The Sound of Cinema: Magnolia


There is a sequence roughly two-thirds of the way through Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 epic Magnolia that is quite literally transcendent. In a surreal hybrid of diegetic and non-diegetic sound, each of Magnolia’s nine principal characters start singing along to the haunting melody of Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise Up’. Anderson’s infamous steadicam probes their surroundings as each of them contemplates their existential crises to Mann’s cathartic music. This is the defining moment in the film, which follows these intertwined characters in a search for meaning in the San Fernando Valley. Despite the huge scale of the narrative and the sheer volume of characters involved, we see an incredibly personal side to each of them as they sing, “It’s not going to stop ‘till you wise up”. It is perhaps the scene that best proves that the soundtrack to Magnolia, most of which is comprised of the work of Mann, is integral to the film’s emotional impact.

The work of Aimee Mann in Magnolia is particularly distinctive due to its relevance in the film’s development. Countless films are adapted from novels, many more are adapted from other works of art (take, for instance, the Scream franchise, inspired by Edvard Munch’s painting of the same name). But Magnolia belongs to a very exclusive club: films inspired by music. In the notes for the soundtrack, Anderson admits that Magnolia was primarily intended to be an adaptation of Aimee Mann’s musical portfolio. Mann’s work heavily underpins the film to the extent that it even features as dialogue. “Now that I’ve met you,” asks Claudia Gator (Melora Waters), on her first date with the sensitive yet proud police officer, Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), “would you object to never seeing me again?” As well as having considerable significance in the context of the film, this line also forms the first line of Aimee Mann’s ‘Deathly’, also featured in the film’s soundtrack.

After three short examples of the power of fate and chance (themes crucial to the film), Magnolia begins with the distinctive chords of Aimee Mann’s cover of Harry Nilsson’s ‘One’, as Anderson introduces us, one-by-one, to the characters involved in the film. We see an advert for the seminars of sex guru Frank ‘T.J.’ Mackey (Tom Cruise) and the cocaine habit of Claudia Gator, the dying TV producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and his nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman). We become acquainted with TV Presenter Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) and former ‘Quiz Kid’ Donnie Smith (William H. Macy). All the while, Aimee Mann is singing “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever know.” From the offset, the soundtrack is indicative of the solitude attached to modern social interconnectivity, a significant theme within the film.

The contemporary soundtrack helps Magnolia to essentially become a monolithic postmodern soap opera. The post-pop songs of Aimee Mann (‘Momentum’, ‘Driving Sideways’ and the Oscar-nominated ‘Save Me’ in particular) set the scene very well: this is a film about contemporary media culture. With so many characters involved in television, the use of the music of Aimee Mann (who is no stranger to providing music for soundtracks) is a clever comment on the media industries. Further more, the ambient music of Jon Brion is hugely effective at gradually notching up the atmospheric tension before the film reaches its Biblical crescendo.

Magnolia also harks back to the 1950s melodramas of directors like Douglas Sirk and the soundtrack is particularly crucial in achieving this nod. Whimsical, melodramatic songs such as Gabrielle’s Dreams give the film a dramatic, emotional undertone. In one scene towards the end of the film, we see the broken middle-aged ‘Quiz Kid’ Donnie Smith, sitting on a curb as Gabrielle’s vocals float from the stereo in his nearby car. “Dreams can come true, look at me babe when I’m with you. You know you’ve gotta have hope, you know you’ve gotta be strong” she sings as Smith sobs. “I really do have love to give,” he tells cop Jim Kurring, “I just don’t know where to put it.” Melodramatic moments like these combine ambient music and beautiful dialogue to create an incredibly emotional, holistic experience for the audience.

In truth, Magnolia is a tapestry. It is a grand, interwoven menagerie of life, love and family in which a plethora of characters contemplate their existence in relation to the overriding presence of chance and coincidence. With this in mind, the soundtrack acts as the tapestry’s stitching, quite literally holding everything together to create a stunning portrait of life in a postmodern community.



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