Aimee Mann isn’t one of the soundtrack MVPs of the modern era, but she did have an MVP outing with her contributions to 1999’s Magnolia soundtrack.
Coming off his breakout with 1996’s Boogie Nights, Paul Anderson confessed in the liner notes to the Magnolia soundtrack that in 1997 he “sat down to write an adaptation of Aimee Mann songs.” Mann’s musical contribution to the film, therefore, is more collaborative than most soundtracks and her songs come through as necessary milestones in the film’s narrative arcs.
The film opens with what, at first viewing, seems almost like a non sequitur. A series of coincidental occurrences with catastrophic consequences that the narrator (Ricky Jay) vows “was not just a matter of chance.” As the thread unravels from these events: Enter Mann.
Mann’s cover of Harry Nilsson is stretched over twice its recorded run-time on-screen as Anderson introduces all the primaries whose stories will be woven together over the following three hours.
It’s interesting to note the choice of Mann’s voice borrowing classic material (the recording itself comes from a 1995 Nilsson tribute album and features backing vocals from founding members of Squeeze and The Rutles), but the choice seems fitting. The characters – all of whom will eventually intertwine – are introduced in their own pockets of Anderson’s universe, as Mann repeats “one is the loneliest number.”
The timing of Mann’s material is crucial to the plot of Magnolia, as it seemingly always signifies a seismic shift. The next of her works borrowed by Anderson is the previously unreleased 1994 track “Momentum.” Heard echoing through the walls of Claudia’s apartment of Claudia’s (Melora Walters) apartment, the song serves as the foundation of the noise complaint that draws Officer Jim (John C.Reilly) into her life and begins the intersection of the film’s previously isolated plots.
Anderson cops to his privilege in having access to Mann’s deeper catalogue in the soundtrack liners, praising the benefit of hearing demos and works-in-progress for Mann’s next album (2000’s Bachelor No. 2, which shared four tracks with Magnolia’s soundtrack recording). “While she was working, I was working,” Anderson wrote.
Mann’s third major in-story appearance comes with a song she penned for Cameron Crowe in Jerry Maguire: “Wise Up.”
Here the cast finds itself at crisis point. Having finally connected with one another, they sit in isolation (apart from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jason Robards who spend the entire film in the same house) and sing along. In addition to being yet another entry into the ongoing canon of Tom Cruise singing, the song gives the cast a moment to take a breath before all hell breaks loose.
Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) sings the closing line: “So just give up,” and immediately the rain clears, the bus shelters light up with “Exodus 8:2” and shortly the second plague is upon downtown Los Angeles.
Ironically, Mann’s only original contribution to the film – “Save Me” – is relegated to (somewhat fitting) end credits duty, and netted Mann an Oscar nomination. She lost to Phil Collins, because life’s not fair.
The end result of all this, though, is a unique approach to soundtracking. It’s neither the Harold and Maude approach, where Hal Ashby cut the film with Cat Stevens in mind and then begged permission. Nor is it the type of standalone solo effort that Tom Petty lent to 1996’s She’s The One, although the soundtrack cover does clearly say “Songs by Aimee Mann.”
It’s an interesting patchwork of scraps and b-sides that laid the groundwork for Anderson to lay the foundation for the more macro filmmaking that would define his 21st century output.