As a longtime contributor to The Ringer and Cinema Scope, and author of 2018’s indispensable Coen Brothers omnibus This Book Really Ties the Films Together, Adam Nayman has a well-earned reputation as one of the finest cultural critics working — the sort of writer whose kinetic and generous prose keeps you reading even when you differ from his inevitably well-reasoned opinions. That combination of effusiveness and erudition made him the natural candidate to write the similarly immersive, recently-released Paul Thomas Anderson overview Masterworks. Like Nayman’s Coen Brothers book, it addresses each of Anderson’s films chronologically while weaving together a fascinating and coherent overview of the filmmaker’s oeuvre to date.
To discuss the films of Paul Thomas Anderson is, in no small measure, to talk about the music within them. With apologies to Quentin Tarantino, no director formed in the wake of Martin Scorsese has created more memorable and ambitious musical sequences than Anderson, to both grand and queasy effect. I interviewed Nayman about several of those iconic moments and what they tell us about Anderson’s intentions, influences and interior world.
EN: Boogie Nights was my first Paul Thomas Anderson picture, and the “Sister Christian” scene has never ceased to menace me. It resembles the nightmare tales of Phil Spector recording Leonard Cohen in his high-Caesar cocaine period and brandishing a gun. Or John Holmes and the Wonderland murders. How much is Anderson playing upon our hazy institutional memory of events like those?
AN: I think institutional memory is a good way to put it. It’s not a direct memory for Anderson- he was a young child when those events occurred — although as an L.A. kid they no doubt played upon his imagination. Boogie Nights is an immersive period piece, told from a place of historical remove. I think in the first half of the movie, which is very disco-heavy on the soundtrack, there’s little bits of commentary in the music, like “Mama Told Me Not to Come” playing at the first party that Dirk goes to, which is a pretty literal cue. But it’s supposed to bring you back to a time and songs that an audience might recall. So in the same way that two very different soundtracks in the ‘90s — Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction — become shorthand for a period, I think that the way the soundtrack in Boogie Nights is curated is trying to perform a similar feat.
EN: What distinctions would you draw between the way Anderson uses music in the ‘70s portion of the film and then the ‘80s?
AN: In the ‘80s half of the film, Anderson is using songs he actually remembers living with and growing up with as an early teenager. And really, the second half of the film is about arrested adolescence. There’s something about the Rahad Jackson character [the drug dealer played by Alfred Molina] that’s very much your garden variety dirtbag teenager, you know? Except it’s not his parent’s basement, it’s his Hollywood Hills mansion. But it’s that same idea of, “Guys, come over! Let’s do some drugs! Let’s fuckin’ hang out!” When he has them come over, it’s like grown-up teenage-boy hang out time.
EN: Rahad Jackson has remarkably tacky, but wonderful taste in music.
AN: And I think his bad taste is supposed to align with the bad taste of the ‘80s and just the bad taste of tape. It’s very significant that he talks about making mix tapes, because he doesn’t have the patience to listen to a whole album. He wants to go from high to high, which is a very addict mindset. You know, “I just want the songs I like, I don’t want to wait for them to be sequenced on a record.” You don’t get the sense that this guy is going to listen to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and be like, “Oh, there’s a story here!” He just wants to hear the hits. And the songs he picks are all really good, ironic, I Love the ‘80s garbage. There’s a power ballad, there’s “Jesse’s Girl,” which is sort of disposable pop, there’s “99 Red Balloons,” which is a novelty song. And people have written about how the songs also kind of comment thematically on the action.
EN: “Sister Christian” is a powerful song in its perverse way.
AN: Absolutely. And “Sister Christian” is very much about a kind of wayward character and this kind of protection and mentorship, and it’s this scary encounter with the world, which is what Dirk is having at that moment. And “Jesse’s Girl” is covetous and sort of about bad impulses. And “99 Red Balloons” obviously describes an historical incident, and a chaotic one, and when it’s being used for a shoot-em-up it’s pretty on the nose and pretty funny. But I agree with you about “Sister Christian.” You could talk about all three songs, but I always do think about it as the “Sister Christian” sequence. And there’s something so slow and heavy and ponderous and inevitable about that song. It’s like the best possible version of a bad song.
EN: The way Anderson employs “Sister Christian” suggests he hears something desperate amidst the decadence and the comically arena sized production. It anticipates The Sopranos finale and “Don’t Stop Believing.”
AN: Well, that’s the coming-out-the-other-side aspect of it, right? The idea of taking kitsch and giving it grandeur. And I like that comment about The Sopranos because I think — probably unconsciously, or unofficially — it’s very true that David Chase, in his own frame of mind a “music guy” and a culture guy and a bit of a pretentious guy, he’s not going to give anybody else credit for anything. And I don’t think it’s as simple as he saw Boogie Nights and thought, “I’ll do that!” But I think that there’s this kind of history of contrapuntal music cues used by a certain kind of postmodern filmmaker. Kubrick does it with “Singin’ in the Rain” in Clockwork Orangeand then Tarantino rips him off in Reservoir Dogs with “Stuck in the Middle with You” which is a big influence on Anderson. And then by the time Fincher does “Orinoco Flow” in Dragon Tattoo it’s not meant to be an originally subversive music cue. It’s a reference to Kubrick and to Tarantino.
EN: The push-and-pull of Magnolia has always seemed to me to be about the willingness to court self-parody. In some ways, it almost seems a subtext to the whole picture: what can I get away with? When have I embarrassed myself? When have I embarrassed the audience? To this point, the “Wise Up” sequence where all of the actors sing along embarrassed and moved me tremendously. Explain.
AN: Here is a guy who is swinging for the fences, right? Baseball metaphors don’t always work, but this is like, “I’m going to hit a home run, or I’m going to make 27 outs at the same time.” You have a film that is ringed with magic realism because of the references and the numbers and the numerology, and framed by the coincidence, and building to the frogs. So there is a sense in which we are dealing not with a strictly documentary reality. But everything that happens in the film is basically accurately really happening. You know, like, a kid is on a game show, a cop is solving a murder and a guy is dying in bed. It’s quite every day. And this is a moment where Anderson doesn’t just rip down the fourth wall, he brings the cast out for bows halfway through the film.
EN: It stops the movie entirely. It’s nothing if not audacious.
AN: Magnolia is an L.A. freeway traffic jam movie. You’ll notice a couple of the people are singing the song in their cars, including the Tom Cruise character. It’s like a moment where everybody’s kind of stalled out. And so I think that Anderson is making an interesting move here. He’s saying, “This movie has been moving forward so hard, so fast, for so long. It’s got such relentless drive in each of these sequences. So let’s take a breath and observe basically that everybody hurts.”
EN: Aimee Mann is the Greek chorus.
AN: Anderson said that Aimee Mann was the voice in his head when he wrote the movie, and that so much of the movie’s texture and style and even dialogue came from — or was cued by — her lyrics. And if he’s to be believed, this song was basically kind of the eureka moment when he was putting the movie together. I think the funny thing about the song an hour-and-a-half into Magnolia is that the repeated lyric is, “it’s not going to stop.” Which is almost like saying to the audience, “Hey, this is not over yet. We got a long way to go.”
EN: Does Magnolia make you uncomfortable?
A lot of people think it’s Anderson’s worst movie. With a gun to my head, I don’t think I would disagree. But I also would argue that what it is exists in its totality. And I literally can’t imagine a different version of it. I cannot imagine a version of Magnolia that is not three hours long, self-important, flawed, uneven, embarrassing and that has the “Wise Up” scene. The movie is what it is. And its impropriety and its ridiculousness is a part of that. I write about the embarrassment of the movie in the book: vanity, narcissism, solipsism, poor-me attitudes. And yet I somehow don’t consider the “Wise Up” segment to embody that. It might be a lot to watch for four minutes; it’s also kind of thrilling. And there’s something in the editing that I like where Anderson withholds Tom Cruise as long as possible. You’re like, “I wanna hear Tom Cruise sing indie rock.” And he actually sings very nicely. Because Tom Cruise if nothing else can do anything he sets his mind to. That is his gift, his curse and his satanic power.
Punch Drunk Love
EN: Broadly speaking, the scene where Adam Sandler is in the supermarket is a re-appropriation of his incredible gifts as a physical comedian for something more subversive then he had ever been involved with before. It’s both a dance of menace and liberation, and has just a hint of Clockwork Orange to it. What do you make of this scene?
AN: Well, I mean, everything you just said. There’s a grace, or at least a motif of grace, in Punch Drunk Love. The awkwardness and the pent-up irritation of this character sometimes finds these outlets that are very relieving. And sometimes it’s violence — I mean, I think in the book I talk about him being like Buster Keaton and Charles Bronson with a tire iron when he beats up the four brothers at the end, and the tap dance is like a little burst of that. The movie is all about harmony and convergence. It’s about all of these discordant elements that come into alignment and that happens with the soundtrack.
EN: Sandler has always struck me as a refugee from musical theater, but Anderson is really the first collaborator to amplify this.
AN: Absolutely. Sandler had always had an innate grace and musicality to him. I mean, I think about him on SNL and how much of his schtick had to do with music. Or a movie like The Wedding Singer. And what I like about all that is he’s kind of travestying music when he does “The Hanukkah Song” or sings on his albums or covers wedding songs. But it wouldn’t work if he didn’t have some chops, too. It’s not the kind of comedy music where it’s like, “This guy’s really bad at it.” And It’s not the kind of comedy music of a Weird Al Yankovic, where it’s like, “Oh, this is a perfect subversive parody.” It’s just more like some actors in their voice and their style have something a little musical about them. Sandler is not a monotone actor and he’s not a flat actor. He’s got a kind of lilting thing, even when he makes it very ugly.
EN: There’s been a great deal of music in previous Anderson pictures, but somehow none that seem quite as purposeful as this.
AN: For sure. I think Punch Drunk Love is just meant to be this exercise in synesthesia where music becomes color and color becomes music, and it’s a very tactile movie and a very sensory movie. And the big music in it, in terms of a lyrical piece, is the Shelley Duvall/Harry Nilsson “He Needs Me” from Popeye, which is an homage to Robert Altman — or not even an homage, it’s a straight steal from Altman. And it’s an example, like in Magnolia, of a female voice on the soundtrack speaking the headspace of the movie.
EN: What is your feeling about Jon Brion’s contribution to the picture?
AN: Jon Brion also did the non-Aimee Mann part of Magnolia and in the same way that Jonny Greenwood is obviously “the Anderson sound” post-There Will Be Blood, Jon Brion is the Anderson sound pre-There Will Be Blood. He’s a really skilled musician. He’s a skilled composer and melodicist, and the recording techniques for Punch Drunk Love are interesting — I think they recorded it all with 1950s-style instruments and arrangements. I think that Brion has a very poppy sensibility that then gets filtered through this desire to be somewhat avant-garde and edgy. Whereas I think Jonny Greenwood is a composer who is fundamentally an avant-garde artist who found a good rock outlet with Radiohead. In a real way, the evolution of the sonics in Anderson films mirrors the approach on-screen as well.
EN: My observation is that a lot of the music of The Master sounds vaguely like a snake charmer: foreign yet familiar, insinuating and mysterious. What are the key scenes you think of where the soundtrack really plays into the story?
AN: Well, I like the two paired sequences that are like chastity anthems. There’s “Get Thee Behind Me Satan,” by Ella Fitzgerald when he’s looking at the shopgirl — which is a scene I write about a lot in the book, and it’s one of my favorite things he’s ever directed. I like the way that the song, which is about mastering temptation — about not getting it on — is rendered completely counterintuitive by this girl whirling around and by the way that Freddie is looking at her. You used the snake charmer analogy and that really fits there. But that whole idea of wanting to put Satan behind you and control your impulses, that’s what Freddie is seeking. And he’s looking for it, not even in all of the wrong places, but certainly in places that are problematic.
EN: The very presence of such desperate spiritual seeking nearly confers that you are going to see some weird things.
AN: Right? And when, later on, Freddie’s at one of those insane Cause parties where Hoffman is singing “I’ll Go No More A-Roving,” again, everything’s counterintuitive. He’s singing a song about not sleeping around while he’s seducing all the women at the party, and his seduction is completed by the fact that Freddie is fantasizing that they’re all naked. And this is not an Eyes Wide Shut reference like people thought it was — it’s not literally an orgy — it’s just that Freddie’s got a one-track mind. But I also love in that scene how even though the women are naked, he’s staring the whole time at Hoffman, which is kind of queer, but it’s also like he envies this agency, this ability to have any woman he wants through the language of the song that’s about not having that. I mean, the song is about “I’ll go no more a-roving with you fair maid,” and it’s got all of these double entendres and innuendos. So those two songs are both beautifully curated.
EN: There’s a depth-of-field in terms of traditional music in the picture that feels well-earned.
AN: And that is mirrored in the narrative. I point out in the book that “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” is actually from a 1936 film called Follow the Fleet, which is about a seaman who comes home to find his girlfriend, which *gasp* is actually the plot of The Master. The music feels a seamless factotum of the late ‘40s-early ‘50s universe that these characters inhabit. I do talk a lot in the book about the choice of “Slow Boat to China” at the end, which is also a very innuendo song, like “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” and “Go No More A-Roving,” very possessive, very sexual, obviously relates to Freddie’s own seaman status, which is why Dodd is using it to try and possess him and seduce him at the end. And that performance that Hoffman does of the song is, in its way, as big a swing as “Wise Up.” We’re two hours into this psychodrama about the history of Scientology and Philip Seymour Hoffman is inflicting an a capella devotional standard on Joaquin Phoenix. It’s a great moment.
EN: The Inherent Vice soundtrack is as nostalgic in its way as Boogie Nights.
AN: In the book, I write about Inherent Vice’s use of the Neil Young song “Journey Through the Past” which is sort of an alternate title, in a way, for the movie. Those same nostalgic sensations that he’s driving at in Boogie Nights are still present. I think Boogie Nights is made by a kid who’s really trying to remember his own adolescence and that excitement of discovering pop culture and porn, only to recognize it comes at a cost. Inherent Vice is lighter and heavier. The stakes are both higher and meaningless.
EN: There is a through line between Neil Young’s “Journey Through The Past” and Thomas Pynchon’s novel which is the source material?
AN: There totally is. Pynchon is writing about the counterculture from the point of view of someone who was there, man, and who saw it change and who saw it disintegrate. And when Anderson plays that Neil Young song for the Joaquin Phoenix character, it’s a much more immediate, recent nostalgia. It’s like, “Hey, remember a couple of summers ago, when we went and made out in the rain?” But in the movie, it’s like, “Hey, remember…” it sounds like the Chris Farley show, “Hey, remember the ‘70s? That was awesome.” “Journey Through The Past” has such a transporting effect in part because it’s not a giant hit. It’s not something like “Heart Of Gold,” which audiences bring a lot of baggage to.
EN: The great uniqueness in Neil as a songwriter is that memory takes the form of a non-linear, overlapping loop.
Neil Young made a film in the early ‘70s called Journey Through the Past and it has footage of him and his girlfriend at the time driving around and stopping at a stream and getting high and hanging out. I write about it all in the book. And it’s the exact same feeling that Anderson is going for. He talked a lot in interviews about the fact that that film, Journey Through the Past was a big part of his creative matrix when he made Inherent Vice. You have this Neil Young song in a scene with this very Joni Mitchell sentiment of the “big yellow taxi took my girl away” which is what the plot of what Inherent Vice is: Who stole his old lady? And then he comes around the corner where once he had frolicked, and now there is a giant ivory tower in the shape of a golden fang. They didn’t pave paradise and put up a parking lot, they paved a parking lot and put up a high rise, and it’s an evil high rise. It’s a moment that I think has simplicity and beauty. It’s one of the best passages in any Anderson film — utterly haunted by culture, by music, and the sheer welter of time.
(This interview has been edited for length, clarity and excellence.)