Set within the San Fernando Valley in 1973, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie Licorice Pizza stars musician and HAIM band member Alana Haim and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son Cooper Hoffman. It also features Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, and Benny Safdie in an excellent supporting cast. This ebullient watch is a perfect escape from reality, but it’s the soundtrack which really seals the deal, capable of transporting people to 1970s California, immersing them into the dreamlike SoCal setting of gorgeous cars and harvest-gold orange hues.
Republic Records’ Licorice Pizza soundtrack features songs by David Bowie, Nina Simone, Paul McCartney and Wings, Donovan, Sonny & Cher, Gordon Lightfoot and more. It also features the new title track “Licorice Pizza” created by Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular collaborator Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead member who has become an excellent film composer over the years. The movie, Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film since Phantom Thread, started screening at cinemas from Christmas Day on and has been the talk of awards season ever since.
Set in the Los Angeles sprawl where Anderson himself grew up, the movie centers on Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a teenage actor and entrepreneur, and Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a 25-year-old photography assistant Gary meets while waiting to have his school photograph taken. Under unlikely circumstances, the two team up on a series of business ideas beginning with a waterbed company, all while auditioning for movies as Alana becomes involved in a mayoral campaign. Amid political change, a shifting popular culture, raging hormones, and a gas crisis, these two unlikely companions won audiences over in their complicated attempts to win each other, much like a musical dance set to an excellent soundtrack (which is crucial to the film’s success). Here are five reasons why the original soundtrack of Licorice Pizza is the best to have come out of 2021.
Eclectic mix of moods
From the melancholic “July Tree” by Nina Simone, written by Eve Merriam and Irma Jurist and first recorded and released by Simone in 1965, to the likes of Bing Crosby, Clarence Carter, and Chuck Berry, it is fair to say that there is a song for everyone and every mood in this soundtrack. The eclectic mix of tracks creates an old-timey jaunt through melancholic woodwind and bittersweet piano riffs on to tender and punchy vocals and the poppy sounds of the ’60s and ’70s which all aid in illuminating the story. Tracks such as Johnny Guarnieri’s “Sometimes I’m Happy” perfectly set the scene with its warm, light contemplative piece that eases the ears with ivory-tinkling melodies and layered instruments to compliment the characters and how they intertwine. Each emotion in the film seems to have its corresponding sound.
The title track adds to the film’s meaning
Radiohead lead guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood created the instrumental title track for the film. Greenwood is a frequent collaborator with Paul Thomas Anderson, having scored several of his movies, such as There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice, and The Master. Greenwood had a busy 2021, most recently creating the score to Pablo Larraín’s movie Spencer, a creative depiction of the late Princess Diana one Christmas weekend in the days leading up to the end of her marriage to Prince Charles. He has also worked on Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, creating its atmospheric and tense music, which The New Yorker has called “the year’s best film score.” The title track has a mysterious anticipation about it, captured in the consistent drumbeat throughout along with the syncopated appearance of various instruments, creating an anxious and energetic mood that comes and goes between the rest of the soundtrack.
Greenwood’s title track is perfect for a film literally titled after an old record store. On titling the movie Licorice Pizza, Anderson told Variety:
After many months of banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what to name this film, I concluded that these two words shoved together reminded me the most of my childhood. Growing up, there was a record-store chain in Southern California called Licorice Pizza. It seemed like a catch-all for the feeling of the film. I suppose if you have no reference to the store, it’s two great words that go well together and maybe capture a mood.
We fall in love with the characters twice as much
Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It” perfectly captures the unrelenting hope of love as audiences wait for romance to unfurl from the charming and energetically keen protagonist Gary, in his classically ‘teenage’ way of crushing on an older woman he strives to win.
Then there’s Alana, the spirited, fiery and often drastically immature female lead whose playful and unpredictable charm is captured by the wistful likes of “Stumblin’ In” by Chris Norman and Suzi Quatro, along with the melancholic and fiery guitar riffs throughout the movie. The contrasts within the soundtrack echo the story of the entrepreneurial and complicated spirits of the movie’s two protagonists. “Foolishly laying our hearts on the table, stumbling in,” goes the Norman and Quatro number, perfectly describing the vulnerabilities of love depicted in the film.
The trials and tribulations of teenage romance are captured in the various selection of tracks that remind viewers what it’s like to feel young. The presence of Sonny & Cher on the soundtrack seems to echo the relationship of our protagonists Gary and Alana in their unlikely and bumpy love story. The music emulates their hypnotic cat-and-mouse game as they see who can pretend to care the least. “This story just emerged,” Anderson told Variety. “I love the way it unfolds. You meet these two people. You have them fall in love and get to see their relationship blossom, and there are various episodes that challenge them in different ways. I didn’t over-design it. I just got lucky.” Paul Thomas Anderson highlights American Graffiti and Fast Times at Ridgemont High as two big influences for the film, and his music pays fitting homage to their nostalgic teenage Americana and other inspirations for Licorice Pizza.
It perfectly sets the scene for the era-appropriate jaunt
Naturally, appearances of David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Wings, The Doors and others reflect the movie’s 1970s era. The soundtrack itself becomes something of a love letter to the San Fernando Valley of the 1970s, with the quintessential shaggy hairstyles of the time, the waterbeds, and the short shorts worn by men. Combined with Anderson’s warm, nostalgic lens through which he depicts ’70s California, the timely sounds of “Let Me Roll It” and “Diamond Girl” will be haunting viewers for the days after you watch the movie.
Whether one has watched the film and find herself still daydreaming about it, or one has yet to experience the joys of Gary and Alana and their young love, this soundtrack will only add to the magic. It remains just as good outside the film, but is an essential part of the viewing experience and elevates the mood of the movie more than possibly any other 2021 release.
The 1970’s was a decade of intense change, both musically and cinematically. Here’s a list of the best film scores of the 70s.
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