Sofia Coppola Unpacks The Defining Songs From Her Soundtracks

The musically minded director discusses "Just Like Honey," Miley Cyrus and more.

Sofia Coppola movies can be measured in flashy soundtrack choices. Since her 1999 debut, “The Virgin Suicides,” and through the anachronistic anthems of “Marie Antoinette” and the hip-hop excess of “The Bling Ring,” Coppola has become known for the evocative songs accentuating her characters’ sun-kissed reveries.

Music has always been integral to Coppola’s life. She grew up worshiping Elvis Costello, The Clash, New Order and Generation X ― and later directed music videos for their heirs (The Flaming Lips, Kevin Shields, The White Stripes, Phoenix). As a teenager, she thought Madonna’s style was the essence of cool ― and later starred in the “Deeper in Deeper” video. (“She’s smart and funny, as you would imagine,” Coppola said of Madonna.) Coppola’s commercials, including a Dior ad starring Natalie Portman that’s scored by a remixed “La Vie en Rose,” are as much fashion advertisements as they are melodic escapades.

Coppola’s affinity for stirring soundtracks is partly what makes her latest movie, “The Beguiled,” so jarring: It’s the first time she hasn’t incorporated any pop numbers. Her husband’s band, Phoenix, provided ambient notes that emphasize the Southern Gothic tone here and there, but most of the score comes from chirping crickets and distant cannon booms surrounding the central Civil War-era plantation.

Ahead of the release of “The Beguiled,” I sat down with Coppola in New York to discuss her career. During our final few minutes together, I asked the director to reflect on a handful of musical highlights from her catalog.

"The Virgin Suicides" -- Heart, "Magic Man"
"Oh yeah, is 'Crazy on You' when she jumps in the car?" Coppola asked. "And 'Magic Man' was just Josh Hartnett walking down the hallway?"

Coppola's music choices are all a "blur" in retrospect, but she remembers listening to the Heart album "Dreamboat Annie" while vacationing with a friend. When writing the "Virgin Suicides" script shortly thereafter, she thought of "Magic Man" for Trip Fontaine's theme song. Introducing the cool stud who floats down the hallway and invokes schoolgirl infatuation, the psychedelic anthem comes to a halt the second the elusive Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) first grants Trip a smile.

During the sensual overhead shot of Trip floating on a raft in the pool, Ann Wilson belts "Try to understand / Try to understand / Try, try, try to understand / He's a magic man, mama." And we do understand: Trip's flowing locks and chiseled body are catnip for a school full of libidinous suburban teens.

They were catnip for me, too. When I told Coppola that Trip's magnetism was one of my sexual awakenings as a preteen, she lit up. "Oh, really?" she said. "I’m so glad. Mine was 'Purple Rain.' I’m glad to hear that."
"Lost in Translation" -- The Jesus and Mary Chain, "Just Like Honey"
If there's one cue that defines Coppola's catalog, it's "Just Like Honey," the culminating hosanna from her highest-grossing film. Coppola wrote "Lost in Translation" after spending time in Tokyo, where she sets the story of a despondent actor (Bill Murray) who bonds with a lonely college graduate (Scarlett Johansson).

Music was key to the birth of "Translation." Coppola makes many of her soundtrack choices during the editing stage, but here she and music supervisor Brian Reitzell, who also worked on "The Virgin Suicides" and "Marie Antoinette," began collaborating during the scripting process. Coppola and Reitzell made compilations, gravitating toward ambient dream pop to personify the characters' jet-lagged drift through an unfamiliar metropolis.

"Early on, we talked about the music-scape," Coppola said. She picked tunes she was listening to during her own sleepy stay in Tokyo: Air, Phoenix (long before she married frontman Thomas Mars), My Bloody Valentine, Happy End, and The Jesus and Mary Chain. The latter led her to "Just Like Honey," a single from the band's classic 1985 album "Psychocandy." Scoring Murray's and Johansson's characters' farewell, the airy song follows the elusive whisper that has come to define "Lost in Translation." Johansson saunters out of the frame, and possibly out of Murray's life, to the words "Listen to the girl / As she takes on half the world / Moving up and so alive / In her honey-dripping beehive." It makes up for the whisper's inaudibility, lending the melancholic parting an air of hope.
"Marie Antoinette" -- The Strokes, "What Ever Happened?"
"Marie Antoinette" marks Coppola's most inventive soundtrack, using anachronistic guitar rock to cut through the iciness of 18th-century French regality. The music helps to portray Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) as a girl seeking freedom from the notoriety and marriage she never requested.

When she began shooting "Marie Antoinette," Coppola knew "What Ever Happened?" -- the opening track from The Strokes' beloved "Room on Fire" -- would work its way into the movie. She played it on the set, noting the "romantic, teen-angst feeling" that mirrors Antoinette's interiority. In the film, "What Ever Happened?" sores one of the few moments that Antoinette steals for herself, dashing through the halls of Versailles and sinking into her posh bed to imagine the soldier (Jamie Dornan) she loves. It's a playground crush, bucking the monarchy's rigidity.

"The thinking of 'Marie Antoinette' was my idea that the countryside comes from New Romantic videos," Coppola said, referring to the early-'80s English movement that melded synth-rock and androgynous fashion (Adam and the Ants, Boy George, Duran Duran). "It was supposed to be a teen-pop world embraced with the New Romantic side."

The song seems to chase the queen down the hallway, Julian Casablancas' yearning voice italicizing her desires: "I want to be forgotten / And I don't want to be reminded."

"It’s so emotional," Coppola said. "His voice has so much heart. I just love those kinds of moments that feel like that when you listen to the song."
"Somewhere" -- The Strokes, "I'll Try Anything Once"
Coppola returned to The Stokes for "Somewhere," her minimalistic drama about listless Hollywood actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) and his doting 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning). Thomas Mars, whom she'd been dating since 2005, played Coppola the Strokes demo "I'll Try Anything Once," which ultimately became "First Impressions of Earth" opener "You Only Live Once."

"I'll Try Anything Once" accompanies a lethargic montage of Johnny and his daughter relishing quality time together on a Los Angeles afternoon. They play ping-pong, sink into a pool for an underwater tea party, lounge in the blissful sun and pet a dog. Casablancas' voice seems filtered through a transmission, there less to dictate mood than to encourage you to share in the duo's unity. Like "What Ever Happened?" in "Marie Antoinette," this Strokes lullaby underscores a rare moment of solitude for our stimulus-saturated protagonists.

"That sequence was so sweet," Coppola said. "Certain songs just have a feeling; that has so much heart to it."
"The Bling Ring" -- Kanye West, "Power"
"I’m always trying to connect [the song] to whatever inner emotions of the character," Coppola said while recalling "Power," the lead single from Kanye West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy." Its opening chants are perfect for five fame-obsessed teenagers marching in slow motion down a gray Los Angeles street. They're a gang, sporting threads stolen from celebrity homes.

"I'm living in the 21st century, doing something mean to it," West announces in the song's first lyric, underlining the theme of "The Bling Ring," which indicts our postmodern 15-minutes-of-fame tedium. Steering away from the rock anthems that scored her previous work, Coppola opted for a hip-hop soundtrack crammed with refrains about luxury: 2 Chainz's "Money Machine," M.I.A.'s "Bad Girls," Reema Major's "Gucci Bag," Frank Ocean's "Super Rich Kids." In this moment, "Power" becomes its signature hymn. "I guess every superhero need his theme music," West raps as the quintet drift past Coppola's camera and into the world they're co-opting. If these kids are its future, the 21st century has no guardians.
"A Very Murray Christmas" -- Miley Cyrus, "Silent Night"
For the 2015 Netflix holiday special "A Very Murray Christmas," Coppola and co-writers Bill Murray and Mitch Glazer compiled a list of Christmas "classics" to populate the titular actor's snowed-out show at the Carlyle Hotel. Murray wanted something that wasn't Christmas, too, so he performed Todd Rundgren's "I Saw the Light (Only You)," with Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph and David Johansen in a moment of late-night affection.

Coppola, Murray and Glazer worked with musical director Paul Shaffer, who who was nearing the end of his "Late Show with David Letterman" stint, on the carols' arrangements. Needing to add one more bit, they tossed in a spirited "Silent Night" at the last minute. Miley Cyrus learned the song at lunch and belted it it live, Coppola's camera gently swirling around her.

"She was really cute," the director said of Cyrus. "She was fun to work with."

“The Beguiled” is now open in limited release. It expands nationwide June 30.

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