Reading The Film Score

PT Anderson's Inherent Vice

published in Real Time No., Sydney, 2017

The Score

Quite early in the PT Anderson’s Inherent Vice, we hear Johnny Greenwood’s theme “Shasta”. Standard musical portraiture in the film – but what a slithering sonorous mystery this theme is. Imagine Olivier Messiaen’s symphonic swathes (like a French forest lifted up and floating in the clouds) reinterpreted by Nelson Riddle’s teasing velvet string arrangements for sono-erotic voices like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. Clarinet, oboe and cor anglais outline the corporeal form of Shasta (rendered ghostly flesh by Katherine Waterston), then melt into her insouciant presence. It sounds like she’s coming in and out of focus. And that’s what she does throughout the film. She’s neither here nor there; telling the truth nor lying; sad from having loved Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) nor yearning to start afresh with him. “Shasta” inaugurates Inherent Vice’s score as a mirage.

The grandiose “The Chryskylodon Institute” unfurls when Doc follows a lead to the private-funded post-hippy loony-bin. Think Bernard Herrmann meeting Philip Glass by way of Jon Brion’s Magnolia score (1999). Loping, patterned overlays, serially generating harmonic moiré effects as sections lock into a gridlocked waltz-stanza. It’s partially-pastoral – evoking the fluidly expanded spatial domain of the eponymous institute – but it also reflects how Doc navigates the Institute’s hall of mirrors. It’s an inhabited pastorale. The score swells while location sound recedes. Then, plucked bottom-end strings (echoing Herrmann’s ominous ECG death-gulps from Psycho’s score from 1960 when Janet Leigh expires on the bathroom floor) start to corrode the tinkling Glass-like patterns, changing the waltz into a strange limping 4/4 riff. It mimics Doc walking, scuttling, then crawling, finally on his knees as he converses with a heavily medicated Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). The two drug-addled minds talk while the score disintegrates around them. It’s more avant-garde dance theatre than neo-noir pulp fiction.

“The Golden Fang” saunters in mid-ground as we approach the corporate citadel of The Golden Fang, led there by Doc who interprets a cryptic note in a postcard recently arrived from the invisible Shasta. In the middle of a commercial dime store strip wasteland stands the ludicrous architectural folly. Greenwood takes his cue from Les Baxter’s exotica arrangements (sketching violin passages then overlaying them with vibraphone and celeste). If the architecture looks like exotica in concrete and steel, investment dentist Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short channelling British TV’s Jason King – Peter Wyngarde) looks like Les Baxter’s number one fan. But gradually the track darkens, melting into a reworking of Bernard Herrmann’s sensorial dirges for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), where orchestration relates less to situation and description and more to the body and its presence. In place of Robert DeNiro’s exhausted Vietnam vet wired by debilitating insomnia, we get the tuned-in dropped-out headspace of Doc. Bleached-out anxiety; slo-mo paranoia; now dusted with cocaine.

“Adrian Prussia” is the most Radiohead-like melodic construction in the score, replete with anxious string arrangements (all rasping, scratching, thumping) and a Zelig-like ghosting of their pulsations by an analogue synthesizer. Its dark couverture symbolises the morbid delight Adrian Prussia (a Putinesque Peter McRobbie) displays in administering vengeful violence, here likely to befall Doc. The synth is gradually over-amped, flicking wildly through multiple octaves, while the reverberation of the orchestral textures builds into an overbearing wall of sound. With its core motif and swelling momentum, it evokes a whirlpool growing in size, speed and intensity – the aural equivalent of the water-down-the-drain optical effect which was often superimposed in montage sequences at the peaks of delirium in classical film noir gumshoe tales. But unlike the quivering Romanticism of Miklos Roza, Elmer Bernstein or David Raksin, Greenwood’s theme is energised by an interiorised deconstruction of its own musical grammar. The Hollywood Romantic scorers could beautifully narrate or describe the bleak disposition of their entrapped anti-heroes, but only through analogous measures. “Adrian Prussia” sonically cannibalises its form to morph from Self to Other, from Hollywood to Burbank, from Monroe to Manson.

Greenwood delivers the most ‘indie combo’ track in the score late in the film. “Under The Paving Stones, The Beach!” occurs when we taste again the bittersweet yearning evoked by the oral ménage à trois of Shasta’s breathing, Doc’s exhaling, and Sortilège’s (Joanna Newsom) liquefied crackling, as the latter’s voice-over stage-directs a rolling sunset review of the impressions Shasta has left on Doc’s mind. Cue that golden brown coastal ennui of silhouetted lovers. Shift focus and f-stop to capture that Kodak moment on the sand. The music sounds like Tortoise jamming on a disembodied surf ditty, here thickened with multiple bass lines and low guitar riffing. No chords, just muscular line work shaping the melodic counterparts. As the French student revolutionaries chanted “Sous les pavés, la plage!” when they tore up the paving stones to hurl at the May ’68 riot police, they romanticised this reality effect of ‘the street’ aping Yves Klein’s Nouveau Réalisme in a detournment of Eugène Delacroix’s revolutionary history painting. But California’s topography was radically different: fresh asphalt, widely dispersed, dripping into pools of developments like Channel View Estates’ arterial displacements funded by corrupt commerce. California’s youth head culture was already at the beach, away from actual and symbolic barricades. Greenwood’s riffs have a slightly tragic air: Manhattan Beach has plenty of pizza, but no Latin Quarter.

Near the film’s denouement, we sink back into atonality. “Meeting Crocker Fenway” accompanies the queasy encounter between Doc and the story’s true puppet master, Crocker Fenway (Martin Donovan), father of teen runaway Japonica. It’s classic Herrmannesque rhythms of breathing/sighing/exhaling – first done in Hitchcock’s Psycho, where the score is more neurological than musicological; more synaptic than symbolic. Greenwood’s appropriation of this approach colours the scene with a visceral tension. Everything becomes less literary and more bodily: the unflattering light on their flesh; Doc’s pubic sideburns and dead-fish eyes; Fenway’s Nazi death-mask visage. Where is this scene going? Who is pulling whose strings? The music asks these questions. The Ondes Martenot (Messiaen’s favourite ethereal instrument) plays underneath a series of cello/viola/violin waves, effecting things going forward and backwards simultaneously. It ‘auralizes’ the narrative’s lack of directionality. The instruments’ wavering envelopes connote a hovering stasis where space, distance and ground waver indistinctly, just like the perceptual haze through which Doc orients himself to LA’s vanishing point.

“Shasta Fay Hepworth” – a retake of “Shasta” – provides a non-committal coda to Inherent Vice, here subscribing to her full familial status rather than highlighting her mystical attraction in Doc’s life. It marks her return to his arms, and his to hers. Searing concerto violin arcs sparkle as they bond, melting her head into his shoulder, driving in an unspecified vehicle, at an unstated time, into a time and space nearer to us, but just as far from themselves. It might be daylight, but a car following them shines its lights onto Doc’s face, reflecting off his rear view mirror. Is it the morning beach or moonlight asphalt? The Bartok-like gypsy cry of orchestral heartache sounds like the disembodied music from an old Hollywood movie playing on a TV set out of reach. It ends sans harmonic resolution. Was it playing at all? Were they driving anywhere? Its beauty lies in how you read the score – not the novel.

The Songs

Throughout Inherent Vice, Doc strains to grapple with a convoluted plot typical of the quagmire which entraps the classic PI, pushing forward yet tethered to the black elasticised tar of his circumstance. But Doc is never perplexed by this. He arrives on the scene, ready for anything yet completely unprepared. Can he read anything going on in any of these scenes he blithely enters? Can we read his face? No – but Can can. “Vitamin C” (from the 1972 LP Egg Bamyasi) cuts in, loud and upfront. An amazingly precise Krautrock motorik rewiring of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” (1969), with premonitional-Portishead falsetto Japlish by singer Damo Suzuki. German in origin, the track here is LA pastoral: it accompanies locations and architecture more than faces and action. Its studio architecsonics of crisp live instrumentation sonically draw up a plan of the brooding scenario at the trailer whore house in the middle of the skeletal Channel View Estates, as if it’s scoring the space without acknowledging the characters within it. The music’s pulsating groove is thus all the things Doc senses but never eyeballs in detail. This is the opposite of the classic noir PI whose post-war asphalt terrain grounds the Chandleresque figure with a Sherlock Holmes intensity of observation. Doc stumbles and rummages. Can (the group) see the scene for what it is. It signposts how songs appear throughout Inherent Vice: they’re deliriously disconnected, palpably parallel – for that’s how Doc perceives things.

Despite its labyrinthine plot, the film maintains an eerily flat rhythm. It's like watching five 70s TV cop shows at once (try Mannix, Adam-12, Colombo, Hawaii Five-O and Cannon) on downers. But read this anti-cinematic pro-televisual film closely and you’ll hear that its tonal shaping of drama is set-designed by the score and songs’ occurrences and placement. The sound of music is astoundingly sharp, irrespective of its elusive vagaries, or its spiky inappropriateness. The latter is exemplified by The Markett’s “Here Come The Ho-Dads” (1963). Played in toto, it too is essentially pastoral and environmental: it scapes as it sounds. Yet it also comments: it musicologically evidences the lack of societal synchronism of such radiophonic 60s dance-craze pop (the surfer’s stomp) with the Mansonesque 70s blood dawn (the hippie’s stab). One might ask why did the Manson Family do what they did, but one could equally ask why is The Marketts still being heard in South Bay while corporate celebs are being slaughtered like pigs in the Hollywood Hills?

The Marketts were produced by Joe Saraceno, producer of The Ventures: the archetypal instrumental garage/lounge-room teen combo who commandeered the US charts with their domestic lo-fi amateur rock’n’roll in 1960. Like The Ventures, The Marketts bear an innocent sound, like they’re playing in your living room rather than a studio. Charles Manson may have heard them on the radio over and again while he read the bible and envisioned a suburban apocalypse. Inside Charlie’s head, “Here Come The Ho-Dads” would have been the sound of dumb rich white kids, playing in their living rooms, ripe for slaughter. The song’s placement in the film marks a ‘socio-aural suppression’ of how larger socio-musical realities beyond the story’s scenography frame its incidents better than literate description. Appropriately, Doc seems caught between these two social realms, of going with the radio flow of things, yet sensing the probability of darker wavelengths modulating reality. From his relationship with a pot-puffing assistant DA, to his doctor’s office at a small medical centre, to his ‘head’ appearance within the corridors of the LAPD, Doc doesn’t fit; nor does the music. The more one observes this, the more “Here Come The Ho-Dads” seems displaced. Its snare room reverb evokes a tangible space beyond the phonological realm of the otherwise normative stomp track. Even Saraceno and The Marketts could not help infusing their music with aural hieroglyphic encoding of an ‘otherness’ beyond its domain.

Another strange track placement – but so it should be, as it’s in Doc’s inexplicable reception area. We faintly hear Minnie Ripperton’s “Les Fleur” (from the 1970 LP Come To My Garden). His ‘secretary’ Petunia Leeway (Maya Rudolph) behaves like a counter agent, talking in cryptic code, seeming to pretend to be a secretary yet perfectly synched to Doc’s ‘profession’ as a pot-head PI. At first it sounds like office Muzak à la Jack Nitzsche’s BGM for Milos Foreman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). But “Les Fleur” has distant echoes of Broadway groovy 60s musicals. That’s because it’s produced by Charles Stepney, the Chicago producer who worked with Ramsey Lewis and Rotary Connection (Ripperton’s first band) to develop an orchestral take on ‘psychedelic soul’. It’s a black, sumptuous, sexy genre, tinged with spotlit pain and undulations of Gospel. It became hyper-Californian, blossoming in the power terrain the recording industry had attained nationally at this time, when regional voices of rock, pop, soul and funk were channelled through LA’s recording industry head offices. Stepney’s productions and arrangements are accordingly neither folk nor funk, fish nor fowl. Furthermore, the scene is genetic: Maya Rudolph is the actual daughter of Minnie Ripperton and Charles Stepney. She bears the corporal DNA of the very sound we are hearing. By this stage, Inherent Vice’s soundtrack is emerging as the densest textual layer in the film.

Les Baxter’s “Simba” (from the 1956 LP Tamboo!) scores an outrageous party scene with Mrs. Wolfmann (Serena Scott Thomas with a fake facelift). It’s one of Baxter’s arch exotica tracks, plum-stuffed with corny Africanesque posturing. It sounds like Joseph Campbell in race-drag dancing an ‘expressive movement’ pantomime on a camp stage in the late 50s. Baxter’s orchestration are half-Nadia Boulanger, half-Walt Disney. His sounds synchronised to West Coast 50s hipsterism, a kind of sunny beat existentialism before the 60s counter culture took over the mental real estate of the newly instated youth culture. Amidst the gaudy trappings of LA wealth, “Simba” echoes the Coen’s use of Yma Sumac’s “Atypura” (1950, co-written by Baxter) in The Big Lebowski (1998) at a similarly decadent beach party of pornographer Jackie Treehorn. Here, it’s all martinis and Mai-Tais; Incan princesses and American wealth. Doc reads it as a decrepit time-warp, out-of-phase with social justice yet au courant with the bald exploitative machinations of petty commerce at the time.

The smooth whine of Neil Young’s voice floats in twice: first, “Harvest” (from the 1971 LP Harvest); second, “Journey From The Past” (a 1971 track unreleased until the 2009 CD box-set The Archives Vol.1). His voice and stoned, laconic farm hand instrumentation provide a reprieve from the hitherto eclecticism of the soundtrack. This shift to a naturalistic centre often occurs in American movies, when they wish to clear the smoke of artsy pretentions or worldly weightiness. The vernacular of the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter movement provided the template for this device. The applied ‘realism’ of such a practice mimes a sincerity of intent in the film’s narrative. It provides an assuring crutch in a movie, as if there’s something being resolved by a character, by their circumstance, or by the plumed line of a script contrivance. But in Inherent Vice such a moment is illusory – or more appropriately, a mirage in the Southern Californian desert. For while Doc might be half-thinking of some grounded mental or emotional state, he continues to randomly wander and blunder through his investigative duties. Again, he stands separate to the music which evidences his perspectives on things, himself and others. The song thus accrues a complex multi-voicing, despite how resolutely normal it sounds.

Finally, another ‘socio-aural suppression’: the absence of any songs by Joanna Newsom. For her embodied and disembodied voice flitters around the film’s amoebic periphery – crucially providing a Grecian-chorus-therapist voice-over narration in a floral reconstruction of the celebrated gravel of the film noir PI. Like the film’s multi-voicing song selection, her voice speaks in multiple tongues. It fuses a ranch-hand twang (bearing a distant sense of back home) with a surf-shack drawl (now acclimatised to coffee house brews and lounge room tokes), while retaining a pubescent timbrel veneer. She sounds like Mimsi Farmer or Tuesday Weld at a beach party dropping a truth trip on you. And like those iconic figures from 60s groovy movies (Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967), Arthur Dreifus’ Riot On Sunset Strip (1967), Maury Dexter’s Mary Jane (1967), Russ Meyer’s Vixen! (1968), Richard Rush’s Psych-Out (1968), William Rotsler’s Mantis In Lace (1968), Robert Thom’s Angel Angel Down We Go (1969), etc.), Newsom’s performance personifies those hip trip chicks who gravitated to the bright lights of LA and all its otherworldly charm. Newsom’s own music, of course, is the polar opposite: ornately cerebral, stylistically obtuse, harmonically herbivorous, rhetorically angelic. As is her singing voice opposite to her narrating voice. But most importantly, this creates a meta-voice for the film, conjuring an image but voicing its contra. In this sense, she’s just like a Manson chick: middle-class refugee, prepped to be a bridesmaid, but readied as an agent of terror. She sings with her mouth shut, insinuating an invisible Otherness, just like how the Manson chicks broke into well-off houses in LA late at night, creeping around for the hell of it. Their silence was their method. Inherent Vice hears it well.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © Ghoulardi Film Company, Warner Bros.