‘On the Rocks’: Phoenix’s Thomas Mars on Scoring Sofia Coppola Comedy

The Phoenix frontman talks the influence of “Laura,” “All That Jazz,” “Elevator to the Gallows,” and “Sixteen Candles” on his score and playlist.

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For Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars, the scoring and music supervision on “On the Rocks” became the highlight of his five-film collaboration with director and wife Sofia Coppola. Indeed, this father-daughter comedy, starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones, turned into a musical expression about bonding over New York on so many levels.

For starters, Coppola came up with Chet Baker’s “I Fall in Love Too Easily” as the perfect entry for Murray’s charming and irresistible Felix, the Don Juan-like art dealer. The movie opens with a voiceover of Felix telling young Laura (Jones) that her heart will always belong to him, even after she gets married. Fade in to Laura and husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) running off after their wedding for a playful tryst to the romantic strains of the iconic trumpeter Baker. It immediately conveys Felix’s strong hold on her, which must be resolved during their later adventure together to determine Dean’s questionable fidelity.

“My initial emotional reaction was reading the script. That’s when I realized how personal it was and how funny and deep it was,” said Mars. “I know how much she wants music to get inspired [while] writing the script, but she also wants music on the set.” Mars worked with Coppola on the playlist while also composing the brief synth-driven cues with band members Laurent Brancowitz, Robin Coudert, Christian Mazzalai, and Deck d’Arcy. They first recorded together at his Paris studio and then continued remotely using their long-standing archiving system because they’re so spread out. “There were two different worlds and styles of music for Bill and Rashida,” he added. “His was more sophisticated and meditative and hers was more playful and in the present, so it became complex to make it all coherent musically.”

The most enchanting cue (“5eme Avenue”) was composed before production for a scene in which Laura walks along Fifth Avenue. For inspiration, Coppola had Mars and his Phoenix group watch Jeanne Moreau walking in a scene from Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows” (“Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud”), which was scored by the legendary Miles Davis in one night. “It felt kind of embarrassing because we were looking at the picture, using Miles Davis and trying out our music,” Mars said. “I wasn’t sure I could do better than this. But this pre-work that we did was useful.”

There was also the search for a New York City theme. Both Coppola and Mars were drawn to Michael Nyman’s jaunty, Mozart-inspired “In Re Don Giovanni,” which signals the arrival of Felix to take them to lunch. “It became such a central piece,” said Mars. “We used it in the same way that Vivaldi [‘Concerto in G’] comes in ‘All That Jazz’ when Roy Scheider wakes up every morning.”

Then there was the musical inside joke associated with the name Laura, which also originated with Coppola. In the car, Felix starts whistling David Raksin’s immortal “Laura” theme from the eponymous film noir. He urges his daughter to whistle along with him, but she can’t. It’s yet another indication of how she’s lost her mojo. “We don’t know if whistling is linked to DNA or it’s something you learn,” Mars said. “If it makes you part of a family or there is some mystery about it.”

On the Rocks

“On the Rocks”

Courtesy of Apple

For the sequence where Felix and Laura follow Dean to Mexico, Murray chose “Mexicali Rose” to sing, yet it took a lot of consideration about which mariachi classic to select. “We knew there was one song in Mexico and ‘Guadalajara’ was chosen,” said Mars. “But it has 100 versions, so looking at the best version was interesting.” They went with Mariachi Guadalajara De Silvestre Vargas.

And there was an abundance of pop song choices during Felix and Laura’s stakeout while eating caviar in his Alfa Romeo convertible. “We knew that he was going to listen to an Italian song, and we had something like 400 songs that we loved,” Mars said. “So Sofia made a shortlist of 10 and then we ended up with ‘Nessuno’ by Mina. It has such a playfulness to it.”

The most time consuming part, however, was tinkering with the ’80s-style original song from Phoenix, “Identical,” which plays over the end credits like a John Hughes tribute. Half was composed before the movie and the rest after production. “We wanted it to have the right feel because, even though it’s on the end credits, it has to link with the last scene,” Mars said. “And it leaves you the same way that ‘Sixteen Candles’ ends on a nostalgic and melancholy note in a party way.”

On the Rocks

“On the Rocks”

Courtesy of Apple

But Mars’ favorite scene was a somber moment over martinis at the Carlyle Hotel’s iconic Bemelmans Bar surrounded by the colorful wall murals. They returned musically to Baker (“I Get Along Without You Very Well”) to underscore Laura’s deep funk. “It’s supposed to be Bill’s world at the bar and she’s a little bit hostage,” he said. “And seeing her tears drop slowly into the martini glass was so emotional.”

In retrospect, Mars believes that “On the Rocks” serves as a bittersweet, pre-COVID period piece about a vanishing New York. “Some of these places will be back, hopefully, but some of them are gone,” he said. “And not only with COVID, but it’s also a generational thing. There’s a huge gap. There was already a certain part that’s fading, but COVID accelerated it.”

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