SoundTreks | Anomalisa
Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa has been making a quiet splash since the end of 2015, and it has been worming its way onto more and more Top 10 lists as time passes. It is, indeed, one of the best-reviewed films of the year, offering up something bizarre and unique. Anomalisa, like most of Kaufman’s projects (Adaptation., Synecdoche, New York) turns everyday ambivalence, fear, and commonplace deep-seated insecurity into a glittering monument to the strength and importance of an existential crises. If that sounds obscure, it may be. But even if you’re lost through the odd meanings and definite psychological meandering of Kaufman’s films, you’re also typically rather entertained.
Anomalisa began its life as a stage play, written by Francis Fregoli (a nom de plume of Kaufman’s), as part of a series of theatrical soundscapes conceived of by the film’s composer, Carter Burwell. The film is a stop-motion animated semi-surreal meditation on human connection. Both are about a well-regarded customer service author/guru on a business trip, suffering through a flailing marriage and a general disconnected malaise. All the other people in this universe have the same voice (they’re all, men and women, played by Tom Noonan). Our hero’s life is shaken by the appearance of a plain-looking woman with a new voice (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh).
We here at SoundTreks will listen to the unusual soundtrack record for Anomalisa, and see how it stands as its own entity. Is the free-form soundscape quality still present, or is it something more conventional? Let’s take a listen, and try to hear new voices.
Track 1. “Overture”
The score to Anomalisa is simultaneously quirky and ominous. There are plinky, attractive major chords that quickly descend into vaguely nightmarish ambiance. Anomalisa feels like a dream in many ways. The stop-motion animation has a textured, ultra-real quality the way human dreams feel extra colorful and extra intense. Indeed, there’s a dream sequence partway through the film that bears the actual oddness of a genuine nightmare. Carter Burwell’s music is somehow emotional, evocative, dark, and funny all at once.
Track 2. “Welcome to the Fregoli”
This soundtrack record contains multiple snippets of dialogue from the film, constructing itself as a sort of parallel retelling of the movie in audio form. It’s not a full-blown radio drama, but entire scenes are repeated verbatim. This means the soundtrack record for Anomalisa is somewhere between regular, evocative OST and outright experimental storytelling project. The premise of the film – that the protagonist only hears one voice coming out of every other person in the world (but one) – is clearly cemented in this track, wherein we hear Noonan conversing, singing classical music, and narrating vitriol, all at once. It’s surreal and great to experience.
Track 4. “Another Person”
There are three actors who appear on this soundtrack record. David Thewlis as the protagonist, Tom Noonan as everyone else, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the title character. It’s easy to see the romantic function of this format. When one first falls in love with someone – randomly, it seems – that love object begins to overwhelm all other people in the world. They are, by virtue of being loved by you, a suddenly unique, musical, and gorgeous new presence. Lisa is not an extraordinary person – indeed, she’s awkward and shy and socially backward – but we hear Thewlis’ excitement in merely hearing a new voice.
Track 4. “None of Them is You” – Tom Noonan
Tom Noonan half-croons this love ditty a bit amusically. It sounds like a lost They Might Be Giants B-side, what with its odd lyrics and wordy rhymes. Anomalisa is a bit of a shabby-looking movie; the stop-motion has an appealing hand-touched quality, so it makes sense that the weird love song should sound a little awkward.
Track 8. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” – Jennifer Jason Leigh
Yes, the Cyndi Lauper song. Although I do like the song, I always considered it to be something of an empty anthem. Girls, I always heard, were not complicated beings, but merely longed to escape their oppressive adult parents and hit the town, longing to “have fun,” doing whatever activities that phrase implied. Hearing it sadly sung, a cappella, by Jennifer Jason Leigh, I begin to realize what a song of hurt and longing it is. All of a sudden, lyrics like “I want to be the one who walks in the sun” have an aching grasp to them. They long for freedom. Not just to go out and party, but to live. Anomalisa managed to repurpose a hit pop song, making it more textured and meaningful.
Track 12. “Breakfast With Lisa”
Our protagonist and Lisa have a one-night stand after he falls deeply in love with her at first sight. She sings to him. Their sex is awkward, but somehow cathartic. Over breakfast, our hero decides to leave his wife and live with Lisa. This track details the immediate emotional fallout. What happens to Lisa’s voice is heartbreaking, in a weird way.
I am astonished at how well the story of this film can be told through the mere audio. I suppose it is a conversational film, and a lot of the story is told through mere quotations of the dialogue, but the music and choice audio inflection manage to communicate all the same surreal emotions and insecurities of the film. We may not have an exact one-to-one storytelling analogue through the soundtrack, but we have an alternate, perhaps impressionistic version of the movie. One could be forgiven for thinking the Anomalisa soundtrack came first, and the movie second.
I kind of wish I had listened to the record first, as it would have allowed me to experience the soundtrack’s own unique storytelling foibles unfettered. A good soundtrack record will bear an abstract narrative throughline, or will, at the very least, contain a definite ebb and flow from track to track. It’s rare that a soundtrack record attempts to stand in for the movie itself, tell the same story, have the same dialogue, only allowing the music to take center stage rather than the visuals.
Which is Better? The Soundtrack or the Movie?
It’s a dead heat. The movie is too visually striking, and the nightmarish tone too astonishing to ignore. But, when it comes to emotional impact, the film and the record have equal power. The OST is an adaptation of the film, rather than a compliment to it. That’s not something I’ve encountered often. Maybe with something like Lost Highway.
Anomalisa is a story of confusion. Charlie Kaufman has repeatedly told stories of how noble it might be (or perhaps how noble we hope it is) to be completely unsure in life. Kaufman’s movies are about men who seem unable to please any other people, and who can screw up everything without even realizing they had done anything, and how that in itself might be a form of catharsis. His movies are about the nobility of pathos. That nobility of pathos is stronger in the film, but it’s forceful in the soundtrack.
My advice: Consume them both. But do the soundtrack first.
Top Image: Paramount
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.