Classic Americana Albums: Aimee Mann “Magnolia (Music from the Motion Picture)”

Reprise Records, 1999

In my humble opinion, ‘Magnolia’ has just about one of the best opening sequences of a film ever; the story in those first five minutes is instantly engaging, but it’s when you hear the opening bars of Aimee Mann’s cover of ‘One’ (originally popularized by Three Dog Night) that it truly gets going; after all, without the music, there would be no film.

“I sat down to write an adaptation of Aimee Mann songs,” is how director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson opens his piece in the ‘Magnolia’ soundtrack liner notes. So inspired by Mann’s music was Anderson – who was keen to state he was first a fan of Mann’s before becoming her friend, thus having access to unreleased material – that he wanted to adapt her songs into a film “like one would adapt a book for the screen”.

I’ll be honest, ‘Magnolia’ was my first introduction to Mann (and in my defence, I was not far into my teens when I saw the film on VHS in the year 2000), but it really hooked me. After just one viewing, I went and bought the soundtrack from HMV, which, it should be noted, entailed not only venturing into the separate glass vortex that was the classic music section where all the soundtracks lived, but also paying the (what now seems unbelievably expensive) sum of £16.99 to purchase it. As was the case in a time when digital music was in its infancy, I played the CD repeatedly, so I suppose you could argue I at least got a good cost per listen out of it.

‘Momentum’ is the album’s second track (after the previously mentioned ‘One’) and it’s a frantic take on the impossibility of running from past trauma. “But I can’t confront the doubts I have / I can’t admit that maybe the past was bad,” Mann sings, a spirit perfectly encapsulated by Anderson in one of his female protagonists, Claudia (who in the film we see desperately trying to cover her tracks as she plays the song at a deafeningly loud volume). ’Build That Wall’ turns the energy down a notch and gets more playful and light musically, but it still maintains the essence of the song before it, opening with the ominous: “She’s been a long time on the phone / Courting disaster in an undertone.”

“Now that you’ve met me, would you object to never seeing me again?” Claudia asks police officer Jim in the movie while they’re on a kind of date, words that Anderson tweaked a little after lifting them from opening lines of ‘Deathly’ (“Now that I’ve met you / Would you object to / Never seeing each other again?”). It’s a powerful sentence that really sums up Claudia’s wounded nature and fear of opening up to another person. “Just don’t work your stuff / Because I’ve got troubles enough,” Mann sings, reflecting a paralysing fear of intimacy.

‘Driving Sideways’ is your classic tale of being blinded by love but told in car-themed metaphors. “At least you know / You were taken by a pro / I know just how you feel / She talked a perfect game / Deflecting all the blame / You took the jack / And changed the flat / And got behind the wheel,” Mann opens in the first verse, vocalised in the perfectly sunny melancholic tone that has become her signature. The next track ‘You Do’ takes a philosophically whimsical look at relationship struggles, but with Mann’s tone, you’re somehow sure it’ll all be alright in the end.

‘Nothing Is Good Enough’ is entirely instrumental (although a version with lyrics can be found on Mann’s 2000 release ‘Bachelor No. 2’) and moves us to perhaps the most memorable of all the tracks from the album, ‘Wise Up’. It’s a strong song by itself, but when you add the dreamlike cinematic image of the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, and even Tom Cruise, whispering along with the words, it becomes unforgettable.

“You look like a perfect fit / For a girl in need of a tourniquet,” begins ‘Save Me’, with as fine a set of opening lines you’re likely to find. Only recently, when listening to a comedy podcast, did I unexpectedly find out some information about the song in question: It turns out that sometime in the mid-90s, Mann dated Canadian actor and comedian Dave Foley, who at that point in time was going through a rough divorce and was somewhat emotionally battered, and so the song – with its theme of love being able to transform even those who feel they’re beyond help – was born.

The final shot of the movie is set to the aforementioned ‘Save Me’, and while it’s a scene I’ve seen so many times, it never fails to make me smile. I could post the clip here, but to see it without having sat through the film feels almost like fraudulently winning a prize, the lack of work put in corresponding directly to a lack of satisfaction upon receiving the trophy. That final scene radiates something that can only truly be felt after you’re sat through those three-plus hours of film that proceed it.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about that end scene is there is nothing flashy about it – it’s just the music playing loudly as a single shot close-up cuts with exquisite timing to the ending credits. But that’s the magic of Aimee Mann too: nothing flashy or showy, just incredibly well-crafted songs that stand the test of time, repeat listen and repeat listen, year after year and decade after decade – film or no film. But, as with most things, leave it to Anderson to put it better than I ever could when summing up the soundtrack: “So here it is, the perfect memento to remember the movie – or you can look at the movie as the perfect memento to remember the songs that Aimee has made.”

About Helen Jones 136 Articles
North West based lover of country and Americana.
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