Dramatic Underscoring: Darjeeling Limited

On February 23, 2016

Dramatic Underscoring is our regular column by Marcella Hemmeter reviewing soundtrack albums from movies current and forgotten. This edition covers 2007's Darjeeling Limited

In a knock-down, Thunderdome-style cage fight between all the Wes Anderson movie soundtracks, I think we can all agree that The Darjeeling Limited (2007) would have difficulty beating Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums. But don’t let the disappointment of the movie itself distract you; this soundtrack is actually really good. Instead of whimsical baroque-ish interludes from Mark Mothersbaugh we are treated to Indian film score music composed by Satyajit Ray, Shankar Jaikishan and others along with tracks from The Kinks and The Rolling Stones – the strange and familiar melded together creating something both beautiful and moving.

Setting aside the improbability of an Indian train actually being like this, The Darjeeling Limited is an attempt at an adult story of grief and acceptance. Three brothers, depressed after the death of their father the previous year, travel through India to reconnect with each other, themselves, and their long-absent mother, who is holed up at a convent in the Himalayas. A lot of excitement was built up for this movie considering the excellent short-film Hotel Chevalier, which was released online a month prior to Darjeeling, not to mention the commercial disappointment of The Life Aquatic. Darjeeling made money and some people out there really like it but others were looking for another Rushmore and were disappointed. 

Despite this initial let-down, the soundtrack is full of gems that form a very cohesive album and as any fan of Anderson movies knows, good music paired with memorable scenes comes with the territory. It opens with Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)” which featured in Hotel Chevalier, meant as a prologue for Darjeeling. Then there’s the high-tension sitar music of Vilayat Khan which plays while a Businessman (Bill Murray) rushes through town trying to catch a train, only to miss it while a faster Peter (Adrien Brody) is able to jump on, with The Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow” playing in what is now a slow-motion shot as Peter looks at the defeated Businessman before moving through the train cars to find his brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson) and Jack (Jason Schwartzmann). It’s a strong three song opener for the album that only gets better. The next several tracks are selections from the scores of different Indian films. The romantic “Charu’s Theme” serves as a motif for the dalliance between Jack and Rita the train stewardess. A personal favorite is the beautiful title music from Bombay Talkie which initially plays during the brothers’ first exploration of a Hindu temple and busy marketplace. Anderson has said he doesn’t know much about Indian music but these score selections work because they were made for films and perhaps provide a familiarity for these characters (and us) who may only know India from the movies. It’s almost as if there’s this aloofness at the beginning of the album and as the journey progresses, the more diverse and revealing the music selections become.

An emotional moment occurs around a campfire while Jack plays Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” on his iPod. It’s a delicate piece that lays bare the fragile bonds between these brothers, who doubt their ability to be real friends. Side B goes a bit out of order from the movie and there are less Indian film score pieces with the increased focus on the brothers’ internal journey. The Kinks’ “Strangers” highlights another slow-motion shot of the brothers walking to attend the funeral of a boy they tried to rescue and is perhaps the first time they begin to face the loss of their father, strangers to each other but bonded by blood and their grief. The stand-out sequence of the movie has to be when their mother suggests they try to express themselves to each other without words as The Rolling Stones’ “Play With Fire” plays, implying that trying more than this would be fruitless and dangerous. The camera focuses on each of the four, with Francis and Jack looking accusatory and Peter looking hurt. Their mother accepts it all with tears in her eyes. It continues to this terrific long tracking shot of kids praying, Rita on the train… pretty much everything else that creeps into their minds while facing their mother. And in yet another memorable slow-motion scene that practically clobbers you over the head with its symbolism, the brothers abandon their baggage while running to catch a moving train as The Kinks’ “Powerman” plays. Yeah… it’s that literal… but in terms of soundtrack placement it’s raw and hard-hitting.

The Darjeeling Limited soundtrack is perfect for those bright cool mornings, sipping tea and getting lost in thought or out on a long drive. There’s a maturity here and a steady momentum that you will feel even while sitting still. As for Thunderdome, the album may have some trouble getting out alive against the other Wes Anderson heavy hitters but don’t dismiss it outright. Can it rule Bartertown? Give it a shot and see.

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