In order to give emotional heft to a lot of theoretically humorous stereotypes about the Japanese, Sofia Coppola and company chose to use the ambiances created by various contemporary pop musicians, primarily those of Kevin Shields, the former My Bloody Valentine guitarist, as well as a return appearance (following their work for Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides) by the French duo Air. Also included in the mix are sundry evanescent bits from the Jesus and Mary Chain, Death in Vegas, Squarepusher, Phoenix, Happy End, and ’70s-retro specialists Brian Reitzell & Roger J Manning Jr.
You hear loads of talk these days about the fantastic musical selections that directors are assembling to throw into their films. Then you grab a copy of the soundtrack album itself, and you probably say, yeah, this must be one rad film, what with all these superstrong sounds driving the images along. But then you see the film, and of course it’s, hey wait a sec, what happened to all those trendy tunes I was supposed to be hearing? Lost in translation. Coppola’s movie is pretty typical in this regard, though maybe she had to agree to a pop-packed score in order to get the film made, the deal including a soundtrack album that would both pique interest and be counted a commercially hot item on its own . . . Nah, no doubt she’s just another one of the many young directors who claim music and not visual art or literature as their chief influence.
Whatever. Pretty typical too is how Lost in Translation uses this great new music only in the barest fleeting snatches. In this case, the movie is far better off for its minimal musical elements, since the timbre of the story — a low-key, pensive and surprisingly old-fashioned tale of two mismatched visitors to Japan who engage in a brief relationship that has no place to go — requires a lot of sighing space that could only work with muted or vaporous tones. That sort of milieu is one of Air’s trademarks, and their track here accompanying a young woman’s visit to the quieter temple-strewn world of Kyoto is a delicate, dusky touch that flashes back to the group’s elegantly wistful Moon Safari album.
Shields’ original score of incidental music makes use of mostly very simple, plangent electric-keyboard chord progressions, but better yet, then takes the raging, distorted guitars of My Bloody Valentine and compresses them, an approach that effectively conveys (well, amplifies) the squashed rage and lust of the two protagonists. Your de rigueur frenzied nightclub-scene music, in extremely short snippets (and in strange contrast to the cast’s several karaoke versions of kitschy pop standards, performed in their entirety), comes from the likes of electronic agitators such as Death in Vegas and Squarepusher — a rather superficial use of dance or drum & bass music’s quite literal agitations. Yet, all things considered, the score must be reckoned a triumph, because Coppola has succeeded in using film music that almost completely disappears before you realize it’d ever been there at all.