When I decided to cover the Lost in Translation soundtrack, it struck me as odd that I had never seriously considered a soundtrack for PJH. At first glance, it would make sense — if this site is about merging sound and vision, then film music seems like a natural choice since it’s often written or curated on the basis of the movie itself. There are plenty of soundtracks out there — original scores, commissions of new thematic music, collections of older tracks or some combination of the aforementioned — that I’ve fallen in love with over the years, for the same reason I love some of the albums in these archives. If the best albums can tell a story, then surely a compilation meant to soundtrack a visual narrative is on par with the most excellent records, isn’t it?
The difference, I finally figured out, is the order that this consideration comes into play. The Ladies and Gentlemens and the Lovelesses of the world develop their themes and narratives during writing, and the artwork is more-or-less chosen after the tracks are completed. Soundtracks, like the Lost in Translation OST, are usually compiled after the script has been written, rewritten and finalized, and, if I’m not mistaken, in post-production (i.e. after filming), often allowing stills or posters to be used as artwork. That’s not to say one way or the other is better, or even easier. Masterful paintings or superb works of writing can come from commissions and prompts, or they can come from a weekday afternoon spent screwing around on a blank canvas. Both have pros and cons, but they also have the same goal in mind. They are, just like soundtracks and records, just different.
That said, Lost in Translation‘s soundtrack takes the steps to marry sound and visuals just as well as some of the best records out there, starting with the promo still of a forlorn Bill Murray in an ill-fitting robe/sandals ensemble on the front cover, and ending ultimately with the haunting instrumental work by Kevin Shields (of My Bloody Valentine fame). Somewhere in the middle, is a musical journey that covers the bittersweet and culture-clashed excursion taken by the movie’s two protagonists by making strange bedfellows of various artists and genres.
One of my favorite tracks from the compilation is a minute-and-a-half-long composition by Squarepusher. It’s not hard to see how “Tommib” fits into the mood of the film/artwork, as it wanders and floats about just like the existentially damp characters of Bob and Charlotte. Echoes fills the space of that 81 seconds with a vibe that mirrors the glass- and steel-plated expanse of the city, as well as the twinge of loneliness felt by a lonesome soul in a crowded room. It’s a sound that’s later revisited in Kevin Shields’ aforementioned texture pieces, specifically “Goodbye” and “Are You Awake?“, but “Tommib” is special because its artist Tom Jenkinson, a.k.a. Squarepusher, is known specifically for his work in the hard-driving drum’n’bass genre, rendering the feeling of being out of place into something of a fourth wall-breaking idea.
Most of the tracks in the LiT soundtrack tread a fine line between cheerful and morose, which is a direct reflection of the ennui of the storyline. The majority of the former category are those chosen for the soundtrack (instead of written for it) like Death in Vegas’s sighing “Girls” or My Bloody Valentine’s humming “Sometimes”, given above as a sample track. MBV’s contribution is, like many of the others, a good counterpoint for the wistful texture pieces that dot the movie. This number, specifically, plays during a sleepy cab ride after a great night out and covers the blissful and gentle nature of the scene without sacrificing the slightly overwhelming crunch of the big city.
Other tracks not included on the soundtrack (but used in the film) do the same thing for different purposes, if less subtly: Peaches’ awkwardly confrontational “Fuck the Pain Away” playing at a similarly awkward outing to a strip club; Bob’s endearing but goofy performance of Roxy Music’s “More than This” as veiled communication to Charlotte; the strange renditions of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” and the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen“, which are seemingly lost in different kinds of translation themselves.
If you haven’t guessed by now, this is one of my favorite soundtracks. I tried to imagine what I would think of it if I had never seen the movie and came to the conclusion that while I might not be able to experience the full effect of the interplay, that it didn’t matter quite so much. Because the album is a soundtrack, and one that came about in a different way than a standard record, it strikes me that it’s the movie itself that matters more than the soundtrack. That might sound harsh, but with a film like Lost in Translation, it’s apparent that the music mattered just as much to the director as the visuals did. Watching the characters’ expressions and gestures while the music plays is a quintessential part of the experience, like when Phoenix’s “Too Young” blasts at a house party or Happy End’s “Kaze Wo Atsumete” echoes in the background of a quiet moment between Bob and Charlotte.
Aside from the “More than This” karaoke moment, the other two parts that make the movie are the ending scene featuring the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” and Charlotte’s Kyoto sequence, soundtracked by Air’s “Alone in Kyoto”. Those three scenes do what all great albums do at their best — marry sound and vision in a seamless and beautiful way.