Soundtrack Mix #19: Paul Schrader's Unseen Angels

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Enter into the dark depths of Paul Schrader's world through the melodies and lyrics that define his films.

By Florence Scott - Anderton

“I have decided to keep a journal. Not in a word program or digital file, but in longhand, writing every word out so that every inflection of penmanship, every word chosen, scratched out, revised, is recorded. To set down all my thoughts and the simple events of my day factually and without hiding anything. When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy. I will keep this diary for one year; 12 months. And at the end of that time, it will be destroyed. Shredded, then burnt. The experiment will be over.”

Searching narration binds Paul Schrader’s work, the lone ranger facing a crisis of faith, unable to shake off the past. The above dialogue introduces Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller at the beginning of First Reformed (2017). Schrader’s characters share their own folklore and throughout this mix their tales come and go. The lyrics take on the form of character too, candlelit messages in a dark fog of mystery and conflict. This mix focuses on Schrader’s directorial canon, emphasizing the stirring moods embedded in his character’s worlds. 

The late Michael Been’s aching soundtrack to Schrader’s brilliant Light Sleeper (1992), with lyrics like “I struggle through the day to day, I brace against the storm… It feels like the world’s on fire.” That same aching is found in Brian Ferry’s “Which Way To Turn,” Woody Harrelson’s companion piece throughout The Walker (2007). Several collaborations are highlighted including: Angelo Badalamenti for Auto Focus (2002), The Comfort Of Strangers (1990), Forever Mine (1999). Jack Nitzsche’s masterful Hardcore (1979) OST (he also worked on Blue Collar [1978] with Captain Beefheart and Ry Cooder), Giorgio Moroder’s Cat People (1982) and American Gigalo (1980) (that feature David Bowie and Deborah Harry on guest vocals respectively) and the strings from Philip Glass’s score for Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters (1985). A surprising turn comes in the form of a blissful guitar and vocal piece for Touch (1997), scored by Dave Grohl. Joan Jett stars as struggling rocker Patti Resnick alongside her brother Joe (Michael J Fox) in Light Of Day (1987). Instead of the 80s rock songs devised by Jett and Bruce Spingsteen for the film, its pensive, ambient end titles scored by Thomas Newman felt more apt to pull in for this overview of Schrader’s sound palette.

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