Wes Anderson is the definition of a modern-day auteur: writer, director, and whimsical world creator. If he were God (which wouldn’t be a stretch for most contemporary cinephiles), his Heaven would be a picturesque universe of charmingly ironic musical interludes– and somehow involve frequent cameos by the angels of Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman.
Anderson’s films are recognized not just for their quirky character ensembles and ornate set decorations, but also for their abundance of memorable music moments. The prologue to The Royal Tenenbaums (an orchestral version of “Hey Jude” paired with Alec Baldwin’s perfectly deadpan voiceover), the Jaguar Shark sequence in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (set to the stirring melody of “Staralfur” by Sigur Ros), and the final scene of Rushmore (bittersweet, slow-motion dancing to The Faces’ “Ooh La La”) are all exquisite examples of Anderson’s trademark musicality.
However, the soundtrack to Anderson’s latest film—this summer’s magical Moonrise Kingdom—is less about capturing moments and more about conveying an overall feeling.
Childhood memories come flooding back as the now 43-year-old director takes his audience on a journey to a storybook time and place: 1965 New England. The scenery is idyllic, but darker undercurrents lurk beneath— much like the beautiful but often twisted fairy tales that children alternately fear and adore. By selecting music that capitalizes on this sense of wonderment while also dryly acknowledging it’s own irony, Anderson makes the world of Moonrise Kingdom a delightfully droll adventure-land that audiences won’t want to leave.
The film opens with pre-teen Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) and her trio of little brothers listening to Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” on a kiddie record player. As an adolescent voice (sounding very much like a lisp-y Mouseketeer) narrates the harmonies of the percussion, brass and woodwind families, we see how everyone in Suzy’s family is emotionally detached and even physically isolated from one other. Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, respectively) spend most of their time in separate rooms of their sprawling island lighthouse—and no one seems to pay attention to Suzy at all.
Also living on this island of quaint peculiarity is Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton), who oversees a group of young Khaki scouts at Camp Ivanhoe. When a boy from his troop suddenly disappears, Ward enlists the help of Police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis)—and they soon discover that solemn dissenter Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) has run away with Suzy Bishop after about a year of pen-pal puppy love. To the plucked strings of the English Chamber Orchestra, Sam and Suzy make their determined trek through the forest and rely on Sam’s superior scouting skills (and Suzy’s beloved collection of books and records) to survive.
Meanwhile, the adult-centric scenes contain music that is just as playful in style, but slightly more gritty in tone. Six Hank Williams songs appear throughout the film, which is a distinct departure from Anderson’s usual preference for classic rock and fanciful indie. Most of these country tunes (including the heavy drumming of “Kaw Linga” and the mournful yodels of “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”) highlight the complicated entanglements within the search party— like Mrs. Bishop’s not-so-secret affair with Capt. Sharp. A dreamy yet eclectic score from composer Alexandre Desplat glides over the rest of Sam and Suzy’s scenes, giving their sincerely hopeful romance the space to blossom and grow.
Intriguingly, the earnest nostalgia of Moonrise Kingdom is also coupled with the moody awareness that such reckless, child-like freedom cannot (and will not) last forever. The ending is a somewhat happy one, as Capt. Sharp volunteers to adopt the orphaned Sam so that he and Suzy can continue their romantic rendezvous. But as a children’s choir sings over Suzy’s painting of the island bay where she and Sam shared their first kiss, it sounds more like a goodbye to childhood than a celebration of it. And yet it is a touching farewell, to both a film about youthful adventure and a soundtrack that never wavers in winking wit or imagination.