Percolating beneath the veneer of operatic melodrama, campy costumes, wigs and groovy vintage ‘70s pop tunes in “American Hustle” is a beating heart. A picture about dreamers and their endlessly aching desires for something of substance, David O. Russell’s take on a ‘70s crime story is typically offbeat. Crime, lies and con artist ruses are merely combustive means to explore an intimate narrative about people, identity and the lies they tell themselves to survive.
An exhilarating element of the movie is Russell’s use of music, pulling away from the use of a traditional score to using once-kitschy touchstones such as Electric Light Orchestra to act as thematic signifiers into the lives of each character. The fact that most of the music in the film was once aggressively uncool —at least before hipster revisionism took over— is the point. “American Hustle” is busting at the seams with romantic, earnest notions, in which ironic distance has no place. The belated 2xLP vinyl release of “American Hustle” hits shelves on Black Friday Record Store Day, November 28th. To mark the occasion, David O. Russell sat down with The Playlist to reminisce about his Academy Award nominated movie, the new projects he’s working on (“Joy” with Jennifer Lawrence), the use of music in film and much more.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a director do this much work and press for a soundtrack that’s a year after the release of the film in question.
[Laughs] All I know to tell you is that we did this lovingly. I don’t know why it didn’t come out before. So now it’s tied to Record Store Day, which I announced this with Alexander Payne in Omaha, so that’s what happened.
Right, I just mean it obviously shows you’re still passionate about it.
Because we love the music, and we love the artifact we’ve created; the artwork, the color of the vinyl. I love the tracks that are on the album. We put a lot of our hearts and souls into a motion picture, and it’s not just music. It’s the lives of each of these characters who were together in the story, so that’s in the record too. That informs the Duke Ellington song for the love affair or it informs the Jeff Lynne/ELO songs as Amy Adams themes; tracks that were never released initially. It’s all very specific to me. When I listen to the soundtrack of “Goodfellas” or “American Graffiti,” they’re very, very specific to me. It made that music live for me in ways it hadn’t prior to that. You know, there’s music I hear and it’s still lives within the context of “Goodfellas.”
When music in movies is done well, it can become intoxicating and transcendent. And often a moment like that can “own” the song going forward. It’s been forever transformed.
Yes, because that’s my favorite thing about narrative and music —it transports me to this place. It’s like you took a drug; it’s very powerful and it can transport you into a moment where you are filled with all kinds of good feelings. I’ve seen music used with people who are suffering bipolar episodes. If you give them music or a movie at a certain moment, it can reorganize their nervous system and within a half hour, it got them into another, better narrative —it can organize the chaos of what reality is for them.
I always call it the rearrangement of molecules. I can never listen to the Crystals “And Then He Kissed Me” without thinking about the “Goodfellas” tracking shot.
Oh man, there’s so many music moments with Scorsese. I aim for that. The Led Zeppelin slap from “Silver Lining’s Playbook”: when she slaps Bradley Cooper and then the cue for “What Is And What Should Never Be” hits, [SINGING] “If I say to you tomorrow…” And then he begins the quiet part of his bipolar breakdown, because that’s a bipolar song. Then it has it’s furious moment and becomes chaotic.
You’re a big Zeppelin fan and have used their music a bunch of times now.
I am. We didn’t use them in “American Hustle,” but they were very pleased with the deal that happened in “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” We got the song (“Good Times, Bad Times”) from their first album that had been licensed at a rate they’ve never given. They came back the second time saying, “hey, you’re not going to get a discount this time,” and so we made a bargain with them where they could ride the box office. Fortunately, because the film did so well, they made more than they ever made on any other song, so they’re our good friends now. They made crazy money from that [laughs].
Who else inspires you with their use of music in movies besides Scorsese? Who do you think does music and film well?
I think Paul Thomas Anderson does it brilliantly. I think the Coen brothers have done some very beautiful stuff, especially with Carter Burwell, which is more score related, but still really unforgettable. The “Raising Arizona” yodeling at the beginning? Brilliant. They got there first. It’s always a bummer when somebody gets there first. Wouldn’t you like to be the filmmaker who got there first and defined a music moment like that?
Right, it’s like a song that’s used so perfectly, you could never dare place it in a scene again. It’s off-limits because it was crystallized by someone else.
Yes. That’s why I take these out of my treasure trove that goes back my whole life. I’m very protective of it. So I broke out the Ellington, which was taught to me by our family friend who was my jazz teacher. He was a sideman for Monk and Ellington. His name was Eddie Burton, and he played the trombone. He taught me all about that, including Newport in ’56, so that Duke Ellington song was in my treasure trove. Also in my treasure trove was [Paul McCartney/Wings’] “Live and Let Die,” which many people regard as square or forgettable. But that’s perfect. It leaves it to me to show them why it’s absolutely sublime. That includes Steely Dan as well.
I feel like that’s “American Hustle” in a nutshell.
Maybe not so much anymore, but I feel like at a certain point some music like Todd Rudgren and Steely Dan was not considered very cool, but there’s a sincerity to it that I think is part of the sincerity of the film, that says I don’t care whether or not you think it’s going to be ironic or cool.
Sincerity is key.
That’s right. I’m always on that position. I believe that hipsterism can suffer from conformity, which is an oxymoron, but there’s a complete and total oppressiveness to it.
Yep, like the rules and dogma that try and dictate what’s cool and what’s not.
It’s just wrong. First of all, there are Beatles songs that Paul McCartney wrote that you probably think John Lennon came up with first, and he didn’t. People assume the “cool” songs are Lennon’s and that’s not right. I trust my heart and my feelings and I know that I love those songs. Like the Bee Gees song in “The Fighter” —“I Started A Joke” was considered laughably cheesy, which I knew made it genius for Melissa Leo and Christian Bale’s characters sto sing it as their song. And it’s a very poignant, heartbreaking song. You know there’s nothing ironic about the Bee Gees —we used them operatically in this picture. We used them (“How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?”) when they’re coming up after Jennifer [Lawrence] and Amy [Adams] have faced off and it soars up the stairs with the Mayor played by Jeremy Renner. He’s a sincere person and so we use the original version of Frank Sinatra’s “The Coffee Song,” not the ring a ding ding one by Nelson Riddle that tried to respond to rock n’ roll. The original version sounds like it was made with a cowbell in somebody’s garage, and that’s Jeremy Renner’s character Carmine Polito’s home. That’s very specific.
Do you have music in mind while writing the script for the characters or does that come after when it comes alive?
Both. I obviously wrote scenes around the Duke Ellington [song]…they meet over that song. Amy and Christian’s characters are the only two people at a 1974 pool party who would care that Duke Ellington died that year. I love that these two people are drawn to an old fashioned elegance that’s timeless. They’re the super cool ones, because they’re dressing formally at a time when everybody’s dressing informally and hip. And when everybody’s doing cocaine, drinking martinis and dancing at the Pierre Hotel to Jack Jones, that’s how cool they are. They’re in their own time and place.
They’re swimming upstream. I always find that those people end up being the coolest anyhow. Do you ever write with a song in mind but for whatever reason it just doesn’t work?
Yep, that happens. I wrote this whole sequence for Jennifer Lawrence, another beautiful song that I’m not going to tell you because then it would let it out into the world, but it’s a treasure trove song. I will say that it was a Johnny Mathis song and it was like I went to heaven every time I played this song and imagined this sequence. I pitched it to Jennifer on the set and I could tell that she’s having goose bumps as I’m pitching it to her, but we ended up going with a different song. But that song was what made us feel the intention of shooting the scene. We shot a scene to that song. I’ll go, “okay guys, this is a rehearsal. Camera, go, song,” right? We’ll play it to the shot.
You once tapped Jon Brion to write the score to “The Fighter,” but he said it wouldn’t work.
And we went through the exercise anyway! Do you know what happened? It’s so stupid of us. Your unconscious [mind] is really brilliant and you may choose to pay attention to it or not. Jon Brion and I knew in that moment that a score wouldn’t work for the film, but we tried it anyway, and it was like a drag. Jon did all this work, and we ended up in Frank Sinatra’s Ocean Studio in Hollywood. And it’s like two in the morning with me saying, “no, it has to be more like this,” which he hates. Who wants that? I’m over there saying no, but we both knew in our hearts it wasn’t going to work.
Going back to sincerity, your first score with Brion, for “I Heart Huckabees,” is extremely sincere. It has a Henry Mancini-sque quality to it. It’s very heart on sleeve.
Yes. We loved making that score. We recorded it in this studio where Fleetwood Mac made some of their greatest albums. It had not been redecorated since then. See I love this minutia. What is in the studio? It’s made out of unfinished wood, tiffany lamps and a lot of hanging plants. No doubt Stevie Nicks decorated it.
You talk about “the treasure trove.” It reminds me of what Wes Anderson and Randall Poster call “the vault.” They’re very protective of it.
Oh, Wes has got a hell of a vault. “Rushmore” blew my mind. It’s epic and also just the music? It’s like where did you get those songs? I want to kill you, those songs are so magnificent. And you only know them because of that. The Faces song? Killer.
You could never use that song now in a movie.
No, absolutely not. I couldn’t resist using The Rolling Stones, “Can You Hear Me Knocking” for one little sequence of training in “The Fighter,” and I regret it now. It’s so owned by Scorsese, that it’s just such a mistake. It was just like using drugs: I couldn’t’ resist it, but it’s just a mistake.
Scorsese’s used “Gimme Shelter” how many times? Four or five times? How many more times can he use it?
It’s his song. He’s allowed to do that.
Did you know that Louis Malle, Dan Akroyd and Jim Belushi were going to do a version of the Abscam story in the ‘80s?
Right, what would that have been like!? I think something interesting would have happened unknown to either that filmmaker or those actors, nothing like it. That’s a kind of collision, right? Because those guys … that would have just been amazing.
This is probably your first time “off” in a long time. You had done two films and two Oscar campaigns back to back. I thought you might be actually relaxing, but you’ve written another script, “Joy.”
I had to write. So when I got off the bus, it was a little disorienting. I was with a lot of people on the bus, but all of a sudden you’re alone writing and you just feel a little bit PTSD. I was like, “what am I supposed to do with myself?” Can somebody send me back to Iraq please? I was very disoriented after that three-four year stretch of ‘Linings’ and ‘Hustle.’
So you get off the bus —now what? Well, you go home and you write. And it was like six months of “The Shining.” I was living in isolation in a room, writing screenplays. I wrote a couple of screenplays. One of which was “Joy.” There was another one I was writing before “Joy” which is this big story I want to do.
You wrote a couple of screenplays since the Oscars of this year?
Yes! You make yourself do it, you stay in the room. But it means that you become a shut in, like “The Shining.” Then you go to these school events for your kids, and all the parents are talking to each other and I feel like I’m in a cold sweat, white-knuckling it. Like, “Hi! Hi!” Like I don’t know how to do this really. I know how to be in my room or on the set, but I don’t understand what’s happening at this school picnic. But you realize it’s a terrible thing not being a person. You’ve got to be a person.
That’s an insane speed.
You lock yourself up, hold a gun to your head and make yourself do it. When you have something in you that you love, and time is passing and you’re facing mortality, you’d better get it out of yourself, right? It’s not going to be there forever, so you’d better get it out
Do you have any kind of musical ideas for “Joy”? It’s set in 70s, correct?
It’s set in the ‘80s, but I’m going to take a different approach that I’ve never taken before. I’m very excited about it. I aspire to make the movie unexpected, both for myself and for Jennifer and it’s going to be about a woman and it’s going to be about her insides.
For more David O. Russell talking about “Joy,” Jennifer Lawrence and the tone that he calls a “departure” from his previous works, check out this excerpt from the interview here. “American Hustle” the extended 2xLP version hits on record store day, Black Friday, November 28 (details below). “Joy” is scheduled to hit theaters Christmas 2015.
American Hustle – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
2LP Colored Vinyl
1. Jeep’s Blues | Duke Ellington
2. Dirty Work | Steely Dan *
3. A Horse With No Name | America
4. 10538 Overture | Electric Light Orchestra
5. I’ve Got Your Number | Jack Jones
1. White Rabbit | Mayssa Karaa
2. I Feel Love | Donna Summer
3. Don’t Leave Me This Way | Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
4. Delilah | Tom Jones
1. Live And Let Die | Wings
2. How Can You Mend A Broken Heart | Bee Gees
3. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road | Elton John
4. Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone | The Temptations*
1. I Saw The Light | Todd Rundgren *
2. Long Black Road | Electric Light Orchestra
3. The Jean Genie | David Bowie *
4. Stream Of Stars | Jeff Lynne
5. The Coffee Song (They’ve Got An Awful Lot Of Coffee In Brazil) | Frank Sinatra *
6. It’s De-Lovely | Ella Fitzgerald *
7. Irving Montage | Danny Elfman
* Songs not on CD release