Make It Easy on Yourself? Scott Walker, Vox Lux and the Allure of the Film Score
When one-time pop maestro and latter-day avant-garde musical rover Scott Walker passed away aged 76 earlier this year, peers and indebted young(er) bucks clamoured to social media to mourn the passing of a bona fide artiste - a sound-seeking creative that traversed the gamut and wilfully explored every nook and cranny of the musical form.
Born in Ohio in 1943, Walker was gifted with a plush vocal timbre that would find a home on evergreen ‘60s hits such as “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” as part of The Walker Brothers. As time progressed, however, his interests strayed from the mainstream. European literature and cinema struck a chord, with particular affinity aligning with the likes of Fellini, Bresson and Bergman - the latter of whom he referenced on the 1969 masterpiece Scott IV in the “The Seventh Seal”.
It was only as he approached older age, however, that he dared tackle the art of the score. First with Leos Carax’sPola X in 1999 and then under the charge of Brady Corbet in 2015’s The Childhood of a Leader. Both bore hallmarks of an artist who had reached beyond the sonorous, lush sweep of their earliest work and evidenced the colder, more dissonant discomfit that peppered solo records such as The Drift and Tilt. By this point, shade could compete with light. His compositional skills were more robust as a result.
It is somehow apt that Scott Walker’s parting shot would turn out to be for a cautionary tale about the music industry. Vox Lux is a doleful story. One of a wholesome, naïve young singer, Celeste, who becomes soured by fame and success; sullied by its corrosive all-access expectations and wearying, insatiable demands.
Working on a Brady Corbet film once more, Vox Lux no doubt contained a degree of personal resonance for Walker, for whom the hysterical screaming synonymous with sixties fandom sent him recoiling into retreat. Considering he ended up weaving down left-field alleys, perhaps he is an example of someone who was always obviously suited to the lure of sodtrack work.
But what is the general attraction for other supposed mainstream musicians? What is the appeal for the likes of Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood and Thom Yorke (respectively)? And what too, for Daft Punk, Mark Knopfler, Trent Reznor, Nick Cave and many, many others who have elected to dip both their toes and instruments into the choppy waters of celluloid accompaniment?
Well, the answer, my friend, is blowing somewhere in the wind. It could be that film scores offer the chance for an alternate history; another string on the repertoire bow; a fork in the road and the chance for an altogether different, concurrent narrative. One that splodges another shade on the career canvass.
And as much as cliché may dictate that an arresting landscape might inspire the writer or the painter, so too a moving image is a catalyst for melody and rhythm. The image is the call and the musicians are charged with the response. The vocabulary is different. Acts such as Italian prog rock ensemble Goblin stand as a rare exception, having built a career almost exclusively working with soundtrack commissions. Most artists find it to be a digression whereby they are liberated from the baggage of their own back catalogue.
For Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Neil Young was even less meticulous than usual - opting for a semi-improvised approach that was abetted by a purpose-built studio space where he could be enveloped by a number of different platforms, screens and instruments. It allowed the notoriously ornery Canadian to indulge in caprice and enable impulse to guide his work.
For others, there could be pull of shared responsibility. Soundtracks afford the opportunity to drive from the back seat - creatively expressive, but only a cog in the overall wheel. A relatively risk-free enterprise that will not derail the day job, yet at the same time offer the chance to play by a different rulebook or, at the very least, to eschew the constraints of the popular song form, toss it to the side and sculpt fresh etchings unencumbered by mainstream scrutiny and expectation.
As for Celeste in Vox Lux, her fate might well be the route that Scott Walker escaped, caught as she seemingly is in a pop trap and with no way out, the circus gorging rapaciously upon her very soul. Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the older artist is strikingly adroit in this regard: capturing the character’s chilly neuroses and devil-may-care irreverence wonderfully, as well as highlighting the personal price that can be paid for chaining yourself to the glare of the spotlight.
The Celestes of this world could possibly benefit from taking a break, briefly bowing out to indulge their creativity in score-work. Perhaps sanctuary, salvation and rejuvenation lie there. Maybe that’s another reason as to why it appeals so much. Scott Walker was onto something.
[Words by Greg Wetherall]
More on the music from Vox Lux:
Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux plays in cinemas from Friday 3 May.
Vox Lux is also available to watch on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 3 May.