French band Phoenix finds all the right grooves for ‘On the Rocks’
When French musician Thomas Mars met director Sofia Coppola in person for the first time in 2000, he was wearing a wig and singing under a fake name at an American Legion hall in Los Angeles. Back in Paris a few months earlier, he’d contributed vocals and lyrics to “Playground Love,” the signature tune from Coppola’s debut film, “The Virgin Suicides.”
In that American Legion hall, he was guest-performing with his pals in the band Air, who’d composed the score for the film. Mars performed in disguise to avoid confusion with his primary identity as frontman for his own band, Phoenix, which he’d started as a child. Mars says, “I wanted to avoid talking about anything else other than Phoenix when our first record came out later that year.”
With or without the wig, Mars hit it off with Coppola. For her “Lost in Translation,” she used his plaintive “Too Young” as accompaniment for Bill Murray’s lonely drive through Tokyo. For “Marie Antoinette,” Phoenix musicians played a minuet for Kirsten Dunst’s queen in Mars’ hometown of Versailles.
From there, the relationship picked up steam. A few months after Mars and his group earned an alternative-music Grammy for their sleek 2009 synth-pop album “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” he and Coppola were married.
Most recently, Mars and Phoenix bandmates Deck D’Arcy, Christian Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz supervised the soundtrack, composed the score and wrote the end-credits song for Coppola’s father-daughter comedy, “On the Rocks.” Speaking from New York City, where he lives with Coppola and their two daughters, Mars describes a largely chitchat-free creative rapport with his director wife.
“In our band, we grew up together, so we don’t really talk much about music, and it feels the same way with Sofia. We listen to the same music, and our cultural influences are so similar there’s very little talking about things.”
But the music itself speaks volumes in “On the Rocks,” which summons a jazzy, mid-century Manhattan vibe personified by Bill Murray’s Felix, a charming art dealer who gives his daughter Laura (Rashida Jones) misguided advice when she suspects her husband of having an affair. Setting the tone at the outset: “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” recorded by crooner-trumpeter Chet Baker in 1954. “Sofia listened to a lot of Chet Baker when she wrote the script, so she came up with that song,” Mars says. “We just had to complete this world.”
A connoisseur of Italian pop music, Mars reinforced Felix’s bon vivant persona with Mina Mazzini‘s peppy 1959 rocker “Nessuno” and referenced Jack Nicholson as a larger-than-life role model by having Felix blast Schubert through the loudspeakers from the backseat of his limousine. To underscore traffic-defying jaunts through Manhattan in a vintage red Ferrari, Phoenix guitarist Brancowitz recommended “In Orbit,” an antic 1958 jazz instrumental by Thelonious Monk and the Clark Terry Quartet. “When Laura and Felix take off in his car, we wanted to show how fun, how dangerous, how insane, how thrilling it is to be part of Felix’s world. Branco suggested ‘In Orbit,’ and right away it felt right,” Mars says.
“In Re Don Giovanni,” based on Mozart’s opera, serves as de facto theme song for Laura, a harried mother of two. “We use Giovanni the same way as ‘All That Jazz’ used Vivaldi, when Bob Fosse wakes up, takes his pills and does his morning ritual. Laura’s life is very scheduled and organized, but she’s not really deciding things for herself. We wanted the music to show that.”
For the film’s original score, Phoenix took inspiration from Miles Davis’ approach to Louis Malle’s 1958 movie “Elevator to the Gallows.” As Mars explains it, “Louis Malle grabbed Miles Davis as soon as he landed in Paris and convinced him to see his movie in a theater: ‘We will set up your gear to record, and you can play to the film.’ So we did the same thing.” In a Paris screening room, Mars and his bandmates improvised music in the moment as action unfolded on screen. “It was really fun, because you get into this strange meditative state where you’re feeding off each other. We recorded several hours of music over two nights; that’s how we wrote the score.”
“On the Rocks” concludes with a buoyant new Phoenix song called “Identical.” Musically, the number samples a propulsive drum groove by South African band Faka. Lyrically, the track evokes a parent-child dynamic rarely featured in Top 10 hits. Mars says, “A lot of pop music today is all about youth, but I tried to find a way to embrace fatherhood with ‘Identical.’ It’s about raising your kids and all the anxiety that goes with that. With Bill Murray and Rashida Jones, you don’t need sex appeal in the song, because it’s all on the screen.”
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