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How Phoenix and Sofia Coppola influence each other

As the French disco-rockers release Ti Amo and unveil their score for Sofia Coppola’s Civil War-set The Beguiled, we revisit their songs laced throughout the filmmaker’s oeuvre

Read our cover story with Sofia Coppola here.

Somewhere’s catatonic movie star aimlessly riding his black Ferrari around an empty speedway to Phoenix’s “Love Like A Sunset Part I”. Lost in Translation’s two Tokyo drifters finding solace in each other at a raucous late-night party as Phoenix’s “Too Young” blasts out over the speakers. After The Bling Ring’s teen burglars are sentenced for their crimes, the dizzyingly arpeggiated synths of Phoenix’s “Bankrupt!” kick in over the end credits. Among her films’ most distinctive traits, Sofia Coppola has always made remarkable use of music cues to bring us one step closer to her rich, lonely and emotionally withdrawn protagonists. Glossy French disco-rockers Phoenix have had the singular privilege of contributing in some capacity to each one of her features. The quartet’s atmospheric cuts convey what Coppola’s characters either can’t wrap their heads around or bring themselves to articulate. This inspired collaboration goes all the way back to Sofia’s haunting debut feature, The Virgin Suicides, when frontman Thomas Mars had been asked by friends and fellow Versailles-raised musicians Air to sing and play the drums on their sensuously tragic “Playground Love” (under the nom de plume Gordon Tracks), which plays out as viewers are left grappling with the unresolved mystery of five teen sisters from the 70s who chose death over suburban suffocation.

Phoenix’s contributions have ranged wildly in style from a cameo as a lute-playing, 18th-century quartet serenading Kirsten Dunst’s hapless queen in Marie Antoinette to composing a minimalist score that would echo the muted existentialism of Somewhere’s Château Marmont occupant (Stephen Dorff). Plus, Mars and Coppola got married and had two daughters, so the flying sparks haven’t been strictly platonic. As Phoenix tour their new album Ti Amo and unveil their score for Coppola’s Southern Gothic retelling of The Beguiled, we asked Thomas Mars and guitarist Laurent ‘Branco’ Brancowitz to take us through their career-spanning chemistry with the Cannes award-winning filmmaker.

“It’s hard to differentiate the work from the private life,” admits Mars, “but I’ve always felt a really strong connection watching her movies or anything by her brother (Roman). Especially when I heard the My Bloody Valentine song (“Sometimes”) in Lost in Translation, I felt as though it was tailor-made for me… Which it wasn’t, of course.” An exhausted Scarlett Johansson glancing out of a taxi window into the late-night Tokyo bustle as My Bloody Valentine’s wistful, distortion-laden shoegaze kicks in is arguably one of the most transformative cinematic moments in recent memory, perfectly encapsulating the electricity of a night that makes one feel so damn alive. For Branco, Coppola’s inclination to juxtapose seemingly incongruous elements and her fondness for characters in flux might have to do with her European sensibility (which she’s acknowledged by way of her appreciation for the French New Wave as a whole and Italy’s Michelangelo Antonioni in particular). She also often accompanied her moviemaking papa on film sets around the world during her formative years. “The way she treats happiness is never pure,” explains Branco. “It’s always mixed emotions. It’s very rare for an American director to use emotions that way. Through her work, you get the sense she puts a lot of effort into nailing a particular emotion and I think that’s what we do as well.”

Mars recalls seeing The Virgin Suicides and being floored by the unsettling ambiguity of the experience, the simultaneous sense of relief and melancholy the film leaves you grappling with as you mourn the Lisbon sisters – an unusually complex emotional tapestry, similar to what Phoenix has always aspired to capture through their music. “There are things in her movies that only make sense once you see them,” he describes. “That’s something very dear to us as a band, because when we made United, our first record, all the musical genres, styles and instruments we were incorporating were not supposed to go together. It made sense once you heard it, not so much on paper. I feel like that about her movies. It’s the same feeling as when a chord is suspended and you’re waiting for the resolution.”

As a band, these longstanding pals from the posh Parisian suburb of Versailles have always eschewed neat labels on their polymorphic quest to broach themes of love, alienation and coming of age via a combination of synth-washed electronics and guitar-sculpted rock anthems. Ti Amo, their sixth opus, may find them dabbling in giddy disco anthems, but those upbeat antics conceal gloomier vibes that are bubbling just beneath the surface. Or, as Branco tells me, “we chose to focus on the little embers of hope and love that remain in this big pool of madness, in the shit storm that is life.”

The worlds of Phoenix and Sofia Coppola intersect quite spectacularly with her inclusion of the upbeat yet lyrically melancholy “Too Young” in a Lost in Translation party scene featuring both aging movie star Bob (Bill Murray) and fresh-faced philosophy grad Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), further driving home the notion we’re all teenagers inside and redefining the nature of their ambiguous, delicately blooming May-December romance. But when I mention that scene to Mars and Branco, they both issue caveats.

“For us, usually when we hear our music in a film, it sounds very, very bizarre,” Branco points out. “We always feel that suddenly, the movie looks very unprofessional. It happens all the time. The only moment that feels bizarre for us in Lost in Translation is when our song appears. Maybe it’s a lack of confidence… But I can tell you it’s a very strong emotion all four of us experience.” This may have to do with writing a song that refers to a specific moment or feeling, then seeing it transposed to a completely different reality. “I think it’s like being a magician,” he clarifies. “You know the trick, you’re too familiar with the music, and it doesn’t make sense, but we know it’s just us.”

On the flipside, Mars talks of Phoenix’s minimalist score for Somewhere as the first time their music served a film narrative in “completely coherent” way. “It was more sound design than score,” Mars tells me, “and I think that’s what got us interested. The film needed the sound of melancholy, boredom and city rhythms, of when you drive in LA, how it’s not a smooth European highway, how there are bumps and strange patterns. So we played around with these things.”

Besides soundtracking the film’s gentle musings on father-daughter dynamics and the kind of loneliness afforded solely to the inordinately affluent, Phoenix’s sister tracks “Love Like A Sunset” Parts I and II bookend the film’s drawn-out speedway scenes. Whether these depict our soul-searching protagonist racing his Ferrari off into oblivion or to confront his crisis head-on is up for debate (as with all Coppola endings, there’s a staunch refusal to condemn her male lead, provide a fabricated Hollywood finale or impart any two-bit moralizing).

Branco recalls how working with sound designer Richard Beggs on Somewhere actually set in motion the overall theme for Bankrupt!, the band’s following album. “Our sonic vocabulary, the synthesizers we favoured and the overall theme of the movie were all things we were also thinking about for the band,” he cited, adding the project helped them refine Bankrupt!’s colour palette. “Bankrupt! is really about the kind of loneliness and alienation that come with existing in the modern world, trying to figure out how to come up with something beautiful within that context. It wasn’t really a conscious thing, but when I think about Somewhere and Bankrupt!, I feel they really have that in common.”

“She has access to our enormous vault of works-in-progress, over the very lengthy period that it takes to write an album, so she’ll sometimes make use of elements we’ve created” – Branco

With cameos in two of Coppola’s projects (Marie Antoinette and A Very Murray Christmas), Phoenix came to realize a few fundamental differences in how the film and music realms function. “Unless it’s your everyday job, you’re more passive and mesmerised when you go through these experiences,” remembers Mars, who speaks with utmost reverence of the band’s experience playing high-class suitors who perform “Où boivent les loups” to a blissfully unaware queen luxuriating in her Versailles playground. “These moments happen really quickly and it’s hard to enjoy them because as Brian Eno once said, ‘it’s all slow preparation, fast execution.’ With Marie Antoinette, we did days of costume fittings, but we were just in that one scene. You spend a really long time waiting for your moment to happen, and when it does, it goes by so quickly. You only have a few takes. So it’s the opposite of how we work with music, where you can redo takes to infinity. You don’t need to work your craft and make sure you’re ready for a specific moment unless you’re doing a live show. So we continue to be mesmerized by that whole process.”

The feeling appears to be mutual, as Coppola keeps inviting the band back to contribute their signature danceably melancholic material to her projects. According to Branco, “she has access to our enormous vault of works-in-progress, over the very lengthy period that it takes to write an album, so she’ll sometimes make use of elements we’ve created, while at other times ask us for precise sounds wherever her films need musical accompaniment.”

For her forthcoming release The Beguiled, a feminist Southern Gothic tale that plays out during the American Civil War, Coppola was quite specific in her request for dark synths, tension, a tinge of romance and “something slightly erotic,” notes Mars. They aimed for a war-themed score without being literal or resorting to instruments from the era. “I think it was Sofia’s idea we use a classical piece of music as a starting point, then transform and abstract it, so that’s what we did,” explains Branco. “We used ‘Magnificat’ by Claudio Monteverdi, which is a piece from the Italian Renaissance, and then digitally, we slowed it down in a radical way. Usually, it’s a few percentage points, but I’m talking a massive slowdown here. As in, a 1-minute piece would last 61 hours. So the whole soundtrack is very abstracted and based around this principle, related to this Monteverdi piece, which the characters in the movie could conceivably know.”

When it comes to describing Coppola’s unique knack as a storyteller, Mars singles out her uncanny ability to unearth scenarios that shouldn’t work on paper (i.e., revisiting a 1971 Civil War drama starring Clint Eastwood), and then surprise everyone with how she hones in on the tale. “There’s a quote I love, and Sofia loves it too,” says Mars. “When we went to an Ed Ruscha retrospective, someone quoted him as saying: great art should elicit the response ‘Huh? wow!’ as opposed to ‘Wow! huh?’ I always feel as though Sofia’s movies really build to a ‘Wow.’ Her films resonate and stay with you for a long time. You relive your teenage years, your coming of age stories, but you also see something that just wows you in the strangest, best possible way.”

A telling exchange in Lost in Translation occurs during one of Bill Murray’s long-distance phone chats with his wife. “Do I need to worry about you, Bob?” she wonders, unwilling to cover up her irritated tone. “Only if you want to,” he suggests, knowing full well she doesn’t. Coppola, however, is among those who do. By casting a light on a coterie of privileged protagonists most people wouldn’t bother feeling sorry for, abstaining from passing judgment on their situation and exploring how their lonely and anxiety-ridden day-to-day plays out, Coppola’s acknowledging their struggles. Better yet, when they’re simply paralyzed into silence, she lets the likes of Aphex Twin, The Cure, The Jesus and Mary Chain and, yes, Phoenix, communicate their beautiful ambivalence and excruciating angst to the rest of us.

“The coming of age theme is something we respond very strongly to,” Branco sums up. “I think throughout all our albums, it’s been a very important theme, with its mix of happiness and nostalgia. It’s such a powerful thing you experience when you’re not really an adult but also not a child anymore, and you suddenly have to deal with the outside world. Those moments of such simple yet powerful emotions are what both Sofia and us as Phoenix aim to explore, I’d say. And we definitely still have tons to say in that respect.”

Ti Amo, Phoenix’s sixth album, is available now. The Beguiled is out in UK cinemas July 14.