Gaspar Noé’s 5 Lessons On Using Music in Film (And Why Judy Garland is the Greatest)

Powered by classical songs and a contrast between hard visuals and soft music, Gaspar Noé explains how his film's command your attention.
Gaspar Noe - Cinefamily
Gaspar Noé
Jeremy Deputat/Red Bull Content Pool

Gaspar Noé’s mass, passionate following doesn’t exist by accident. The filmmaker’s four features, from last year’s “Love” to perhaps his most popular film “Enter the Void,” have stunned with their visual beauty and their unique style of filmmaking. Where many filmmakers’ attentions may center on those two elements, Noé also places focus on another tool for immersing the audience: music.

READ MORE: Why Gaspar Noé Directed on Cocaine, Masturbated in His Own Film and Shot a Live Birth

In a collaboration between Cinefamily and Red Bull Music Academy, composer Brian Reitzell sat down with Gaspar Noé for a conversation about not only the music in his films, but also his opinion on some of the great music moments and talents of all time. From his tendency to license songs instead of hiring a composer to the massive inspiration of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Noé touched on the aspects that make his music such an integral part of his erotic and immersive work.

Discussing 10 clips across the two-hour event on Monday night, Noé and Reitzell offered insight and perspective to some of the elements of music that often go unnoticed.

Don’t Discount the Musical Scenes

After showing the audience clips of Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in “The Wizard of Oz” and a dubbed Jodie Foster singing “My Name is Tallulah” in “Bugsy Malone” — as well as regretting that he couldn’t show the famous scene of the child singing in “Night of the Hunter” — Noé reminisced on the magic he experienced when he was a kid watching those scenes and suggested that much of that magic comes from the fact that children are singing the songs. Even though a lot of the night was spent on musical scenes from adult characters, he said, “The voice of a kid can be so much more touching than an adult voice.”

In recalling the story that MGM originally wanted to cut Judy Garland’s famous sequence from”The Wizard of Oz” because it was too slow and didn’t fit narratively, Noé made the claim: “In some movies, the musical scene where people sing can be the best scene in the whole movie and when I see ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ that’s the scene I think about the most.”

Gaspar Noé and Brian Reitzell
Gaspar Noé and Brian ReitzellJeremy Deputat/Red Bull Content Pool

A Contrast Between Visuals and Music

Disregarding the sounds, many segments of Noé’s films, especially in his experimental “Enter the Void,” are visually striking. The cinematography is intimate and omniscient; the acting is committed and natural. But what makes these scenes arresting of all senses is how completely contrasting music can accompany the visuals in the most complimentary way. Speaking to Kenneth Anger’s 1963 experimental short film “Scorpio Rising,” but also offering something applicable to many of his own films, Noé talked about that contrast, saying, “It’s very nice to hear something very soft to your ear when you have something very hard to your eyes.”

READ MORE: Gaspar Noé’s List of 10 Favorite Films Makes Perfect, Terrifying Sense

Classical Music Can Give Anything Weight

Many will likely remember the trippy ending to his 2002 film “Irreversible.” The whirling cinematography, the clever transitions and the closing strobes stand out, but the underbelly of that scene may have been the most normal element of it. Using Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7,” Noé was able to augment the scene with a weighty gravitas — an inspiration from a similar element in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — that only a classical number could have provided. Noé also delved into the interplay with the more sensual and erotic content of both his and other films. In showing another formative dialogue-free sex scene set to Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No.1,” he advocated for classical music’s value to the sequence.

“Love”Alchemy/Gaspar Noé

Licensing Songs is Sometimes the Best Option

Over the course of the evening, Noé was clear that conventional scores aren’t his favorite approach to music in his own films, even suggesting that he was a little uncomfortable when using them. Save for a few incidents — including a positive collaboration with Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk on “Irreversible” — he prefers to license a song for a scene instead of going with a composer. In “Love,” Noé opted to use legendary Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel’s “Maggot Brain” for one of the film’s most important sensual moments, lifting it above sole eroticism in a way a score could not have done. His commitment to their benefit went so far that he allocated 10% of “Love’s” budget toward licensing songs.

READ MORE: Ryan Coogler on How ‘Creed’ Couldn’t Live Without Sound and Music

Music is a Commanding Tool, Use It

Overall, Noé made the case for how music can be the most commanding element during and after a film. He is certainly no stranger to visual innovation and creativity, but he suggested that music can compete with images in terms of important cues, saying, “In the story, when you put music on or a song on, you can really pay attention to what the music is saying.” As shown by his love for the clips and his many anecdotes about how he had a difficult time narrowing down to a list of ten clips as he initially had 20, Noé said, “The soundtrack makes the main scenes sticks to your mind. Some scenes make you think of the movie all of the time because you’re obsessed with the music.”

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