Monday, August 18, 2014

Jean-Marc Vallée: DJ

I wanted to put my signature on the film with the soundtrack, so while I was writing, I was listening to a lot of music trying to find the right feeling, the right lyrics that define and describe the characters and set up different tones.” - Jean-Marc Vallée

It’s Christmas and in church Zach levitates into the air as the choir joins him in singing Sympathy for the Devil. A single mother and her young boy with Down syndrome dance through Paris’ streets as Café de flore is playing. A rig worker in Dallas, Ron Woodroff, opens an experimental AIDS clinic set to Life is Strange.

Jean-Marc Vallée’s cinema is one full of scenes with striking accompanying songs. Through the drama and music he can instill a strong emotion in the viewer, which is unmatched in contemporary cinema. Music is really important to his films - this needs to be stressed. Vallée includes in his film music that people actually listen to (regardless of budget restrictions) and this makes his films more affective and universal.

After being frustrated with his first three films, Vallée would spend ten years getting C.R.A.Z.Y. off of the ground. It’s his artistic and commercial breakthrough. On its cinematic inspirations, and similar films to it, Vallée brings up Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby (Zach even has a Harold and Maude poster in his room), American Beauty, Billy Elliot, and other rock-centered films like High Fidelity and Almost Famous.

It’s fascinating too to hear interviews with Vallée as he discusses the other songs that he couldn’t get the rights to, which makes one imagine how differently the films could have been. (A film like C.R.A.Z.Y. was never able to play in the States for this reason as the rights for the songs were sold only to Canada thinking it was only going to be a small film before it achieved its popularity after playing at Venice and TIFF).

There are periphery connections between Vallée’s cinema and the music industry, too. Marc-André Grondin from C.R.A.Z.Y. played drums in two bands, Nitrosonique and The Adam Brown. Kevin Parent from Café de Flore, who plays the DJ, is a famous Québécois singer-songwriter. Jared Leto from Dallas Buyers Club is in the band 30 Seconds to Mars and Bradford Cox from Deerhunter has a small role in the film, too. This heavy interest in bands aligns Vallée with other famous directors that also pursue music in side projects like Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and Jim Jarmusch.

Vallée on C.R.A.Z.Y., “The soundtrack in this film is like another character. While I was writing I was doing a mix tape, like I have done for my friends or when I am DJing.” (I really want to know more about these DJing activities now). Vallée even speaks about how the Sex Pistols’ album Never Mind the Bollocks changed his life (his interest in British Rock was one of the reasons he would spend a year in London filming The Young Victoria, even though you wouldn’t know it due to the classical qualities of that film and its score).

You can see the influence of a film like C.R.A.Z.Y. on other Québécois directors. For example, in Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies the use of the Radiohead song seems very Valléeien. Xavier Dolan’s J'ai tué ma mere, about a queer teenager coming of age, is really close in subject to C.R.A.Z.Y. and the use of music in his new film Mommy also sounds really Valléeien.

But what makes Vallée’s films stand out so much is the structural perfection of his use of scores. The songs are organically imbued to reflect all at once the characters, drama of the scene, and atmosphere. Certain songs are used in a very specific way. For example, they can reflect generational gaps. In C.R.A.Z.Y. Zach’s father Gervais Beaulieu (Michel Côté) listens to traditional, older music like Patsy Cline (he even names his children after each letter of her song Crazy, which plays a major role in the film) and Charles Aznavour, while Zach listens more to rock music like The Cure and David Bowie. There are these musical contrasts in all of his films (e.g. the mother and Dj in Café, Ron and Rayon in Dallas), as well.

Though this DJ aesthetic to film scores isn’t anything new – one can thing of the pop score sensibilities of Scorsese’s Goodfellas or the films of Olivier Assayas – Vallée not only renders perfectly this technique, but he brings it to Canadian cinema, which is known for being a modest cinema, where the high licensing fees usually scares the producers off. (Vallée actually had to get his directing and producing fee cut to afford them on C.R.A.Z.Y.).

This is a ways away from the film scores typically associated with the Classical Hollywood Studio era as epitomized by a David Lean-Maurice Jarre orchestra score or its modern Hollywood equivalent Steven Spielberg-John Wiliams (the kind of composers you would find described at length in say Pierre Berthomieu’s La musique de film). If Spielberg is more classical, Vallée is more modern as in his films the music varies from being played off of  records, CDs and iPods. (Vallée even has his own Celebrity iTunes playlist, to illustrate how up he is with the times). Even the commercials that he made in his intervening years included great songs (e.g. Mr. Lonely in his LCBO commercial). 

If a film like Café means so much for Vallée (regardless of its ambiguous resurrection, which I know some people deride him for) it’s because it's actually one of his most personal films. With its main DJ protagonist it's his film where he brings his love of music to the forefront. As well, discussing music with him is the best way to get a great interview out of the director.

At first I was worried how he’ll bring his music sensibility to his new film Wild, which is mostly set in the wilderness, but after actually reading the book, it is actually full of musical references. Cheryl Strayed’s a music buff and sings to herself, hitchhikes in cars which are playing music, and surprisingly even goes to a couple of bars and concerts.

Vallée’s obviously a master of his art and is in total control of his films and career. Music plays an important part in them for their emotional affectiveness and universal appeal

(Here are the playlists to his films C.R.A.Z.Y., The Young Victoria, Café de flore, and Dallas Buyers Club.)

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