wild, Wild Country’s original score by Brocker Way serves a utilitarian function for the docuseries, giving voice to the story’s themes of invasive otherness, telegraphing its creeping, recurring reminder that something very unnatural and sinister is taking place.

Wild Wild Country screenshot

Brocker Way is the oldest brother of the docuseries’ co-directors, Maclain and Chapman Way, and his familiarity with the story comes through in the composition. Like any good documentary, Wild, Wild Country doesn’t go to lengths to deify or vilify its subjects, and Brocker’s score similarly eschews the traditional soundtrack’s deliberate attempts to tell you what to feel in any given scene. To the contrary, Pitchfork reviewer Maggie Lange points out that the score provides a sort of counter-narrative to what’s being shown on screen:

“In an early scene, when bemused Oregonians gawk at the Rajneeshpuram for wearing crimson and rolling out a red carpet on the sidewalk for their leader, the music plays neither into reverence nor ridicule,” she writes. “It instead introduces a creeping distance and prowling depth, pushing us not to gape at a foreign presence or believe a mystical promise but to consider how these ideas intersect.”

Given his close relationship with the filmmakers, Brocker Way’s approach makes this soundtrack especially unique. It was composed while filming was actually taking place, and eventually  performed by an electronically-augmented, 12-piece orchestra.

Both of those circumstances are unusual. Real-time composition is akin to a painter with his easel set-up to capture a scene as it’s happening, or a reporter transcribing copy from an event while it’s taking place. The electronic augmentation, meanwhile, warps the standard romantic string swells and orchestral maneuvers we’ve come to expect as a stylistic departure fitting of the story’s themes—the sonic equivalent of “there goes the neighborhood” every time a bending string or a treated harmony pervades any natural assumption of what a score should sound like.

The easiest way to replicate the success of this Wild, Wild Country score would be for filmmakers to work more closely with sound supervisors, and composers, at understanding how a score can be used outside of its traditionally assumed role to heighten the point that the story is trying to make. That may call for a reconsideration of the composer’s role in general, though if the big business of art film soundtracks is any indication, such a reconsideration is long overdue.

 

Justin Joffe

Justin Joffe writes about music, art, technology, and other cultural treasures. Reach him on Twitter @joffaloff.

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