As they release their very own film soundtrack, Stuart Murdoch takes Sophie Walker through the songs that light up his favourite films.
There are few bands that have endured with such grace as Belle And Sebastian.
A curious mix of bookish discomfort and sardonic wit, the Glaswegian troubadours embody a contrast as striking as the church that raised them; a place of quiet, crammed in a muddled city. It was this odd charm that would elevate them to a cult status - the hipster’s choice.
After the bands’ arguable masterpiece, 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, their breezy instrumentation, coupled with Stuart Murdoch’s gift for insouciant story-telling would become scrawled in the diaries of quiet, corduroy-clad young things. Unlike many bands of their calibre however, Belle and Sebastian have aged like a fine wine, rather than curdling after passing their sell-by date. With nine adored records and a tenth released today, Days of The Bagnold Summer, is testament to their quality.
Days of The Bagnold Summer is the soundtrack to the film of the same name, the directorial debut from Simon Bird, from The Inbetweeners. It comes as little surprise that Bird requested Belle and Sebastian to create the music for the coming-of-age movie; their songs are a rite of passage, it would seem, for every young adult. Murdoch tells me how much he likes the film. “I liked it right off the bat. It was such a lovely comic novel initially and it had a really nice sensibility about it. So really, Simon could have really fucked it up – but he didn’t. He had a great cast and for a first-time director, he’s done so well.”
Speaking about the genesis of the soundtrack, Murdoch explains “It was quite a painless process. It was funny, because it coincided with me digging up loads of old tapes. I was going back to archives from twenty years ago, finding old song ideas as well as ones that Simon was requesting too, and for some reason the two just fitted together. I resurrected a few old ideas and added a few new ones that were in a similar vein, and that was that.”
It’s only be right then, that Murdoch decided to choose nine songs that he loved within films. “I thought I’d pick moments where I thought a song made a good moment great; when film and music come together to produce something thrilling.”
“I watch this film with my kids all the time, it’s a great childhood film, and the reason why I think you can watch it again and again is because of the music.
“I love this moment and it’s right in the middle of the film. ‘Pure Imagination’ was written especially for the film and given to Gene Wilder to sing. It’s just at that chaotic moment where the kids and the parents finally get into the chocolate room, and instead of this explosion and this carnival atmosphere, you get drawn right into the heart of Willy Wonka himself.
“He’s explaining his whole reason to be in this song, while all the kids are all running around shoving their mouths full of sweets and chocolate. You stand back and you see it from his perspective; it’s not just about chocolate but about how your life should be, about the fulfilment of dreams.
“I think what grabs me about this song is the way that it creeps in. Instrumentally, it begins with the orchestra and his voice in right in the middle and centre, I think the whole moment is perfectly matched. I couldn’t imagine listening to this song without seeing Gene Wilder’s face. There isn’t a character in film who is better matched to the actor than Gene Wilder and Willy Wonka – he just carries it beautifully.”
“This is one of those moments - one of those cinematic moments - that for me, being an older person, happens less and less. I used to go to the cinema all the time and you’d get those beautiful moments when a song hits you. I think it’s so easy when you’re sitting in the dark of the cinema, it’s packed out and everybody’s like, ‘Woah, what’s that song?’, even if they already know it. The cinema is the best place to hear a great pop song. It can just be a brilliant moment.
“Seeing BlacKkKlansman was one of the last times I went to the cinema. This song came on and I knew it from… I think I danced to it in the ‘90s? But I haven’t heard it for a while and it’s so great in the scene where everyone’s dancing at the bar.
“Spike Lee has always tried to push things, and obviously, while he's making political points, he doesn't let it get in the way of a good time, but I think what's so great about Spike Lee films is his use of music. If you think about music and pop music in films, he's one of the two or three people you think of who do it well, beyond Tarantino and Wes Anderson, they've used music and really dug up music that have been reconsidered as classics.
“Personally, I think Spike Lee has done more than those guys, because not only has he used music retrospectively - and the music people love - but he's also developed many original soundtracks in the early days with his dad Bill Lee, a great jazz musician.
“When you think about Do the Right Thing, a ground-breaking film about a Brooklyn neighbourhood, a contemporary neighbourhood at that time and the racial tensions within it, the soundtrack by Public Enemy was almost wrapped around it. It played throughout the whole movie and it was amazing. I also loved Lee’s early jazz stuff from She’s Gotta Have It from '86. The Bill Lee, sort of jazz soundtrack is one of my favourites. I think Spike Lee has got this great pedigree for not only using pop music in films, but also developing great soundtracks.”
“I've never heard it pronounced and my Spanish is non-existent, so I'm not going to try to pronounce it! I think it roughly translates as "Lust for Life."
“I was really picking my brains to choose specific instances when I was moved by music in films. I haven't seen El Mariachi since 1992 when it first came out, in the Glasgow Film Theatre. This was the first film by a guy called Robert Rodriguez and it was made for seven thousand dollars or something at the time, which is obviously a tiny amount, but obviously he was a really talented guy, who despite that, made a very accomplished film.
“El Mariachi is about a wandering musician who walks around with his guitar playing tunes. I remember this moment so specifically, because during the film he had a lot of mishaps and things happening to him. He'd been mistaken as a gangster sort of crook and been pursued across Mexico - but he was always carrying his guitar. Yet two thirds of the way through, up until this moment, he's never actually played a song! So, he got his guitar out and was in this packed bar. I remember he started playing this beautiful Spanish guitar, his voice came in and it was so simple.
“I loved this song straightaway, it was a really affecting moment. I was starting to write songs myself and I'd only just picked up a guitar at that point. It occurred to me afterwards how powerful it can be, just one person with a guitar in front of all those people.
“These days, films and shows are so crammed with music - inappropriate music - that you don't even notice it. Whereas with this low-budget film from '92, Rodriguez just waited for the right moment and that's why that song stands out.”
“The one I chose was from 1970, because there was an original soundtrack LP, then the movie came out in '73 and if you look at the movie clip it's made quite differently. The voices are way up, so we can hear all the words really clearly.
“The 1970's version was actually a pop record and it’s a groovier sort of listen. I am a bit of a production snob, I'd been to see Jesus Christ Superstar in the 90s at some point and I couldn't stand it. I couldn't stand what they did with the music; I couldn't stand the sound of the music, the stagey showmanship - that kind of bad Glee sort of thing. You can really ruin a good musical, but the beauty of the 1970 version is that the production is astonishing. You have the best musicians playing on it and the voices are so lovely. This is definitely a soundtrack I listen to often, besides just watching the film.
“I made a musical film in 2012 called God Help the Girl. I got asked questions about it and people would often say ‘I didn't take you as the sort of guy who loves musicals’, but do you know what? I'm a bit of a snob and I know what I like. I don't love all musicals, and that thing that I described, that jazz-hands glitter sort of musical, I don't like - but I do love musicals when they're well done.
“I love the moments in films when the music comes in, takes over and describes a moment or emotion in such a way that you can't get just from words. The 1975 version of the film is quite radical in a way, it seems like quite a biblical setting, but the characters are up-to-date. It works for me, 100% iconic.”
“Sometimes when you're picking things, you're caught between picking things that you really love and picking things for the sake of looking cool. Lost in Translation is something that I really love, and the Phoenix track is something I really love. It’s not obscure - it's just a great movie.
“I think this track was a little bit ground-breaking, in the sense that from my perspective it reintroduced the sound that hadn't been heard in pop music for a while. Phoenix went on to become this big band and this was their big moment, this was their break-out moment where everyone's asking, "What's that song?" It’s a great moment in the film, where everyone's dancing and having a great time. It had a look back to the ‘70s style of production, quite a simple pop sound with a great tune and vocals.
“I think Phoenix opened the door for MGMT and Empire of The Sun, and that whole kind of slew of bands defining a new pop sound. In a sense, they were kind of trailblazers.
“At the time, when Lost in Translation came out, I loved the easy way that Sofia Coppola handled the material. I think it helped that she was a female director, when there wasn't a lot of high-profile female directors at that time. It just had a different feel about it. It put Scarlett Johannsen right at the centre of the movie in a way that most male directors couldn't do, or handle.
“Nowadays, there are a lot of cringey moments where you're like ‘C'mon’. I've been to Japan a few times and it would be impolite to comment on Japanese culture. In the end, they're pretty loveable characters in a believable setting.
“It coincided with our first trip to Japan and nothing could be more perfect. You could see their hotel from our hotel, and you could see them filming from across the park. I wrote a song called "I'm a Cuckoo" about that experience, about being lost in Japan for the first time, but also about being in a different culture and being able to look back on your own life in a different way because you're in these different surroundings.
“We've been lucky enough to go back there six or seven times and I just love it more and more. People are so kind there, you can walk from one side of Tokyo to another without any fear of molestation, which is great, because I just love walking around.”
“This is one that I'd say is a little bit like the Gene Wilder song from the Willy Wonka soundtrack. It's the emotional heart of Taxi Driver and it almost becomes that by accident. It's this quiet moment that happens right in the middle of the film, before Robert de Niro’s transformation into the crazy character with the mohawk.
“You can see it in that moment from him watching the television. The Jackson Browne song is playing on a show called American Bandstand, which was a typical Saturday night variety entertainment show in the states, and it showed couples slow dancing to this song. He's sitting there in his wrecked kitchen with a gun, just watching the show and you can see he's just completely alienated from society as he watches these people dancing.
"It's a very powerful moment. It's the moment of quiet before the killing starts and there's a sense that Scorsese is manipulating us a little bit, but he's a master. He was the first early master of using pop music in that way.”
“I actually could have picked maybe three songs from this particular soundtrack. I picked this one a little at random, but I wanted to put the entire film O Lucky Man! and soundtrack in the spotlight.
“It's a great watch and quite a radical film by Lindsay Anderson, who made a film called If at the end of the ‘60s. But the deal with this film is that Alan Price, who I think was in a band called The Animals, is given the job of a musical troubadour in this film. He pops up from time to time, sort of how Spike Lee changes a scene and shows that the music comes from the centre.
“The action of the film is going along and then at the end of a scene there’s a pause and it cuts to Alan Price singing live with his band in a studio, and he's looking straight at the camera and he's commenting on what has happened. Sometimes that kind of conceit doesn't work, but in my opinion it was what made the whole thing quite unique.
“It really helps that Alan Price's music is sure-footed and terrific. It's a great sound as well, that kind of early ‘70s, almost kind of funk, with the piano. I do love the production sound on that.”
“If you've seen Lost in Translation you've probably seen Napoleon Dynamite. My wife was like "Oh god, did you have to put that in? I hate that film!", but I don't know why she hates it - I love it! It's just really, really funny.
“That kind of thing is very popular in American films, especially from the ‘80s when I was growing up. There would always seem to be this triumphant musical reveal at the end of a film. It would always seem to be based around the high school dance, or the high school concert - some big event at the high school, and somebody will be revealed to have this great talent.
“I think in Napoleon Dynamite they're kind of paying homage to that and taking the piss at the same time, but I don't care. They have created the greatest moment; the greatest reveal. The contrast is so great, from Napoleon being the ultimate fucking... tube!
“He's such a loser throughout the film, but at the end you cannot deny his moves. You can see it in the state of the audience just watching, when he first comes down to the stage and everyone's like ‘What the fuck?’ and absolutely incredulous. It was one of the greatest cinematic moments.”
“If you’ve never seen this film then you've got a rare treat ahead of you. Rarely is a film dominated by a song so much, but it's not ‘Dreams’; the key song in this movie is actually ‘California Dreamin' by The Mamas and The Papas. It's funny that I hadn't picked that one, because I possibly love that song even more and it really does drive the film.
“I wouldn't consider myself a Cranberries fan but I picked this song because I like the fact that Faye Wong, the actress in the film, had done a version of ‘Dreams’ herself. I liked the fact that she was accompanying herself in the scene, to this song, and it's a terrific moment.
“There are two versions of this film and in one of the versions - I think in the original version - this song is playing and at that time she'd broken into the house of the policeman that she's obsessed with. It's a little like the film Amélie, where she breaks in, messes with his stuff, gives him some new goldfish and puts sleeping tablets in his water, stuff like that. It's all accompanied by her version of The Cranberries song.
“I love movies, especially back in the early ‘90s when people didn't travel as much - I certainly hadn't been anywhere - which give you a snapshot of a different culture, a different city. It wasn't like it was a big crime film like James Bond, Chungking Express was about the small lives of Hong Kong people and it's just a really great love story, a slow-burning love story.
“The music is a pulse all the way through it, particularly ‘California Dreamin', but The Cranberries' song is well-used as well. It's a good example of the power of the movie experience, to manipulate your musical senses. That's what these directors do so well, they use music in such a way that you're like “That's my favourite song ever!”, because of the experience you've had in the cinema.
“The film ends with the song as well, so it also has that climatic moment right at the end of the movie when the action finishes. The titles come up, it's time to wrench yourself out of your seat but the big song comes on at the end and if it's done right, it can be the perfect moment.”