On the Music of Ghost World

My own likes and dislikes, musically speaking, are so out of touch with the rest of the world’s that it was problematic choosing tunes to use in Ghost World that would connote the same message to the audience as to myself. I suppose that to have done it in a very broad way wouldn’t have been too terribly difficult, but I wanted to sustain a more nuanced and subtle deadpan tone throughout the film.

For the world at large in the film, I wanted horribly contrived commercial slop—which usually translates, in my opinion, to the most popular music of the day. I wanted this music to heighten the alienation and the general feeling of paranoia and cynicism I was attempting to create. I temped in “Oops! . . . I Did It Again” during the fifties diner scene (“Who can forget this great hit from the fifties?”), and it was very funny (and passé enough for even the most mainstream audience member to get the joke), but way out of our price range. Ditto with some Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC. (I still cannot tell them apart for the life of me—call me retarded if you must.) This modern pop music is almost impossible to parody—it’s a parody of itself. (C’mon, how’re you gonna parody Björk?) You want the audience to get the fact that the music is supposed to be bad, but that can just make it hard to sit through the scene. It also fights how the audience has been conditioned to react by most other film music. They’re used to films where the director clearly endorses the source music chosen for a scene—and the viewer is also supposed to love it. (In many films, the lyrics often comment on the scene as well.) I first became aware of this while watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969 and enduring “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” during that insipid bicycle-riding interlude.

Seymour’s music was somewhat easier for me because his musical taste was based on my own, and I had my vast collection of 78s to draw upon. (I have about 1,500 78s—I try to keep my collection down to the essentials.) However, I was stymied sometimes by records I wanted to use being construed as “Woody Allen music,” as Mr. Allen has virtually cornered the market on using old jazz in modern films. (From now on, any director using a Django Reinhardt or Louis Armstrong 78 in a film will seem derivative of Woody Allen.) I tried a lot of my favorite 78s with different scenes, and it was very satisfying when they worked. There’s something very mysterious at times about what works and what doesn’t. It’s not always what you expect will work. Skip James I knew would work, and it was a great privilege to be able to use his music as part of this film. “Devil Got My Woman” was the first old 78 I ever heard that stopped me dead in my tracks. I have been in awe of James’s music ever since and believe him to be the greatest blues musician ever to record. Later, I learned more about him from the excellent liner notes of a Yazoo LP reissue of his complete 1931 recordings. Stephen Calt, who befriended James in the sixties, wrote: “He was a solitary, secretive person who never had his own family, regarded women with contempt, and was seemingly wary of the entire human race, several members of which he had coolly eliminated in shoot-outs. He was mistrustful of merriment: Once he passed a caravan of cars departing from a wedding. When he heard the honking, he said, with no attempt at humor: ‘Bet you won’t hear that when they get divorced.’ His bleak outlook made blues songs a natural outlet for him. He had no concept of blues as entertainment, or crowd-pleasing music. It was his goal to startle with his musicianship.” In many ways, his music seemed perfect for the Seymour character and the film.

One further note about Skip James: His “I’m So Glad” was part of a huge hit rock LP by Cream during the sixties. When I was in college, it was impossible to escape that damn LP—it was playing in every house, apartment, and coffeehouse, or so it seemed. Although aided by the blasting volume of electric guitar, bass, and drums, Cream’s version was vastly inferior in every way to James’s intense, frenzied masterpiece, which was fueled, no doubt, by the immense inner anger he clearly possessed. Although Cream’s version sold over a million copies and James’s probably sold less than one hundred, it is James’s version that will be remembered (while Björk and Cream records are rotting in some New Jersey landfill). If you’re interested in hearing more of him, buy the CD (Yazoo 2009) that reissues his entire 1931 recordings. Avoid the inferior recordings he made after being rediscovered by blues enthusiasts in the sixties.

I’ve been wanting to use the King Oliver and Tiny Parham records in a film for years now. I used one for the original opening title sequence to Crumb but had to replace it when it proved too expensive to license. Our music budget was so small on Ghost World that, again, I couldn’t afford it. I turned to Vince Giordano, who leads a New York band that plays old jazz better than anyone else still living, and had him recreate some of the jazz tunes we couldn’t afford. He did a remarkable job duplicating not only the notes but the bittersweet emotion of this music.

Mostly what worked in Seymour’s room was something quite unexpected—the 1920s recordings of Lionel Belasco, a West Indian bandleader-pianist. Belasco’s mother was a Trinidadian Creole who taught classical music on the piano; his father was a Sephardic Jew who played the violin and sang baritone. Although classically trained at home, Lionel would sneak off into the countryside to hear the “jungle music” (calypso) that he loved. His own music reflects all these influences and somehow also works for Seymour, with its charming yet poignant quality. The Belasco tunes chosen for the film, “Miranda” (1933), “Venezuela” (1929), and “The Palms of Maracaibo” (1930), were taken from extremely rare original 78 rpm recordings that are among the few copies known to exist.

The last big hurdle musically was finding a composer who could write a score that would lend a thread of cohesiveness to the film. When I started meeting with prospective composers, I kept telling them I wanted something classical (to stand apart and ground the film), something haunting, something distant yet moving. A tall order. All I could offer in the way of guidance was to watch and listen to Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut, as those films came the closest emotionally in my memory. Of course, it couldn’t sound too dated—something more timeless was needed.

Most of the composers wanted to try something hipper and trendier, with zany, oddball instruments, but I steered clear of them. I wanted violins, cellos, violas, and basses. I met with David Kitay, whose résumé, though quite accomplished, led me to fear he’d be incapable of anything like what I was requesting. Even he, at the end of our initial discussion, admitted he thought I was crazy and what I was asking for would probably never work. Two days later, he called me and said he’d had an inspiration while driving his car. He came over and played me a bit of it, and he was hired.

This 2001 piece appeared as liner notes for the Ghost World soundtrack.  The author updated it slightly for our release of the film. And we put together this playlist, which gathers all the songs from the film and on the soundtrack currently available on Spotify.

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