TORONTO — It goes without saying that if you’re going to make an indie film, you’re going to need a killer soundtrack to go with it.
The traditional method of crafting one has been to seek out the coolest up-and-coming bands to create that perfect mixed tape.
But recent Canadian indie releases have been charting their own course, turning to just one group to craft a unified soundscape that falls somewhere between a traditional music score and a compilation of indie gems.
The latest is The Trotsky, fuelled by the melodic riffs of Montreal’s Malajube, while Gunless gallops to the country twang of Blue Rodeo.
Earlier this year, Grown Up Movie Star was infused with the alternative strains of Elliott Brood.
Movie Star director Adriana Maggs says it was simply cheaper to go with Elliott Brood — a band she happened to love anyway — than assemble a collection of hot tracks.
“I’m really excited about the fact that maybe that’s how we can do it in Canada from now on because it gets really expensive to get American songs,” says the Newfoundland-bred Maggs, whose coming-of-age film earned a performance prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
Writer, director, and actor Don McKellar, who wrote the Broken Social Scene-inspired love story, This Movie Is Broken and appears in the upcoming girl-band movie, Trigger, says teaming up with a hungry band can be great for everyone involved.
“You can spend heaps of money on buying music,” says McKellar, whose collaboration with the Toronto indie band is more akin to a concert film than a traditional feature.
“But if you work with a band, usually they’re eager because they can show their stuff and it’s a great showcase for them. You probably do get more of your money’s worth.”
Malajube bassist Mathieu Cournoyer says he was surprised when they were asked to record music for The Trotsky.
“It was fun doing it, actually,” says Cournoyer, noting they culled material from a stash of melodies, including previously released tracks.
“(Singer) Julien (Mineau) had a big bank of songs and half songs and just riffs, and we just took some of these riffs and worked on them. But it’s fun because it’s not like writing a whole song. You write a 30-second song with no lyrics. It’s pretty different from trying to write an album. Writing music with no lyrics, we had a blast doing it.”
Although popular this summer, such collaborations certainly aren’t new. French electronic duo Air were behind the dreamy sounds of 1999’s “The Virgin Suicides,” while Explosions in the Sky set the tone for 2004’s “Friday Night Lights.” Neil Young provided the instrumental soundscape for 1997’s “Dead Man,” with the legendary songwriter reportedly improvising melodies as he watched the film in a recording studio.
That was similar to the way Montreal’s Besnard Lakes approached the score for actor Mark Ruffalo’s directorial debut, “Sympathy for Delicious.”
“And it was such a blast to do,” says frontman Jace Lasek. “Mark Ruffalo is such a sweet guy. We really sort of hit it off and he kind of gave us a lot of creative freedom in interpreting the scenes and he was really open to our suggestions.”
The apparent trend certainly isn’t limited to smaller pictures. Bigger-budget flicks are leaning this way, too — “Iron Man 2” largely features a best-of collection from AC/DC, the Ben Stiller comedy “Greenberg” is framed by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, and Daft Punk is applying its robot-inspired anthems to “Tron: Legacy.”
Toronto director Michael McGowan, whose soundtrack for last year’s road movie “One Week” featured a galaxy of Canadian music stars, says there’s a huge advantage to having a single musical viewpoint. He notes it can be tricky trying to shoe-horn a previously recorded song into a film.
“We had a composer and a score and source (previously recorded material),” McGowan says of “One Week.”
“But putting source music is a bit of hit-and-miss. You’ll try a track against it and it just won’t be right for whatever reason and you’ll do that 20 times ’til you find the track you think, ’Oh, that actually kind of does what it emotionally I want it to do for the scene.’ ”
McGowan’s next film, “Score: A Hockey Musical,” features original songs integrated into the storyline. It’s due for release in the fall.
Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan says he never thought he could score a film until he was asked to provide music for Matthew Bissonnette’s 2002 film “Looking For Leonard.”
“You think of film scores, you kind of think orchestral and you know, John Williams or something like that, you know?” says McCaughan, who more recently served as musical director for Bissonnette’s road film, “Passenger Side.”
“I was like, ’I can’t write for music for a string quartet.’ They said, ’No, no, no, we like Portastatic, we want it to sound like that.’ So I thought, ’Well, I can do that.’ ”
“It’s not that common you get a band that can do the full range of a movie,” he says. “The thing with the Broken Social Scene movie is that the band is quite atmospheric and they’ve got so many musicians and resources that they can make so many different sounds.”
While acknowledging that musical needs will vary from project to project, McGowan says a unified musical vision — no matter where it comes from — is a powerful way to pull together a film.
“As long as the composer’s good it’s going to help do things that you can’t do by just selecting songs,” he says. “But a great composer can come from anywhere.”
– With files from Nick Patch