Why Inherent Vice is a Great Soundtrack

From Can to Minnie Riperton, a look at "The Inherent Vice" original sountrack
By    March 25, 2015


Will Schube has 3 golden fangs

The only thing better than a Paul Thomas Anderson soundtrack is a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. There’s no one better at mixing pop hits and unheard gems with original scores. It’s partially due to the talent he recruits.

Jon Brion worked on Magnolia and Punch­-Drunk Love. Boogie Nights features an orgy of chart toppers and one­-hit wonders. His last three features, There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Inherent Vice feature remarkably assured, creative scores from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.

Greenwood found a signature sound in staccato, precise orchestration and brooding melodies. While his scores on There Will Be Blood and The Master were flashy and more a part of the film than in service to it, (n no way a bad thing), his work on Inherent Vice is much subtler—likely because the film is so busy and sporadic that an encompassing score would swallow the viewer whole.

Vice is one of Anderson’s most divisive works, but I find it to be his most genuine. Always ambitious, PTA attempts to insert himself into cinematic history in “live time” with each film he makes. In Inherent Vice, he nails both time and place, creating a world that the viewer yearns to be a part of.

The complex narrative concerns Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) stumbling through a PI job. The film begins as his ex old lady, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), solicits Doc’s help in a mystery she doesn’t fully understand. Her new boyfriend, real estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), has been placed in a personality rehabilitation center bin by his wife. Neo­-Nazis and Black Panthers join the fun, as Det. Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) and the LAPD try their best to get in Doc’s way.

Owen Wilson shows up as a snitch for both sides, and if this sounds confusing, it is. I’ve seen the film four times and am still working my way through the pieces. The movie works, though, because Anderson makes these mysteries and questions more fun than frustrating. He subverts the narrative in favor of emotional satisfaction. It gives way to something far more enticing and human: Love, and the things we’ll do to find it.

Johnny Greenwood’s name has always been a draw for the crossover Radiohead/PTA fan, and his knotty, percussive scores have become inextricably linked to Anderson’s love of long shots and cinematic beauty. On Vice, however, Greenwood succumbs to more traditional scoring, leaving the innovative accompaniment behind for something more subtle—the simple stuff Anderson captures is what sets him apart.

Greenwood blends string orchestration with moments of electronic composition and traditional rock (Radiohead being the easiest touchstone). The soundtrack’s an easy listen, partially because Greenwood’s work is less demanding, but also in how the record’s sequencing intersperses underground classics of the 70s among the original work. “Vitamin C,” perhaps the greatest song by Can appears during the album’s first minutes, and it’s hard not to fantasize about the listening sessions PTA and Greenwood had. “Spooks” is one of Greenwood’s stronger compositions, partially spoiled by Joanna Newsom’s spoken word vocals. Newsom’s speaking voice is pleasant enough, but the track’s beauty loses all subtlety as Newsom competes for space among the track’s parts.

The record’s highlight is an introduction to Minnie Riperton, the mother of Inherent Vice actress (and partner of Anderson) Maya Rudolph. “Les Fleur” blends psychedelic ecstasy with the downfall Vice’s narrative so beautifully portrays. Riperton’s vocal range reportedly spanned five octaves (which essentially equivocates her voice to the range of a piano), and on “Fleur” her hushed delivery builds the track towards a chorus that is—for lack of a better phrase—remarkably powerful.


Soundtracks exist in a weird space once audio and visuals have been consumed in conjunction. It becomes difficult to separate the two. “Vitamin C,” a favorite of mine for a few years, is now inseparable from those grainy Gordita Beach nights, as Doc departs from Shasta in an action that puts the plot into motion. “Les Fleur,” a track I wouldn’t know about without Vice, is now colored by Doc walking towards his makeshift office, shoeless and stoned.

Neil Young’s “Harvest” isn’t featured on the soundtrack but serves in the emotional core of the soundtrack.  While the lesser known “Journey Through the Past” accompanies one of the film’s most heartwarming scenes, as Doc and Shasta brave the rain in an ill-fated search for dope only hinted at by a Ouija board. Anderson’s infatuation with Neil Young is all over the film, as he’s cited Young’s film Journey Through The Past as a strong influence. I

The album’s sweetest moment matches the film’s touching climax. Doc’s pure heart is less bent on personal profit than on familial reunions. To soundtrack it, PTA uses “Amethyst,” perhaps the simplest and purest composition Greenwood has penned to date. It’s here where you the director’s contradictory genius: he delivers gut busting emotion with remarkably complex source material. He creates things that aren’t just films or musical accompaniments–they’re eclectic reflections of time, place, and the occasional polyester shirt.



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