There was one word in particular that kept hovering around Air when their original score for The Virgin Suicides came out 20 years ago this weekend, in February of 2000: kitsch. In more recent times, be it in the effusive reappraisals that welcomed its fifteenth anniversary reissue or when the album appears near the top of critics’ lists of the all-time best movie scores, it is telling that you are much less likely to find “kitsch” lingering around. The French duo’s music landed over here in the late ’90s at the end of a pop decade that was preoccupied with edginess and angst. The general impression of Air was that they bore little of either, yet the mostly instrumental tracks they composed for Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut would reinterpret edginess and angst in their own temperate vocabulary.
Speaking to Stereogum in 2015, Jean-Benoît Dunckel described how the film changed while he and partner-in-Air Nicolas Godin were creating the score. “The first rushes we saw were really dark and deep, so we began making very moody stuff, music that was like stepping out between light into something quite dark,” he explained. “But more and more, Sofia cut the movie into a love story — a teenager-style movie.”
The Virgin Suicides was released into a market that had recently been flooded with those “teenager-style” movies; 10 Things I Hate About You, Can’t Hardly Wait, She’s All That, and American Pie had all been released between the summers of ‘98 and ‘99. Coppola’s film features a young and attractive cast in a high school setting, and for much of its duration it presents like a more jagged indie version of those coming-of-age flicks.
Make no mistake about it though, despite the editing booth metamorphosis that Dunckel described, The Virgin Suicides is at root an incredibly dark film. Given that the central subject matter is a family in which all five of the children take their own lives, it can’t really be anything but that, no matter how many distracting laughs Josh Hartnett’s performance as the stoner lothario Trip Fontaine inspires. The surface resemblance to contemporary teen movies is an appealing veneer over the twisted story adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel — just as the beauty of the Lisbon daughters is a veneer over their internal turmoil, the image of tranquility once synonymous with the 1970s suburbs in which The Virgin Suicides is set is a veneer over the fraught family dynamic coiled under every roof.
Air were mimicking and mocking those various veneers with their score, as is clear from the outset, with the unsettling contrast between the soft-focus dreaminess of “Playground Love” and the first scenes of the youngest daughter, Cecilia, being rushed from her house by paramedics after she slits her wrists in the bath. The film’s narration, delivered in a tone equally dry and somber by Giovanni Ribisi, equates the state of the Lisbon family with the onset of the decline of the auto industry which drives the Detroit economy. (The movie is set in that city’s suburb of Grosse Pointe.) Meanwhile, Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars mutedly sings, “I’m a high school lover/ And you’re my favorite flavor/ Love is all/ All my soul/ You’re my playground love.” What kind of high school has a playground? No matter, the next verse is more key: “Yet my hands are shaking/ I feel my body remains/ Time’s no matter/ I’m on fire… ”
That sounds like elation, but it also sounds a little bit like death, which is likely not an accident. “I think the real spirit of the soundtrack is this fascination with death and the fascination with having your spirit floating when you die and how you may suddenly feel free and liberated from earth,” Dunckel told the website Dazed in 2015. “From all you are and the adult’s world that you actually hate.” Air were not just setting out to trace the map lines of America as it was known in the ‘70s with autumn colors, they were mining their own individual and admittedly less dramatic youthful feelings for an honest sense of sympathy. The film depicts tragedy with the melodrama removed, but not in an uncaring way, and Air’s score accompanies in kind.
Cecilia, it is said, “was the first to go.” The deaths are known and impending, bleak bookends for a movie with its eyes otherwise fixated on beautiful youth and hormonal awkwardness. On first exposure, the restrained nature of Air’s sonic composition style compliments this in an almost typically suburban parental way: It sounds like it is either pretending that bad things are not happening, or it knows that there is nothing it can do to stop them.
This stoicism gives listeners space to interpret foreboding in the mixed signals of “Dark Messages,” “Cemetary Party,” and “The Word ‘Hurricane,'” though it’s only as Air move on to the sawing “Ghost Song,” heart-beating “Empty House,” and dramatic charging rock of “Dead Bodies” that the energy turns unequivocally sinister. In the film, the deaths of the sisters are inevitable but nonetheless startling, while the mood of Air’s score darkens shade by shade in a way that also creeps up on you.
Not only is the score itself restrained stylistically, use of the score in the film is also restrained. Unlike some movies where an aural backdrop of familiar songs never lets up and can be relied upon to drive the plot as much as the dialogue, a decent amount of The Virgin Suicides goes without music entirely. Interviewed by MTV in early 2000, Godin noted that a mere four of the 13 tracks on Air’s score actually feature in the movie — though “Ce Matin La” from their debut Moon Safari also plays during a sort-of-fantasy scene. Elsewhere moments of awakening and discovery are coupled with golden oldies like Heart’s “Magic Man” and “Crazy On You,” 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” and ELO’s “Strange Magic.”
The Virgin Suicides had not just a score but also a separate soundtrack, which was released to mild interest a couple months after Air’s album. It turns out that its collection of mostly mid-‘70s AOR tunes anticipated the future we’ve settled into, where bands such as these have been publicly reevaluated and no one has to apologize for enjoying the occasional Styx jam. Music cognoscenti and fans alike, however, weren’t fully ready in 2000 for this turn of events. (“No wonder those virgins committed suicide” was the Pitchfork review’s conclusion about the soundtrack.) Corralling these bygone hits made sense for verisimilitude purposes, but why enlist Godin and Dunckel to come in and approximate the ‘70s if you’re also going to drop in more of the real thing?
Obviously, Air brought their chic modern aesthetic. The Virgin Suicides was a confluence of hipness that led to bigger Sofia Coppola films, which led to further, more celebrated, soundtracks assembled by former Redd Kross drummer Brian Reitzell (who had played with Air both live and on some of this score’s tracks), which led to Phoenix being gradually introduced to an American indie audience. Air’s reputation grew, and the line between ironic distance and genuine affection was blurred a little bit more than it was before.
Godin and Dunckel made it a condition of taking on the job that they could approach their score as its own album, and it proved to be a testing ground for the proper followup to Moon Safari. “Creating that soundtrack was a definite stepping stone to get to the new album,” Godin told Billboard in 2001 in an interview for 10,000 Hz. Legend. “Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to make this album the way we did.”
“The new album captures the freedom of the ’70s, not necessarily the specific musical sounds [or] instruments of that era,” Dunckel added. The uncomfortable contours and mortality flecked lyrics of “Sex Born Poison” are far removed from “Sexy Boy,” and The Virgin Suicides connects them, even though it wasn’t as instrumentally modern or structurally complex as 10,000 Hz. Legend.
The “kitsch” accusations began to recede with the realization that Air were more intense about their craft and informed by legacy records than they first appeared to be. “For us, Pink Floyd is a big influence because we like their artistic approach,” Dunckel told CMJ New Music Monthly in April of 2000, speaking about the inspirations behind the score. “We don’t care about making a single and having it played on the radio. We want to do some concept albums and make style-y albums — with a soul.” Created over winter weeks in Versailles, through snowstorms and high fevers, The Virgin Suicides has proven to be just that: a concept album with soul, which resonates with an audience that likes to take its dread a little easy.