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LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy on Writing ‘New Body Rhumba’ for the Dance-Happy ‘White Noise’ Climax: ‘It’s About the Beauty of Moments’

Murphy and director Noah Baumbach talk about the film-closing musical production number that has taken on its own life.

james murphy interview white noise oscar music best original song shortlist nomination film baumbach elfman
Getty Images/Netflix

LCD Soundsystem is playing at your house — at least, they are, were or will be if you’re queuing up “White Noise,” which is showing up on Netflix after an awards-qualifying run in theaters. This may mark one of the few times in film history that a lot of viewers have been tempted to fast-forward directly to the end-credits sequence, since so much of the talk about the film has been about what a highlight that epilogue is. The full-on musical number that caps the movie as credits unspool features the principal cast and extras dancing their way through a mock-1980s supermarket to the tune of “New Body Rhumba,” the first new song James Murphy penned for his beloved, reconstitued group in five years.

As it turns out, members of the Academy’s music branch were born to boogie, too, as the dance-rock track made the 15-song shortlist for Oscar consideration, and is thought to stand a strong chance at making the final five. Murphy sat down to talk with Variety about how he and filmmaker Noah Baumbach explicitly or intuitively agreed on how the movie’s swan song should play out, which ‘70s,‘80s group they ended up agreeing “Rhumba” sounds a little bit like, and whether or not the successful outcome of the song has caused Murphy to pick up a case of soundtrack fever.

As a P.S., following the Q&A with Murphy, we also have a conversation between Baumbach and composer Danny Elfman about how the score and song combine to go from rumination to a strange kind of celebration at the close of the film.

You don’t normally delve into the film world, so you’re not used to doing awards circuits and that sort of thing. Is it a little strange?

I don’t do it for the music world. Like, we’ve been nominated for Grammys, and I don’t do anything. I don’t go to them or do press for them. So all of it seems to some degree funny to me. And not in a bad way — just like, I’m not too worked up about it. Although I’m working on my EGOT! It would a MEGOT, since my restaurant has a Michelin star. So I’m gonna go one up. [Murphy owns The Four Horsemen, a restaurant in Brooklyn.]

I want Noah’s film to get seen by as many human beings as it can. I think he’s working in a very interesting way right now. I’m firmly convinced that this is gonna be something people go back to. It’s gonna have this moment now, and it’s gonna have another life going forward as well.

Given the time frame “White Noise” takes place in, and instructions you got from Noah to have the music feel like something that could have been made during the ‘80s, do you feel like you ended up sticking with the ‘80s period, instrumentally, in what you came up with for “New Body Rhumba”?

I kind of forgot about it to some degree. If you have a quiet voice naturally, and you’re an actor and a director says, “Do this one quiet,” I think that if they give you 10 things to do, you might forget about the “Do this one quiet” bit, because you’re gonna probably do that anyway. And I think Noah would’ve rejected something that was overtly, almost ironically ‘80s. Those were seminal years for both of us. We’re the same age. And not everything in the ‘80s was shiny synthesizers and gated reverbs. There’s a lot of Replacements records and Feelies records and Fall records and things that have a different palette. So I was like: I know that my urtext is that decade. So I’ll just make the music that I want to make and fixate more on that.

And then a band I didn’t think of at all while making the song, but I guess is part of my blood, is the B-52s. I didn’t think about them at all, but Noah was like, “It sounds like the B-52s,” and then afterwards it’s like, “Oh, it does. It sounds like the B-52s.” I hadn’t thought about that. But that’s still more ‘70s, although early ‘80s, too — that era of B-52s, the Ricky (Wilson) era, with the original guitar player.

But I didn’t want it to be pastiche-y. Like, (Baumbach) didn’t do anything really corny with the set. The set and the clothing are all correct — much more correct than people ever get the ‘80s. You know, in movies about the ‘80s, everyone has asymmetrical hair and DayGlo sunglasses, and I’m like: I lived through that! The ‘80s looked a lot more like the ‘70s than people like to remember. So I didn’t want to do it with the music, either, getting too on-the-nose.

In talking with Danny Elfman (who composed the score), he really liked your song and said he was glad he had something he approved of to know that he was sort of leading into as the movie was coming to a close, as opposed to all the times he’s written something and then seen it followed by a random pop song over the end credits.

He’s so nice. I only met him because of this film, on the premieres. He’s the best. He’s such a cool dude. I was really stunned. I mean, I didn’t assume he’d be a jerk, but he didn’t need to be as nice to me as he was. I mean, he’s Danny Elfman. But yeah, I think he did it amazingly.

You have worked on a few things with Noah, from the “Greenberg” score to this song — and not much of anything else, apart from your collaboration with him. It does not seem to be a case of “I just really want to work in the movies.”

I don’t particularly like working in the movies, but I do like working with Noah very much.

And what’s the difference?

I like working with people. And movies, often, they’re just so big and they’re so expensive that you start working with systems, and that’s not necessarily compelling to me. I like working with Noah because he is my friend and I really like the work he does, and I can stand behind it. Films in general, I think sometimes because they’re so expensive and they’re such a big deal, they get a sense of inflated importance that I don’t necessarily jibe with. I mean, it’s just a thing somebody’s making. I make songs; we all just make things. And sometimes it suddenly feels like “Well, you’re in the movies now. It’s all very important.” I’m like: It’s not, really! The vast majority of films are terrible. So the fact that it’s a film just means that it has a very high percentage chance of not being good — but it’s just very expensive. So I think often it becomes this very silly, overblown thing, which isn’t warranted by what it is.

That said, my experience in working with films with Noah is great, because we can talk about things. Working with Noah means that I feel like we live on the same floor in a dorm, and I have a small four-track in my dorm room, and he’s making a student film and he wants me to make music for it, and I will. So I just deal with Noah. That makes my life better.

Is it conceivable you’d work with some other filmmaker if you could develop that same kind of relationship?

Sure. It’s just that I’ve created a world for myself in which I have my own studio and I have my own world and I have my own anxieties. I don’t need somebody else getting anxious for me. And so I don’t willfully accept other systems of anxiety. And working in films is for the most part is accepting a very large system of anxiety. Working for Noah is an anxiety that’s self-imposed, meaning that no one’s worked up because it’s their job. With Noah, I know that I need to deliver a song at a certain time. And I almost was too late, and it was very hard to know that I’m failing my friend, and that’s something that I’ll own and take care of. That’s a system of anxiety that I’m willing to take on, which is my personal responsibility to my friend, but not just whatever worry needs to be fretted about. The entertainment industry in general — music, all of it — it’s all very important. It’s really not. So anything that keeps me out of the wild pressures and importance of the entertainment industry, I’m happy to stay out of. That said, I love making stuff.

White Noise. (L to R) Raffey Cassidy as Denise, Dean Moore/Henry Moore as Wilder, Sam Nivola as Heinrich, Adam Driver as Jack, Greta Gerwig as Babette and May Nivola as Steffie in White Noise. Cr. Wilson Webb/Netflix © 2022 Wilson Webb/Netflix

That climactic production number is just very involved on every level. So it is not like he could most likely make a last-minute substitution if you didn’t come through. How did you deal with that pressure of meeting the deadline for choreography and all that?

Noah understood intuitively that I was really stressed out, that I was really getting in my head, and he just gave me tons of space. He was like, “Don’t worry, we’re doing fine. Just get it when you can get it. I understand.” So he was very generous with me, but I was really behind.

I’m behind because if you’re shoveling a driveway that’s been snowed on, every time you shovel a spot, it’s now shoveled. It is in the past, and you can, “Look, I’ve shoveled 10% of this driveway,” or “I have shoveled 80% of this driveway.” When you’re making a song, you can only ever know how far along you are in retrospect, when you’re done. Because I can be almost done and then be like “This song doesn’t work,” and throw the whole thing away. I can also feel like I don’t have anything, and then after lunch suddenly have everything happen and the whole song’s written. So it’s very hard to know how long it’s gonna take me. I’m not accomplished enough at certain technical things to just move forward. If I don’t like something, I am incapable of working on it. I don’t know how to move. I don’t know how to halfway do it. So I was having a real writer’s block and real crises about the song. So I was just late for that reason.

The choreographer had already choreographed to another song. So I just had to match the BPM, the beats, the tempo. Unfortunately, that song was one of my songs. The hardest thing, a composer will tell you, is when someone has temp music and you have to replace that music because they grow (attached to it). I would go in there and I’m watching with Noah and Greta (Gerwig), and we’re watching the scene, all hanging out, and they’re like, “Oh, I love the way this feels.” And I’m like, shit! Normally, if someone loves the temp music, I can listen to it and be like, “Well, how would I approach this?,” and that would be my way of getting away from the temp music. But now I’m watching it and I’m like, “Well, that’s how I would approach it. This is my song. They’re dancing to my song!” Now I have to make something that makes everyone in this room satisfied that it does the things that the temp music did, but doesn’t sound like it, because that’s my song. It was very hard.

And so did they shoot it to your previous song, and then you came up with this to match it?

Yes! Oh, yeah, they shot it (before the song was turned in). Actually, Noah gave me some music to listen to before they shot it (by another artist), and it was at a different tempo and I started making music to that. Then he shot it to (the existing LCD Soundsystem song). And I wrote some new music and sent it to him and they’re like, “Oh, the choreographer used this other thing, your song, to choreograph to.” And then when I saw it, I was like, “Oh, I have to make new music to this new tempo.”

But, you know, it all works out in the end, doesn’t it? Unless it doesn’t, and then it’s just very bad.

And what was the song of yours they shot to that had the same BPM you further had to match?

I don’t want to say. I… It’s not that hard to figure out, but I don’t want people to get in their heads about it. It was just a funny happenstance.

Noah said he asked you to write as if you were writing in a band in the mid-‘80s writing a song about death…

A pop song about death, yeah. A happy song about death. But it’s funny because all of those things are my wheelhouse. We have a good shorthand together at this point in our lives, just as friends, just as people. So that was helpful. But also, he could almost tell me nothing. I know the book, and so when he told me what he was shooting at the end, it’s like, “Oh, I understand.” He really told me very little, but I have a sense of where he’s coming from, from just long series of conversations. And I understand this idea: it’s got joy, and it’s not depressing, but it’s also not just mindless, and the idea of this thing that lifts you out of a sort of almost-reality into very much un-reality. So he could have just sent me the footage and said, “This is for ‘White Noise’,” and because of the nature of our sort of co-understanding, I think I would’ve bodily understood: It’s as if you’re a band in the ‘80s writing a happy song about death.

Musician James Murphy and director Noah Baumbach attend the New York Film Festival screening of The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) at Alice Tully Hall on October 1, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Netflix) Jason Kempin

Almost more influential in the process was that he started sending me clips from the book and clips from the script, little clippings and talking through some of the scenes, like the scene (late in the film) with the nuns taking umbrage at Jack’s belief that they believe in heaven and angels. Just talking about the details about the story is in some ways more helpful to me, just to re-jog my brain. Because the way I write lyrics is mostly automatic, meaning I just go sing without writing things down and without pre-thinking too much. So there has to be some sort of internal life for what the song is, and those dialogues really helped me develop a bit of an internal life for the song.

With the closing number, people generally interpret it as celebrative and upbeat, at the close of a film that is not necessarily all those things. But then there’s the question, since it is a dance in a supermarketis is there an element of social satire to it, since they’re in a kind of colorful consumer paradise? Baumbach was saying not to interpret it overly cynically.

Right. I mean, I think it’s sophomoric to just be like, “Oh, it’s anti-consumerism,” and just to be cynical about it. I think that’s maybe where the two of us would’ve been at 23 years old. But I think you live a life and you realize your life isn’t made up of something else. Your life is made up by trips to the grocery store. It genuinely is. I’m not saying that there isn’t more to life, but that is not non-life. And I think both of us are pretty patient or un-cynical about things like that.

I think it’s almost like more about the beauty of moments. And film is a medium that captures this better than almost anything else. It is the place in which you can break from reality in a much more uncanny way. With songs, it’s like you’re not in reality (from the beginning); you’re just singing along. And with (literary) writing, you’re outside of time. When writing prose, I can have a character walking along and then we can spend seven pages on a small thought, and it doesn’t feel uncanny; it just feels like that’s where the narrative wants to take you. But with film, when you suddenly have a bunch of people go from normalcy to this choreography, it’s a much more uncanny break from reality. I don’t think that you do that with pure cynicism; I think you do that to make something beautiful. And I didn’t feel like I needed to be super-cynical, and I don’t feel he was being super-cynical.

One thing “White Noise” and “RRR” have in common is a great musical number at the very end of the film that exists outside of natural reality. In Indian cinema, that’s a normal thing, but in an American film, viewers have to suddenly readjust their thinking in a big way.

Especially with a director known for like a certain level of — while tweaked — a certain level of realism. It does feel like the end of “Crouching Tiger” when they leap off the cliff and suddenly everyone’s flying. It does feel like there’s like a level of lift that you don’t necessarily associate with him. But also, we talked about the “Modern Love” scene in “Frances Ha” (scored to the David Bowie song), with the running and dancing, which is like a Leos Carax film, like “Mauvais Sang.” I mean, that’s what film can do, which I think it’s a waste not to do it. It’s a waste not to play with that, if the time is right to do it.

White Noise. Cr. Wilson Webb/Netflix © 2022 Wilson Webb/Netflix

What was it like seeing that end sequence for the first time with an audience at the Venice Film Festival?

Well, I’d seen the end sequence, because I had to for the ending, but that’s all I’d seen; I’d never seen the film leading up to it. It was very surreal and strange. I’d never been to the festival, and I’m wearing a tuxedo and I’m super jetlagged and I felt insane. So it was a weird way to watch your friend’s film that you’re involved in for the first time. And then the film ends and suddenly all the lights turn on your face, where you’re sitting in that weird zone where people are clapping and you’re clapping, but maybe you’re not supposed to, because it’s you they’re clapping for. It was very strange, but it’s a very strange movie.

We talked about it after, but before that he hadn’t prepped me for what he’d been doing, which I thought was really great. And there was this uncanny strangeness through the whole film. And then afterwards he’s like, “Yeah, we had the choreographer map out everyone’s movements in the normal family scenes, so that everything feels a little unreal.”

What was your ultimate take on what Baumbach did?

It’s not like I’m a film studies person. But I think it’s a pretty remarkable film, and I think it’s very tricky. I think he has an answer for all of the things he’s done, which I think sometimes you don’t. When you watch a film that’s incomplete or unsuccessful sometimes you’ll be like, “What’s that?” And then you realize the director doesn’t have an answer; this is what they had to work with, or something was out of their control. I feel like he’s got so much control in this film. And there are times where you’re like, “Oh, we’re just watching ‘Uncle Buck’”! It tricks you. It’s like this lulling (by) using tropes that you understand to do this (other) thing. “Oh, this is the comedy bit.” “Oh, this is the serious bit.” “Oh, this is the family drama.” All these things are happening, but none of it’s connecting the way that those things work. None of it’s like the cheap “oh, you care about this person because we just set you up to care about this person.” The cheap laughs aren’t there. All of it is just operating in this terrifying … “Uncanny” is the word that I like to use. It’s just all just a little bit wrong, like a dream or like something created by aliens to look like real life.

And at the end, I feel like people are liking the song and the ending bit because it’s like, finally, there’s this very overt acceptance, to me —the ending is a way of Noah having this generous moment where you’re like, Yes, this isn’t real life. Yes, this is sublimated in some way. Yes, this is all lifted up above life, or not above life, but in a different place. So the ending feels very satisfying, like, “OK, I can relax now. I understand what I’m supposed to do in this moment. I’m supposed to just let this dance happen.” I don’t know —I’m super chuffed about it. He’s my friend, and I’m very excited when he does things that I really love.

Going beyond the film into plans for LCD Soundsystem: 2022 was a year of a lot of well-received live residencies in several cities. Although we could have used one in Los Angeles, as well…

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We gotta play more in L.A., for sure.

Anything you’d want to tell people about what’s to come for the group in 2023?

The world’s a little bit weird for me right now. You have to book everything a year in advance, which I’m not used to and I don’t like it. I’m very spoiled, though, because we’re a successful enough live band that people make space for us and try to hold space for us. But  we’re trying to just be a band, play music and play in cities that we like that want to see us. We’re gonna be a normal band in 2023. You know, make some music, put some music out, and hopefully play some more shows. Nothing crazy. I’m not gonna hole up in a stadium.

*****

James Murphy and Danny Elfman speak onstage during the White Noise New York Film Festival Opening Night Screening on September 30, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Netflix) Getty Images for Netflix

Variety spoke separately with Baumbach, and Elfman, too, about how Murphy’s song works at the end of “White Noise.”

Is the credits sequence set to “New Body Rhumba” about pure joy, or is there an element of satire?

Baumbach: I talked to James similarly to how I talked to Danny just in terms of themes, and in that dance, I saw kind of a dance of life and a dance of death. I mean, that’s the same — to celebrate life is to celebrate death. And so there’s real joy in that. And like you said, you could look at it as social satire. They’re in a supermarket. It’s a dance of consumerism. But I also felt, well, but there’s also real beauty in this. There’s real beauty in this supermarket. There’s real, genuine joy. There’s genuine individuality in these dancers and and this community. And it is a place where everybody comes together, and going back to the notion of the strategies and the routines and rituals we create for ourselves — there’s real beauty and joy in that too. I don’t see that all cynically, that we’re just numbing ourselves because we don’t want to think about uncomfortable things. Yes, there’s some of that, but also, we find real connection, we find creativity, and it’s kind of what makes us.

It’s a communal dance, but it’s also a dance of individuals. It was something David Newman, who choreographed it, and I talked a lot about, because you have all these different people, and a lot of them are people we’ve seen throughout the movie, but there’s no uniformity. Everybody is doing their own thing, and I found that really beautiful in what he designed with the dancers. And then of course James met that with the music. James and I have known each other for quite some time now and work together and are good friends, so I know where his musical taste lies. We both are almost exactly the same age, so we grew up during the period that this movie takes place. So I felt like, well, if you had had your band in the ‘80s, what song would you have written then?

You’ve got a movie with a toxic cloud that could be fatal, and a strange sense of hope at the end.

Elfman: I almost never know what a (song by a different artist) is gonna be against my score. And this is one of the moments that I always really appreciate. One of the few times that happened was in “Good Will Hunting,” where Gus Van Sant knew what the songs were gonna be, and I was actually able to hear them and work around them in a way — Elliot Smith’s songs. It’s very rare that’s it’s like “This is the song and the sequence,” and it’s written in the script. As a composer, it’s so nice to know what the (other) music is, so I’m not just guessing in some way. When I first read the “White Noise” script, I was a little bit like, oh my God, how are you gonna pull this off?

But it’s so built into the story because Don Cheadle’s character, Murray — I mean, there’s no coincidence that every time Jack goes to the supermarket, Murray’s there. It’s like his church almost, in how he talks about it in this exuberant way. And so it takes on this special quality, which I think is beautifully been played out at the end.

White Noise. (L to R) André L. Benjamin as Lasher, Carlos Jacott as Grappa, Jodie Turner-Smith as Winnie, Sam Gold as Alfonse and Don Cheadle as Murray in White Noise. Cr. Wilson Webb/Netflix © 2022 Wilson Webb/Netflix

Baumbach: I would also say that, the piece of Danny’s that comes right before (the choreographed musical number) starts all the way back in the church slash emergency room, and it takes us all the way through that sequence and that scene of the family coming home, and then it brings us to the supermarket. So when Danny was working on that, we had James’ song queued up after. That was, for me, really a pleasure to work with my two favorite musical artists and have Danny hand his score over to James’ song. It was really kind of fantastic.