The pop stars hooked to the silver screen
Cinema's styles and stories have been a rich resource for singers such as Lana Del Rey. It's a fertile attraction, says Gillian Orr
When 24-year-old New Yorker Lana Del Rey burst on to the music scene last summer by uploading a song to the internet called "Video Games", the music world quickly sat up and took note.
As well as being a fantastically moody and seductive track, the video – a montage that hints at the dark side of Hollywood and includes footage of Sunset Boulevard, the Chateau Marmont and the actress Paz de la Huerta stumbling about drunk on the sidewalk – had critics comparing Del Rey's aesthetic to that of the director David Lynch. She has since confessed that the man responsible for films such as Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive is one of her biggest influences, even describing her music as "Hollywood sadcore". The videos for tracks such as "Kinda Outta Luck" and "Blue Jeans" have confirmed her as a disciple of Lynch's surrealist style. Other sultry songstresses waxing lyrical about the dark art of Lynch last year were Anna Calvi and Chelsea Wolfe, both of whom cite him as a major force in their work.
Art has always inspired other art and with their fully realised aesthetic, it makes sense for musicians to look to directors and there are a number of different ways that artists can be influenced by them. And there are also plenty of artists doing it.
British folk band Noah and the Whale got their name by marrying the title of one of their favourite films, The Squid and the Whale, with the name of its director, Noah Baumbach. The band often borrows from the aesthetic of Baumbach and his modern American indie cinema contemporary, Wes Anderson. The frontman, Charlie Fink, is a keen film-maker and has been responsible for a number of their videos as well as a charming short film that accompanied their second album, The First Days of Spring, which is full of classic Anderson features such as slow-motion shots and idiosyncratic costumes. They may have lost the Anderson-esque blue and yellow colour palette that they wore when they started in 2007, but they still nurture the aesthetics of those film-makers. The video for "Life Is Life", although made by the photographer Autumn de Wilde, is in keeping with this style.
As well as being inspired by an aesthetic, visualising a song can help to fully realise it. Talking about their latest album, Last Night on Earth, Fink has said, "I think making the film with the last album also influenced the way I wrote songs on this record, because when you're writing a scene for a film, it's very visual, and a lot of these songs are very visual, so it's initially imagined as scenes... you put your characters in this moment, and then you start writing about it."
Fink is not the only songwriter to visualise their songs to help write them. Two Wounded Birds, an up-and-coming indie band from Margate, are inspired by Quentin Tarantino. Johnny Danger, their frontman, says that he often thinks about how their songs would look in one of his films while he's writing them.
"Tarantino is a master of film-making," he says. "With the songwriting, it's the feeling that he brings inside you that you can't manufacture or decipher; just the vibe and the feel that it creates. I remember reading somewhere that he listens to music to inspire the scenes of the film and sometimes when I write I think about what sort of scene it would be if it was put to a visual or a Quentin Tarantino movie and I think that influences how I write as well. The visual is sometimes there before the music."
As their name might suggest, Summer Camp are fascinated by teen culture, particularly the films of John Hughes, who articulated the pain of being an adolescent like no one else. The lo-fi, indie-pop duo from London reference a number of teen flicks in their work, including Heathers and Say Anything, but it is the world that Hughes created in films such as The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Weird Science that influenced the band most of all.
"I think the thing that appeals to us is he set all his movies in this fictional town in Illinois called Shermer and quite often he'd use the same cast members," Summer Camp's Elizabeth Sankey tells me. "We liked the idea that there can be these different characters in the same town leading sort of parallel lives and all going to the same high school but not really interacting with each other and not knowing each other; we found that really interesting."
When it came to writing their debut album, they borrowed Hughes' template. "We created this fictional town in California called Condale and we've got an entire back story for all the characters that live there, which is pretty ridiculous. There's a fanzine you can get which tells you everything that has happened. It really helps with the writing and as we were working on the album we thought, 'Right, let's write a song for this character now.' It was just an amazing way of writing our album."
The resulting record, Welcome to Condale, is filled with winsome and nostalgic tracks, all of which harbour a definite sense of despair and angst. Released last summer, the record's artwork features teenagers letting their hair down at a keg party on the beach. "The leafy suburban, white picket fence is something we really love because it's really beautiful but at the same time there's so much darkness underneath. Anyone who grew up in suburbia can relate to that," says Sankey.
Another artist who draws inspiration from a director's recurring themes is Dirty Beaches, aka Taiwan-born Canadian immigrant Alex Zhang Hungtai. His atmospheric and grainy early rock'n'roll excels in a certain kind of storytelling, as heard on Badlands, his album. The title is a Bruce Springsteen reference, not a Terrence Malick one, but Hungtai acknowledges directors Jim Jarmusch and Wong Kar-wai as major influences. "I worked the graveyard shift at a video store as a teenager in Hawaii and during that time I watched a lot of movies which had a big impact on me," says Hungtai. "For me, the creative process of songwriting is very similar to film-making. I do a lot of research when I get an idea and from there I try and craft a sound. That sound is the leading man because the music is the leading man; it becomes the face and the look and the soul of the project. A lot of Wong Kar-wai's films are about the passage of time and a lot of his characters are in exile or away from home somehow. That appealed to me and I've tried to incorporate that into my work."
Aesthetically, Hungtai has tried to tap into Jarmusch and films such as Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law: "He's always embodied that downtown New York cool from the late Seventies and Eighties." Sure enough, most of his artwork mimics the black-and-white look of such films.
It's no new thing for musicians to look to cinema for inspiration but when a film-maker has a strong visual style and recurring motifs and themes, you can bet there is a musician not far behind them, ready to further cross-pollinate the arts.
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