• Reel Reviews

Piping Portuguese in Through the Headsets

written by: on September 22, 2011

Writer/director Wes Anderson’s intricately constructed, highly personal films are not always for everyone, but even those who don’t buy into the hype or see the films’ excessive quirks as pretentious have to admit that they all have pretty excellent soundtracks.

This is mostly because of the recurring presence of Mark Mothersbaugh (once better known as the frontman of Devo), a prolific composer with a surprisingly diverse number of soundtracks under his belt. Children of the 1990s, remember the weird incidental music from “Rugrats”? That’s pure Mothersbaugh. He also did the music for all the Crash Bandicoot games.)

Although most of Anderson’s films benefit greatly from Mothersbough’s Midas touch (he also scored Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums), the soundtrack for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou deserves a very special mention. Released in 2004, The Life Aquatic was a very divisive film (even among Anderson fans) that told the disconnected, frequently awkward tale of two men dealing with father issues aboard a boat, while also hunting a shark with dynamite. But regardless of whether the film was a success, Mothersbaugh’s original compositions—mostly some very minimalistic synths—really work to drive home the detached absurdity of the plot and characters.

Although the songs are somewhat quiet and spacey, they show up in nearly every scene (even if just a little) and perfectly match the film’s slow, sparse, surreal adventure. Special mention goes to the tune early in the film that the divers have “piped in through the headsets” that Bill Murray’s character dances to briefly and “Ping Island / Lightning Strike Rescue Op,” which, unsurprisingly, is used during the story’s Ping Island rescue mission. It takes what might otherwise be a boring, bloated or unnatural scene and makes it one of the funniest and most memorable moments in the movie.

Mothersbaugh’s original compositions for the film may capture the surreal aspects of the film perfectly, but the unexpected star of the show is Seu Jorge, who not only plays a minor character (named Pelé dos Santos), but also peppers the soundtrack with a collection of acoustic David Bowie covers—all translated into Portuguese. While this might sound blasphemous to hardcore Bowie fans, it really does add some charm and humanity to the film’s primary setting: the Belafonte, a rusted, impersonal beast of a ship. It helps that Jorge does a faithful job covering Bowie’s classics, bringing in a new style but maintaining the emotion and power of the originals. Special mention goes to his rendition of “Life on Mars?” which is absolutely fantastic.

Other miscellaneous music highlights include an otherwise silent, heart-wrenching scene set to The Zombies’ 1966 classic “The Way I Feel Inside” and the climactic confrontation with the illusive Jaguar Shark that is accompanied by the haunting and magnificent “Starálfur” by Sigur Rós. Both are classic moments that absolutely define the movie, and each scene would be entirely different without its backing song—a testament to the soundtrack’s strength.

Ultimately, whether you enjoy the film (or Anderson’s style in general) is almost irrelevant as the soundtrack is good enough to stand as a music compilation all its own. It’s absolutely integral to the film and makes the movie that much more immersive, surreal and enjoyable, but it’s one of few original soundtracks actually worth taking out of context, and that says a lot.