The Use of Music in Lost in Translation

Viewers praise Sofia Coppola’s 2003 romance film Lost in Translation for its unique style and cinematography, but they often ignore the significant role of the soundtrack. The music in the film relates to the overall mood and feelings of the “lost” and disillusioned Charlotte and Bob. The soundtrack of Lost in Translation provides a great deal of insight into the minds of the two main characters.

The soundtrack to the film features a great deal of shoegaze music, a genre of rock characterized by loud, distorted guitars and breathy, underrepresented vocals. The calm style of whispered vocals lurking beneath the intense sound of the instruments serves as an interesting parallel to the state of the main characters. Charlotte and Bob share a brief, intimate connection during their time together as tourists in Tokyo. The moments in both character’s lives are difficult, as Charlotte and Bob feel dissatisfied with their respective life situations. Charlotte does not know what to do with her life, and her husband, a photographer, is a workaholic. Bob is similarly unhappy in his marriage due to a monotonous relationship. At these tense points in their lives, they come together and share a happy (and short) period of time. This time of enjoyment during an era of difficult personal problems can be tied to the whispered vocals attempting to break free of the overwhelming instrumentation of shoegaze rock.

Furthermore, shoegaze music blends two unlikely music styles: feedback-driven experimental rock and dream pop. Charlotte and Bob are unlikely companions, considering their age difference and contrasting lifestyles. Bob is middle-aged and Charlotte is recently out of college. Bob is a celebrity, and Charlotte lives life on the sidelines married to a popular photographer. In spite of these differences, the two form a powerful bond. Similarly, shoegaze music displays a successful pairing of strikingly different genres.

One of the most remarkable scenes in Lost in Translation occurs when Bob and Charlotte sing at a karaoke bar. The main songs that Bob and Charlotte sing are “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions, “Brass in Pocket” by The Pretenders, and “More Than This” by Roxy Music. These are certainly some entertaining songs to include in a film, but closer inspection reveals significant subtext in the lyrics.

“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” is sung by Bob, and it relates to his life as an unsatisfied husband and father. Bob sings the following part of the song:

As I walk through this wicked world,
Searching for light in the darkness and insanity,
I ask myself, “Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred and misery?”
And each time I feel like this inside,
There’s one thing I want to know:
What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love, and understanding?
What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love, and understanding?

These lines could represent the feeling of hopelessness and emptiness that often accompanies a mid-life crisis. Also, the song is about finding happiness and love. We know that Bob is having difficulty in his marriage, as evidenced by his lackluster phone calls from home. The interrogative nature of the chorus implies that he is searching for love and companionship, but he cannot find any response or closure.

Charlotte sings these lines from “Brass in Pocket” by The Pretenders:

Gonna make you, make you, make you notice.
Gonna use my arms,
Gonna use my legs,
Gonna use style,
Gonna use my side step,
Gonna use my fingers, gonna use my, my, my imagination.
Oh, ’cause I’m gonna make you see
There’s nobody else here, no one like me.
I’m special (special), so special (special),
I got to have some of your attention, give it to me.

This part of “Brass in Pocket” is about self-expression, self-esteem, and individuality. At this point in her life, Charlotte feels lost. She is young and she has her whole life ahead of her, but there is nothing really to look forward to. She states during one conversation that she has a degree in philosophy, and Bob laughs about the supposed futility in a philosophy education. Charlotte wants to feel special and unique, but her education has not gotten her any respect. Furthermore, she feels a lack of appreciation in her marriage to the workaholic photographer. The lines about being special, as well as the line, “I got to have some of your attention,” imply a burning desire to be recognized as an important person. Charlotte wants to be active and important, but she also wants to be loved. It is clear that both things are difficult for her to achieve.

Finally, Bob sings these lines of “More Than This” by Roxy Music:

I could feel at the time
There was no way of knowing.
Fallen leaves in the night
Who can say where they’re blowing?
As free as the wind,
Hopefully learning.
Why the sea on the tide
Has no way of turning?
More than this, you know there is nothing
More than this, tell me one thing
More than this, there is nothing.

“More Than This” speaks to the characters’ relationship in general, rather than to Bob and Charlotte’s individual personal lives. The beginning lines of the song are about chance, as seen with the lines about leaves being guided by wind. This connects with the random meeting between Bob and Charlotte in Tokyo. They find companionship as a result of chance, but their compatibility is so great that it is almost as if they are guided by some force. Furthermore, the lines “there is nothing / More than this” imply that the two characters should savior their brief period of time together, as it is a relief from their current unhappy stages of life. This is the ultimate takeaway of the karaoke scene, because it serves to strengthen the bond of platonic love between Charlotte and Bob.

We can see from the lyrics of these songs, as well as from the constant shoegaze rock throughout the movie, that music plays a big part in Lost in Translation. It is clear that this film’s soundtrack was chosen with a particular idea in mind. The background music of the film is designed to create an abstract representation of Bob and Charlotte’s relationship. In a much more concrete way, the lyrics to the songs in the karaoke scene tell us specific things about the main characters’ lives and feelings.

Works Cited

Coppola, Sofia. Lost in Translation. Focus, 2003. Film.

Costello, Elvis. “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?” Armed Forces. Columbia, 1978. MP3.

The Pretenders. “Brass in Pocket.” The Pretenders. Sire, 1980. MP3.

Roxy Music. “More Than This.” Avalon. Warner Brothers, 1982. MP3.

(Image courtesy of http://www.iwanttobeacoppola.com/journal/2011/12/9/lost-in-translations-tokyo-karaoke.html)

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