Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation left a strange impression on me. In a way I can only really compare to Casablanca, it burrowed into my memory like an actual personal experience. I don’t review movies, and I am ill equipped to explain what made it such a special film for me, but the bond that Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) forge over a few days in Tokyo is something I’ll always carry with me and look back on fondly. That’s pretty weird, but I’m not complaining.
Music was essential to Lost in Translation, embedded into scenes as a part of what Bob and Charlotte actually experience. The hotel lounge has a live jazz band. “The State We’re In” by The Chemical Brothers plays in the club they visit. Phoenix’s “Too Young” pumps over the stereo when they go to a friend’s apartment. A woman dances to Peaches’ “Fuck the Pain Away” at the strip club. The actors aren’t just seen singing karaoke; they perform it at length. Coppola was pretty clever about extending this integration to the more traditionally situated background music. Happy End’s “Kaze wo Atsumete” enhances the feeling that Bob and Charlotte are winding down from an exhausting night, but it drifts faintly into the hallway, as if playing from the karaoke room. Charlotte is wearing headphones when we first hear Air’s “Alone in Kyoto”. The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” kicks off as Bob enters his cab. The encore of “Kaze wo Atsumete” in the credits could easily be playing in Bob’s head. Almost every song in the movie functions within the environment, not just as a peripheral enhancement.
Garden State tried something like this a year later, though I don’t recall the extent of it beyond the awkward Shins sequence. The effect was a sort of garish, in-your-face endorsement of director Zach Braff’s favorite tunes. It didn’t really cut it for me, in spite of the soundtrack’s impressive cast. In Lost in Translation, Coppola was a lot more attentive to creating continuity between songs and bringing musicians on board with the film’s atmosphere. She didn’t stop at using “Sometimes” by My Bloody Valentine; she dug founder Kevin Shields out of relative obscurity to compose four original pieces. A lot of the other artists formed a pre-existing community of sorts, suited to engage the project as art rather than a quick paycheck. Soundtrack supervisor Brian Reitzell performed drums for Air on their 2001 album 10 000 Hz Legend. Both Air and Roger Joseph Manning Jr, a fellow studio musician on that album, contribute original music to Lost in Translation. Phoenix previously performed with Air, and Sofia Coppola ultimately married their singer. While their contribution was recycled (“Too Young” appears in the context of young adults who would have been familiar with obscure but up and coming artists; using Phoenix’s first single made sense), the band was still involved in Coppola’s social sphere of musicians.
“Alone in Kyoto” plays as Charlotte travels through the classic side of Japan, visiting shrines and observing ancient customs. While that could possibly put it at odds with my theme, Air’s approach keeps the feeling modern, casting tradition as a subtle, delicate element of the present rather than as a form of escapism. It also occurs in a sequence without character interaction, permitting a pure sense of exploration. Within Lost in Translation‘s soundtrack, “Alone in Kyoto” reaches closest to that Japanese dream that still permeated a lot of American subcultures in 2003. The movie itself brought many of us the closest we would ever come to actually living that dream.