When Elliott Smith’s acoustic ballad “Miss Misery” from the “Good Will Hunting” soundtrack was nominated for an Oscar in 1997, fans watched in shock as the shy indie rocker held hands with Celine Dion on national television. He lost, of course, to her “Titanic” hit, “My Heart Will Go On,” but getting there at all was a feat of its own.
This year, it looks like the Kodak Theater stage could get a little crowded with unlikely candidates, as rock musicians more familiar to visitors of MySpace than multiplexes offer original songs “for your consideration.” They include a punk rock hero, a grunge god, an indie legend-in-the-making, and a band that up until a couple months ago had people asking, “DeVotch-wha?”
Thanks to L.A. radio station KCRW, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, directors of “Little Miss Sunshine,” were introduced to the music of a Denver quartet called DeVotchKa. In the band’s spacious, sunbaked songs and unusual instrumentation featuring, among other things, tuba and glockenspiel, the directors “heard the sound of the movie,” as vocalist Nick Urata recalls it. It was a very perceptive observation, for DeVotchKa members had in fact recorded their album in a studio in the Arizona desert, which is where most of the comic road movie takes place.
The vaguely spaghetti Western number “How It Ends” became the family “theme,” with different instruments symbolizing different characters (Grandpa got the tuba; Olive is the violin). Urata also scored the film with Mychael Danna and penned the closing song, “Until the End of Time,” which he approached as “an apology that the dad might be making after he acted like such a jerk.”
Urata says the biggest challenge was trying to manifest another person’s vision. “We’d come up with something that we thought was perfect,” he says, “and it would be the exact opposite of what the directors were thinking.” He also found it peculiar to be writing music that’s not supposed to be too noticeable. “When you’re just recording a song, you want it to jump out of the speakers, but when there’s a film involved, you need to lay back a little bit.”
Tell that to “Stranger Than Fiction’s” music supervisor Brian Reitzell (“Marie Antoinette”), who took instrumental versions of Spoon tracks from the band’s 2002 album “Kill the Moonlight,” plopped them in the middle of the action, and turned up the volume. The tunes, including the striding, percussive piano rocker “The Way We Get By,” which accompanies Will Ferrell’s character’s morning regimen, are instantly recognizable to anyone who knows the band.
For Spoon’s front man Britt Daniel, this wasn’t entirely comfortable. “When I saw it in the theater for the first time,” he recalls, “it was very strange for me. I know these songs inside and out, and I have all these associations.” He starts to laugh. “You can just get way too sensitive.”
Daniel and Reitzell initially bonded over a shared obsession with Cliff Martinez’s “Solaris” soundtrack, and talked about working together one day. They composed the score in Reitzell’s L.A. studio, and Daniel also brought in sketches of a new Spoon song called “The Book I Write.”
For a film whose main character gets swept into the plot of a book, they thought this choice was “kinda goofy” in that “it fit too well.” But that’s the one that stuck, and it’s a sweet, catchy capper to the film.
“I’m really thankful to Brian for pulling me in,” says Daniel, who is currently in the studio with his band. He says another soundtrack would be “cool, if I have time. But for me the main concern is rock.”
For Paul Westerberg, getting hired to do the music for an animated film, “Open Season,” provided an opportunity to rock harder than he had in years, serving, as it did, as a sort of Replacements reunion with estranged bandmate Tommy Stinson.
Westerberg attributes getting the gig in the first place to “dumb luck” and the inspiration of Sony Pictures Worldwide Music’s Lia Vollack, but the experience was no playful romp in the forest a la “Open Season.” Of the 30 songs Westerberg recorded in his basement, nine ended up on the soundtrack, most of them redone by session men. “That was difficult,” he says, “but I realized that this is the way it works.”
When the score was recorded at Abbey Road Studios with the London Philharmonic, the composer opted to stay behind. “I wasn’t gonna be standing around the studio telling the first violinist to see if he can’t make it a little more of a hoedown,” he says.
Ironically, the Replacement ultimately found himself getting replaced on his own soundtrack. Two songs were covered by the Deathrays, and the ballad “I Belong” appears twice, with a version by Pete Yorn closing the film. When the musician’s 8-year-old son Johnny attended the premiere with him, he wondered why dad wasn’t singing all the songs. “I couldn’t explain marketing to him,” says Westerberg. “I just said, the more the merrier!”
Vollack was also behind the choice of Chris Cornell to do the theme song for the new James Bond film “Casino Royale,” but the former Soundgarden and Audioslave front man knew exactly what he was getting into. Holding up Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” as his totem, Cornell embraced the assignment. “I will never do another song that sounds like this,” says the rocker of the epic “You Know My Name.” “I (wanted) an orchestra. I didn’t want to do a song for a James Bond film and not have it sound somewhat like a James Bond song.”
His signature wail intact, Cornell inhabits the psyche of a James Bond who is not the “superconfident, seemingly invincible, winking kinda ladies’ man superspy” of films past. This Bond is conflicted, he’s got emotional depth, and he is tougher than his previous incarnations — hence lyrics like “Arm yourself because no one else here will save you/The coldest blood runs through my veins, you know my name.”
Cornell admits that he’s personally more scared of Daniel Craig than others who’ve portrayed 007. “If you put Pierce Brosnan in a room, I think I could beat him up,” he says, “but I don’t think I could beat up Daniel Craig.”