Is the whole genre of “Music Inspired by the Film” albums getting its redemption? They became a joke by the 1990s, when it seemed like any blockbuster was an excuse to put together an album of supposedly movie-inspired tracks that were really just as likely to be leftovers from artists’ previous releases. But this year, the Kendrick Lamar-produced “Black Panther: The Album — Music From and Inspired By” established that a soundtrack that isn’t really a pure soundtrack can be its own kind of art form.
Now Alfonso Cuaron is going to test that theorem a little further. It was announced Wednesday that the director has curated a companion album for “Roma,” titled “Music Inspired by the Movie Roma.” Neither Netflix nor Sony Music will say much about the project yet (least of all reveal a track list) and little is known about it except that it’ll come out on the Sony Music Masterworks label, all the mystery artists were “carefully hand-picked by Cuaron himself,” and every song “was inspired by specific scenes and sounds” from the film — starting with the lone track they did release Wednesday, Billie Eilish’s “When I Was Older.”
As a teaser, “When I Was Older” is full of hopeful portent for the project. The causal listener won’t find much to tie the barely 17-year-old American singer’s composition (written with her older brother, Finneas O’Connell) to the film’s Mexico City narrative. But Eilish has adopted the tiniest bits and pieces of the movie on the way to arriving at something that ends up far afield in every way but mood.
“When I was older, I was a sailor on an open sea,” Eilish sings in the opening and repeated refrains in the song, “but now I’m underwater, and my skin is paler than it should ever be.” A vision of drowning? Yes, but it’s not necessarily related to the movie’s climactic seaside scene, but rather more or less lifted from a casual remark about reincarnation that the young character of Pepe (Marco Graf) makes in the movie: “When I was older, I used to be a sailor, but I drowned in a storm,” he says.
From there, the song doesn’t seem to be Pepe’s story, or anyone else’s — except for maybe Eilish’s, as she sings, “Nobody lonely like I’m lonely, and I don’t really know whether you’d really like it in the limelight” — a line spoken like a true newly minted star. But even as the story seems to diverge, Eilish and her brother draw on literal sounds as well as imagery from the movie. “Having access to the sounds used in the film proved to be invaluable,” she and O’Connell said in a statement. “Lines like ‘memories burn like a forest fire’ are accompanied by the sounds of the trees burning in the woods outside the house. The chorus has the ocean sounds overplayed on it. We were also able to take sounds like the student protest shouts and Borras barking and turn them into rhythmic percussive elements to help drive the song. Nothing about this song would exist without the film, which is exactly what we love about it.”
It establishes not just that Eilish can drum up some impressive, preternatural spookiness for a teen star, but that Cuaron has some skills of his own as a music supervisor, even at the point of post-post-post-production. Presumably the album will come out from under wraps before awards season is up, but regardless, maybe he should DJ his own Oscar party.