Let’s boogie with Paul Thomas Anderson: the Licorice Pizza director’s top musical moments

Licorice Pizza sees Paul Thomas Anderson returning to those big needle drop moments that saw two volumes of the Boogie Nights soundtrack top the charts. From David Bowie and Nina Simone to Paul McCartney and The Doors, the director’s latest deep dive into 70s sub-culture follows suit with a who’s-who of rock glitterati on its soundtrack.

We have a rummage through Paul Thomas Anderson’s record collection to explore some of the finest musical moments from his films…

‘Spill the Wine’ by Burdon and War, in Boogie Nights

For a film full of perfectly placed pop, it’s difficult to not drop the needle on every track featured in Boogie Nights. But the pool party is justly lauded as one of PTA’s finest moments, inspired by Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba. As the camera prowls around the party meeting old friends and new characters alike, a young girl dives into the water, and Burdon and War’s ‘Spill the Wine’ fills the speakers.

The camera follows her underwater and swims with the submerged party-goers, before coming up for air to hear Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) discuss cannonball-versus-jack-knife diving board dismounts. “Did it look cool?”

‘Do Your Thing’ by The Watts 103rd. Street Rhythm Band, in Boogie Nights

The staccato guitar riffs of ‘Do Your Thing’ by The Watts 103rd. Street Rhythm Band accompany a New Year Eve’s party that goes horribly wrong, adding a sense of tension and dread to the celebratory event.

While porn producer Jack Horner’s soiree is in full swing, William H. Macy’s Little Bill catches his wife, played by porn legend Nina Hartley, publicly cheating on him again. He nonchalantly strolls outside to his car, the prowling camera following his every move, gets a gun from the glovebox, and walks back into the house to shoot his wife and then himself.

‘Jessie’s Girl’ by Rick Springfield, in Boogie Nights

When drug dealer Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina) pops in “my awesome mixtape #6” and cranks up ‘Jessie’s Girl’, things begin to rapidly spiral out of control. Dirk and Reed think they are there to make some quick cash by selling him a half-kilo of baking soda disguised as cocaine. Their friend Todd Parker (Thomas Jane) has other ideas.

With firecrackers and Rick Springfield 80s rock filling the air and a wired Jackson playing air guitar, an on-edge Dirk wants out but then Parker pulls a gun. The song choice only adds to the weirdness of this unnerving and tense stand-off, marking the moment that Dirk’s life—loosely based on larger-than-life porn star John Holmes—hits rock bottom.

‘Wise-Up’ by Aimee Mann, in Magnolia

Magnolia is another sprawling Altman-esque drama that wallows in the desperation of its interconnected characters. At a moment when all the characters are at their lowest ebb, the sorrowful piano riff begins, and everyone starts singing along to Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise-Up’. For a film that focuses on those bizarre coincidences in life, it’s a beautifully poignant moment, at once devastating and tear-jerking.

Lonely drug addict Claudia Gator (Melora Walters), hapless police officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), children’s game show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), the show’s former Champion Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) who is dying of cancer, his nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Earl’s grief-stricken, suicidal second wife Linda (Julianne Moore) and his son Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a self-help guru touting toxic masculinity, and finally child prodigy Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), all take part in the maudlin singalong.

Mann was nominated for Best Original Song Oscar for ‘Wise-Up’ but lost out to Phil Collins’s ‘You’ll Be in My Heart’ from Disney’s Tarzan. A travesty.

‘He Needs Me’ by Shelley Duvall, in Punch Drunk Love

Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a lonely toilet plunger salesman with anger management issues, decides to call a phone sex line with disastrous results. The sex worker tries to blackmail him, which complicates his budding relationship with Lena (Emily Watson). Escaping her henchman, he heads to Hawaii using vouchers from pudding packaging to earn travel miles, in order to follow Lena who is on a business trip.

The sound of ‘He Needs Me’ by Shelley Duvall plays out over his arrival on the island and his attempts to find Lena. The track, written by Harry Nilsson—best known for ‘Everybody’s Talkin” from Midnight Cowboy—was originally sung by the actress when she played Olive Oil opposite Robin Williams’s Popeye in Robert Altman’s spinach-fuelled folly.

‘There Will Be Blood’ by Johnny Greenwood, in There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood marked the first time that the director worked with composer Jonny Greenwood. Until becoming an Oscar-nominated composer in his own right, Greenwood was best known as lead guitarist and all-round sonic terrorist for British alternative heroes Radiohead. Anderson was in the audience when Greenwood premiered his 20 minute work ‘Popcorn Superhet Receiver’ with the BBC Concert Orchestra.

“I hadn’t seen any of his films,” Greenwood told The Guardian, “but he sent me some clips and I thought, it’s going to be nice to be in a band with this person!” Greenwood’s score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterwork is a thrilling, haunting, screeching delight. None more so than the fractured atonal title track that gives us a hint of what it sounds like in Daniel Day-Lewis’s brain.

‘Get Thee Behind Me Satan’ by Ella Fitzgerald, in The Master

Joaquin Phoenix plays wildcard Freddie Quell, a World War II navy veteran with a volatile temper struggling to assimilate into post-war society. He takes a job as a photographer in a department store. As Ella Fitzgerald swoons to ‘Get Thee Behind Me Satan’, Freddie attracts the attention of the fashionable clientele, his camera seducing Martha the Salesgirl (Amy Ferguson).

The song—originally written by Irving Berlin for Ginger Rogers in 1938’s Top Hat—is a perfect counterpoint to the affluent high society that Quell now finds himself serving and precisely captures the era that Anderson beautifully recreates.

‘(What a) Wonderful World’ by Sam Cooke, in Inherent Vice

Phoenix also headlines PTA’s quirky adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel about a pothead detective investigating a kidnapping plot in Los Angeles. Like all PTA’s films, Inherent Vice boast an impressive ensemble including Jena Malone, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro and Reese Witherspoon.

In a soundtrack full of big-hitters like Radiohead, Neil Young, and krautrock legends Can, it’s Sam Cooke’s ‘(What a) Wonderful World’, played quietly on a car stereo as Doc gets stoned, that best evokes the hazy spirit of the film.

‘My Ship’ by Oscar Peterson, in Phantom Thread

Again working with Jonny Greenwood, Phantom Thread saw Anderson taking a leaf out of the Stanley Kubrick copybook in more ways than one. Yes, the scenes as Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) drives his Bristol 405 sedan recklessly down country roads at the dusk of night are reminiscent of Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) and his fellow Droogs playing hogs of the road in A Clockwork Orange, but the director’s broader use of existing orchestral pieces is a trick that Kubrick regularly tried.

PTA already had a sublime soundtrack by Greenwood to fall back on, but the use of tracks by Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson only adds to the fractured atmosphere. The laid-back, jazzy vibes of ‘My Ship’ perfectly set the scene in Woodcock’s well-organised world before it—and he—slowly unravels.

‘Life on Mars?’ by David Bowie, in Licorice Pizza

During the 1973 Oil crisis that brought the States to a standstill, child actor turned entrepreneur Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) needs some gas: he sprints towards a petrol station, running past a line of idling vehicles to the sound of David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars?’ The track had already been used to score the Licorice Pizza trailer, and now the song that David Bowie originally wrote as a “fuck you” to Frank Sinatra after the Thin White Duke’s lyrics to ‘My Way’ were rejected takes on even more emotional layers.

The uplifting strings arranged by Spiders from Mars lead guitarist Mick Ronson and Yes pianist Rick Wakeman’s iconic keys are the perfect backdrop to Bowie’s gleefully obtuse lyrics. Arguably Bowie’s finest moment makes a mundane last gasp dash for petrol, the most sweepingly romantic of gestures. Every film should have ‘Life on Mars?’ on its soundtrack.

‘Let Me Roll It’ by Paul McCartney & Wings, in Licorice Pizza

Taking a single from the Paul McCartney and Wings 1973 album Band on the Run, PTA uses the track for a moment of pure emotion between Gary and Alana. She has survived falling off the back of movie star Jack Holden’s motorbike after the actor drunkenly tries to recreate a stunt from one of his movies (Holden, played by a roguish Sean Penn, is loosely based on actor William Holden).

Gary and Alana flee the scene and exhaustedly collapse on one of the water beds that Gary is now selling. While lying side by side, the pair gaze upwards, exhilarated, adrenalin pumping—their hearts beating as one while McCartney’s riff-heavy ode to rolling a joint, plays out.