Noah Baumbach Shares His Musical Obsessions

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Photo: John Phillips/Getty Images

Sometimes the soundtrack to a Noah Baumbach movie can be more exciting than the film itself. He, like his contemporaries Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson, is obsessive about making sure the music in his films carries the story. This is especially true of While We're Young, his new film about 40-somethings who realize the stuff of their childhood is now considered "vintage," starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, and Ad-Rock. The music in While We're Young is some of the most eclectic you'll hear on any Baumbach soundtrack, as it pits the old against the new — what was kind of lame then, but totally cool now. Baumbach reunited with LCD Soundsystem front man James Murphy to put the soundtrack together, and on an unseasonably cold spring day in New York, he told Vulture about the prized possessions in his personal collection, and what movie soundtrack makes him cry.

How did the second collaboration with James Murphy happen?
Well, the first one started when I was writing Greenberg. I was listening to the Sound of Silver record and thought he seemed like a good fit. I had never met James before. When we met and he agreed to do the movie, we became close. The second collaboration came out of just friends hanging out. I was like, "I’m writing this thing," and I showed him an early draft. He was much more a part of the conversation from the early stages for this film.

Who came up with the idea of covering "Golden Years"?
That was James going beyond what I’d hired him to do. It was always in the script that the movie started with a lullaby version of "Golden Years" because, when you have kids, you're suddenly aware of all of these lullaby versions of all the songs you grew up with. It’s a way for parents to have the hits of their childhood done again for the baby. That said, the lullaby versions that I found of "Golden Years" just weren't right, so I had James do it. He helped. You can recognize the song, but he also brought this sort of beautiful-yet-eerie quality to it.

Did it meet your standards?
In a baby version of it, it exceeded them.

For the Greenberg soundtrack he wrote a lot of the music, but for this one he selected songs from other artists. Was that a decision you both came up with together?
He actually didn’t select the music in the movie. I did. Not that James isn’t always weighing in on stuff. There’s a lot of Vivaldi used in this score. The musical voice was so eclectic in this movie. James scored some very particular scenes — the biggest thing he wrote was the score for the confrontation between Ben and Adam. It's an extended piece, which is really great. On Greenberg it was more a score born out of songs he wrote specifically for the movie.

What are some of your prized possessions in your record collection?
One of my prized possessions is something I stole from my mother: the Rolling Stones' Satanic Majesties Request that has the motioned thing. It’s them on the cover, but if you move it, they move with it. I also have Sticky Fingers with the Andy Warhol zipper, which is a real zipper. Later they just printed it. I’m proud of both, and they were both stolen from my parents.

How important is music in your films?
I listen to music all the time and I’ve been a collector throughout my entire life. It has a very personal relationship with the movies. Also, I'm generally aware of what my characters’ taste in music is. I tend to often have music in the movies that’s representative of the characters. In this case, Adam and Amanda’s characters are playing music from Ben and Naomi's [characters'] childhood because it's uncomplicated for them. They can just like the Lionel Richie song "All Night Long." They don’t have the associations that I had when I grew up. I hated that song. I hated that record, and I rediscovered it a few years ago, and I realized I was totally wrong. I think it’s great.

What’s the Mistress America soundtrack going to be like?
Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips did the score for that, and they did a lot of score for it. With While We're Young, there’s so much iconography in the music and with the source cues I’m playing around with — stuff from my childhood versus the stuff that’s playing right now — I wanted that score to feel timeless. That’s why I used a lot of Vivaldi music. The Mistress America score has OMD, and I tempt that with some New Order. The score that Dean and Britta came up with has a relationship to that music from the '80s, but is also personal to them and their sound.

How do you discover new music?
Usually through other people. I would no longer come to me to find out what the best new music is, as much as it pains me to say that. That’s why I made While We're Young, it’s about discovering you’re no longer that person, that source. I have friends who are more connected than I am. Like anybody in their 40s, I just put on the hits of the '80s. "Boys of Summer," if it’s playing all the time, I’d be okay.

Is "Eye of the Tiger" a good song? It features pretty prominently in the film.
I think it is now. I liked it with some embarrassment when I saw Rocky III. "Eye of the Tiger," who would have guessed, is more influential on pop music right now than I certainly thought it would ever be. I feel like in the last couple of years every new pop song sounded like "Eye of the Tiger."

What are some of your favorite bands?
I like a lot of music. I have every David Bowie record, every Paul McCartney record. I’ve come around recently to thinking that New Order is one of the best bands ever. It just sounds so modern. When I was a kid, electronic music almost felt like it was too sophisticated for me. I was into '70s classic rock because it was easier for me to handle. I think I missed a lot of what was great about electronic music in the ‘80s. A lot of it was on the radio, and I was sort of resistant in some cases to that, but now I listen to OMD and New Order and I think those songs sound very beautiful.

What are your favorite soundtracks?
The Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack by Bob Dylan. As a kid, I had the Sid and Nancy soundtrack. It has a cool score and it introduced me to a lot of music; Joe Strummer did music on it. The Risky Business soundtrack was huge for me. I love Tangerine Dream's music. They’ve done a lot of good scores, including Will Friedkin’s Sorcerer movie. I’m a big fan of all of George Delerue’s scores, which I used in Frances. When I was a kid, I loved the E.T. score by John Williams. If that score came on right now I would cry. It’s so emotional.