A Grammy-winning music supervisor decodes the music that inspired Wes Anderson's 'Moonrise Kingdom'
By Kurt B. Reighley
Special to MSN Music
Since 1995, Grammy Award-winning music supervisor Randall Poster has overseen the soundtracks for more than 75 movies, from art-house fare ("I'm Not There," "The Squid and the Whale") to big blockbusters ("The Hangover," "Zoolander"). Depending on how far into production a motion picture is, he might start his creative process by reading the script or viewing footage that's already been shot. "Moonrise Kingdom," his latest collaboration with director Wes Anderson, is different.
"This movie started with the music," says Poster.
This is Poster's seventh film with Anderson. Music has been integral to all of them, from excerpts of Satyajit Ray's Indian film soundtracks in "The Darjeeling Limited" to the unconventional covers of David Bowie performed by Brazilian artist Seu Jorge in "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou." But this time, the inspiration for the film sprang directly from a particular work: "Noye's Fludde," a 1958 opera about Noah and the Ark, composed by Benjamin Britten for amateur performers.
"There was 'Noye's Fludde' before there was a script," explains Poster. "That's what Wes had, and that's where we started. That became the primary musical element of the film. From that point on it becomes our challenge to say 'Let's use as much of this as we can.'"
That impulse led to the inclusion of another Britten piece, "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," Op. 34, as well as selections by other composers showcased in the 1960ss by legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein in his educational series of the same name. Ultimately, the various pieces from "The Young Person's Guide" became as central as "Noye's Fludde" to Anderson's cinematic tale of two 12-year-olds who fall in love on a small New England island in the summer of 1965.
"As you grow up and see intricacies of adult life, the Bernstein narration and deconstruction is a ticket to unlocking those adult complexities," opines Poster, who attended some of Bernstein's "Young Person's" concerts as a child in New York. Just as the use of "Noye's Fludde" raises questions around notions of community in "Moonrise Kingdom," the "Young Person's" excerpts highlight subtexts about functional and dysfunctional relationships.
Hank Williams songs, including "Kaw-Liga," "Ramblin' Man," and "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," provide another leitmotif in the film, giving audiences a better understanding of Capt. Sharp, the small-town police office portrayed by Bruce Willis. Like these country classics, Willis' character is simple yet charismatic, defined by a powerful loneliness. But as Poster notes, Williams is also a paramount example of classic American male iconography, which makes Sharp's maturation into a father figure to the protagonists more convincing.
"Le Temps de l'Amour" by Françoise Hardy accompanies a pivotal scene of erotic awakening between the two adolescent leads. Like "Noye's Fludde," this 1962 recording by the French singer was kicking around Anderson and Poster's universe before filming of "Moonrise Kingdom" began. Several years earlier, the pair had been hired to make a Japanese TV commercial, and immersed themselves in vintage French pop. Though they ultimately settled Christophe's "Aline" for that job, they set the Hardy tune aside for later. "We knew this was a piece of music that we wanted to use in a film," he recalls.
Discovering new music -- whether it's the repertoire of a British classical composer or a rising underground rock act -- is what makes Poster's job so thrilling. "Often people assume that by virtue of the work that I do, and the work that I've done, that I know everything about every kind of music, and I don't. It would be dull if all I was doing was pulling things out of my record collection. What's really fun is to still be engaged in the learning process."
For Poster, that odyssey of discovery began in record stores and movie theaters. He cites "American Graffiti" and "Shampoo" as two films that heavily influenced his approach to integrating music and film, and also praises the oeuvre of Woody Allen. "His movies were very instructive. They taught me so much, not only in terms of the music he uses in his movies, but also how characters talked about certain films and books and music."
At the outset of his career, Poster scored a home run with his soundtrack for Larry Clark's "Kids," a collection heavy on Lou Barlow's lo-fi indie rock that spawned an unexpected Top 40 hit, "Natural One." Yet like the directors he admires, his emphasis has remained on building a body of work that stands the test of time, not commercial blockbusters. So even as the raves for "Moonrise Kingdom" roll in, he's preoccupied with his contributions to Harmony Korine's forthcoming "Spring Breakers."
"I always keep my head down and keep working," Poster concludes, apropos of his impressive filmography. "The secret to my success is that I've attached myself to some great filmmakers and they keep making movies. One of the great advantages you have with continuity in a creative relationship is that a lot of the work gets done between the movies ... especially with Wes."
Seattle-based writer Kurt B. Reighley is the author of "United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties, and Handmade Bitters: A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement," and also pens MSN Music's New This Week feature. As DJ El Toro he can be heard regularly on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org