Annotating the Influential ‘Rushmore’ Soundtrack
Rushmore is now enshrined as one of the great movies of the ’90s, as it introduced audiences to Jason Schwartzman, solidified Wes Anderson’s status as an artful filmmaker and started the second act of Bill Murray’s incredible career.
In truth, however, it was only a modest hit when released in December 1998 – so modest that the film’s soundtrack didn’t come out until nearly two months after Rushmore hit theaters, on Feb. 2, 1999.
The movie’s greatness became more and more evident with the passing years, but Rushmore’s thrilling and thoughtful use of music was obvious immediately. As with Anderson’s first feature, 1996’s Bottle Rocket, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh contributed a score inspired by jazz, Vivaldi and the sort of “school music” that the director associated with his prep school days. But the rest of the soundtrack consisted of licensed tunes, many of which Anderson picked – with the assistance of music supervisor Randall Poster – as he and co-writer Owen Wilson wrote the film’s script.
“He had the score all planned out before the movie began, he had the whole soundtrack done,” Schwartzman said on the commentary track for Rushmore’s Criterion Collection DVD release. Anderson “gave me a tape of the entire soundtrack [before shooting] and he had every scene that it was for. It put it together in such a clear way for me.”
The selected songs, artists and eras of music had a pronounced impact not just within the finished film, but on the making of Rushmore. The choices of the Rolling Stones’ “I Am Waiting” and the Faces' “Ooh La La” altered how Anderson and Wilson conceived their corresponding scenes. The look and attitude of Max Fischer (Schwartzman) and his father Bert (Seymour Cassel) were inspired by musicians (the brash, but jacket-and-tie-constrained, Kinks for Max; ’50s “cool jazz” pianist Dave Brubeck for Bert). And the pacing and timing of the Who’s “A Quick One, While He’s Away” dictated how Anderson shot and edited the feud montage between Max and Mr. Blume (Murray).
There are more than a few montages in Rushmore in which the dialog drops out and the music comes to the fore. The songs – often tied to the British Invasion era – lead the way, joining Anderson’s picture-book conceptions and Robert Yeoman’s sharp cinematography to get inside the moods, thoughts or schemes of the movie’s characters. It’s no surprise that, because Anderson already had the soundtrack sketched out, he would often play the music for the actors and crew when they filmed those scenes.
The commitment and care that Anderson and Poster put into Rushmore’s music is evident in the final product. The movie’s soundtrack is so crucial that a 2017 video replacing the film’s original music with schlocky ’90s hits was both amusing and cringe-inducing. Rushmore simply can’t exist without its songs. The film even turned some lesser-known tracks – say “Making Time” by the Creation or the Cat Stevens version of “Here Comes My Baby” – into tunes that are now more deeply woven into the pop culture tapestry. (Even UCR admitted that, without Rushmore, “I Am Waiting” might not have landed on the site’s list of the Top 100 Rolling Stones Songs.)
“When kids come up to you and they’re like, ‘Rushmore really opened me up to a whole world of music,’ that’s the absolute greatest,” Poster told Pitchfork in 2012. “Both of us have shared the experience of being the kid in the dark, watching the movie and just saying, ‘Oh my God, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.’ And when you feel like you’ve affected another kid sitting in the dark, that’s a great reward.”
So don your monogrammed jacket, put on your pin for punctuality and prepare to explore all of the songs heard in Rushmore. Also, you’ll find a pair of safety glasses and some earplugs under your seats. Please feel free to use them.
‘Making Time,’ the Creation
The first song heard in Rushmore is the Creation’s 1966 debut single – which, with its bursts of jagged guitar, stands in stark contrast to Mark Mothersbaugh’s sprightly score. “Making Time,” a song written about working in a clock factory, blares over a montage of Max Fischer’s extracurricular activities. The yearbook-esque on-screen type is juxtaposed with the driving clatter of the music (including Creation guitarist Eddie Phillips’ pioneering use of a violin bow on a guitar). The sequence would both turn “Making Time” into a more familiar song and epitomize Anderson’s mannered filmmaking. “Going into making Rushmore, we had a pretty strong idea about what we wanted to use in the film,” music supervisor Randall Poster told Vulture in 2014. “Wes had drawn the comparison to the British explosion, where there were bands that were all dressed neatly in suits and ties, and yet the music was wildly spirited. The Creation was a real musical centerpiece, and characterized this angry young man spirit that we wanted to bring to Max Fischer’s sensibility.” As with many songs used in the film, “Making Time” was selected for this montage long before Anderson began filming Rushmore. On the Criterion DVD’s commentary track, the director said that he played the song on location, while the crew shot the segments depicting Max’s various hobbies.
‘Take Ten,’ Paul Desmond
On the DVD commentary Anderson said that, in the Rushmore script, Max’s father Bert is described as having glasses like jazz pianist/bandleader Dave Brubeck and listening to the Dave Brubeck Quartet (famous for “Take Five”). But instead of employing something as popular – and over-used – as “Take Five” in his movie, Anderson has Paul Desmond’s “Take Ten” playing on a record in Bert’s barbershop. Desmond penned “Take Five” and played the saxophone in Brubeck’s band. But he wrote and recorded “Take Ten” (its title acknowledging the track’s similarities to “Take Five”) with his own quartet in 1963. “We got [pause] close to the script,” Anderson sighed.
‘Concrete and Clay,’ Unit 4+2
When Anderson was planning Rushmore and writing the film (with Owen Wilson), he would listen to different collections of British pop and rock from the ’60s. “I would just listen to songs and I’d know what should go in there,” Anderson told the A.V. Club in 1999. “Like the song by Unit 4 + 2 called ‘Concrete and Clay.’” The pop hit, which went to No. 1 in the U.K. for a week in 1965, was the work of a vocal quartet with a couple of musicians (hence the group’s name, Unit 4 + 2). The lyrics speak of unrelenting devotion, which dovetails with Max’s campaign to save Rushmore Academy’s Latin language program – a grand gesture to win the affections of Miss Cross (Olivia Williams). As opposed to some of Max’s later, more aggressive attempts to woo the elementary school teacher, this first scheme is quirky and sweet, just like the underlying frothy single – which carries a Latin (music) influence, no less.
‘Nothin’ in the World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ’Bout that Girl,’ the Kinks
A well-known bit of trivia about the Rushmore soundtrack is that Anderson had originally conceived the film as only featuring music by the Kinks. “I thought this made sense because the Kinks played loud, angry teenage rock and they wore blazers and ties,” Anderson wrote in the soundtrack’s liner notes. “And our movie is about a teenager who is loud and angry and is almost never seen without a blazer and tie.” The filmmaker would later use Kinks songs more prominently in The Darjeeling Limited, but came to expand Rushmore’s musical scope to other British Invasion bands (and some acts that came a little later). This movie ended up containing one Kinks tune, although it wasn’t one of the band’s “loud, angry” – or famous – songs. “Nothin’ in the World” is a dark ballad about a cheating woman from 1965’s Kinda Kinks, written and sung by Ray Davies. Although it’s not clear if Mrs. Blume has been unfaithful – or is just bored with her out-of-sync husband – the song’s mood helps place Bill Murray’s melancholy Herman Blume underwater (both figuratively and literally). It’s the perfect song for a joyless cannonball.
‘A Summer Song,’ Chad & Jeremy
This gentle, folksy ballad helped move Anderson beyond his idea of a Kinks-only soundtrack. “It’s another song that I found on this British Invasion collection,” Anderson said in the DVD commentary. “It was one of the things that kinda made me decide to make the whole soundtrack British Invasion.” Chad & Jeremy’s willowy song plays as Max surreptitiously plans to build an aquarium on school grounds in order to impress Miss Cross (but gets expelled from Rushmore instead). In some ways, “A Summer Song” represents the calm before the storm. The lyrics, which initially describe an idyllic romance, eventually wallow in wistfulness and heartbreak. But the single wasn’t heartbreaking for Chad & Jeremy (also known for “Yesterday’s Gone”); it became the duo’s only Top 10 hit in the U.S. in the fall of 1964.
‘Blinuet,’ Zoot Sims
The twinkling piano intro of Zoot Sims’s “Blinuet” matches Max’s slow-motion curtain call, following the Max Fischer Players’ production of Serpico. The saxophone-led track then shifts to the background, becoming mood music for the post-show meet-and-greet. What kind of ’90s high-schooler puts on ’50s jazz for the after-party? Well, the type of teenager that wants so desperately to separate from the pack (and has a jazz-appreciating father to boot). Max also might have had a unique appreciation for Sims’ work. Just as Max often writes, directs and acts in his plays, Sims played alto, tenor and baritone saxophone by overdubbing his work on “Blinuet.” Anderson had already used a Sims track in the short film version Bottle Rocket. An extra bit of trivia: Zoot, whose birth name was John, also inspired the moniker of the saxophone-honking Muppet named Zoot.
‘Here Comes My Baby,’ Cat Stevens
Cat Stevens got his start in the mid-’60s London scene, writing songs that mixed folk and rock. “Here Comes My Baby” was among the songs recorded for his debut LP, 1967’s Matthew and Son (although the Tremeloes’ version was the one that became a hit single in the U.K. and U.S., just before Stevens’s record was released). Decades later, when Anderson sought to use the song in Rushmore, it was uncertain if he and music supervisor Randall Poster would get permission. Stevens – who had become a Muslim in the late ’70s, ceased recording and changed his name to Yusuf Islam – wasn’t keen on his old music being used in just any movie.
But Poster was able to convince the former pop star otherwise. “At the time, he wasn’t licensing music for media projects but we learned he’d founded schools overseas,” Poster said during a 2016 appearance at the Sundance Film Festival. “So since Rushmore was set in a school, that’s what we emphasized, it appealed to him, and he agreed to license us the track.”
Indeed, “Here Comes My Baby” is tied to a montage about school, when Max (with the help of some tutoring from Miss Cross) decides “to make a go of it” at Grover Cleveland High School. Although everything seems sunny, with Max doing flips in time to the chiming of the bouncy track, the lyrics forecast what will soon occur between Max’s supporters, Blume and Cross. “Here comes my baby,” Stevens sings, “And it comes as no surprise to me, with another guy.”
‘Jersey Thursday,’ Donovan
The Scottish folkie’s dark and somewhat inscrutable “Jersey Thursday” underscores the fallout from Max’s discovery that the woman for whom he pines and his best friend are having a relationship without his knowledge. With Donovan intoning his poetry in the background, Max tells off Miss Cross in front of her class full of first-graders. “Jersey Thursday,” from Donovan’s 1965 album Fairytale, predates the musician’s more psychedelic work (such as “Sunshine Superman”), but the words seem already in the vein. The line about “red and golds and yellows,” matches up nicely with Max unveiling his scorched-earth policy on the Rushmore Academy grounds.
‘A Quick One, While He’s Away,’ the Who
If the “Making Time” montage is archetypical Wes Anderson, the segment of Rushmore soundtracked to the finale of the Who’s mini-opera is an example of the director at his bravura best. While Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle are all shouting and howling about forgiveness, Max and Mr. Blume are in the thick of their feud, which involves bees, bicycles and brake fluid.
“What’s great about that song in particular is that it’s sort of a dialogue, so we have the twin sides of Blume and Fischer,” Poster told Vulture. “It also has this incredible operatic element to it, where it rises emotionally as the grudge match becomes meaner and meaner.” As with other songs on the soundtrack, “A Quick One, While He’s Away” was penciled in for this moment long before the cameras rolled on Rushmore.
“I was listening to that Who song in my car and kind of planned the scene out, editing it all in my head,” Anderson told Entertainment Weekly in 2004. “I was like, ‘OK, you have 12 seconds to come down the steps, get your shoelaces, and walk through here.’ It was all choreographed to the music. That one was hard.” Townshend wrote the six-part epic (later perceived as a bridge between the Who’s power pop era and their rock opera Tommy) for his band’s second album, 1966’s A Quick One. But instead of that studio version, Anderson chose a more muscular live take, recorded during The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. However, because that rendition was tied to the Stones’ catalog and, thus, too expensive to put on the soundtrack CD, the Live at Leeds version of “A Quick One” ended up on the Rushmore album.
‘I Am Waiting,’ the Rolling Stones
It is the winter – actually, the November – of Max’s discontent. The Stones’ austere, dulcimer-sprinkled “I Am Waiting” soundtracks the entirety of a month that finds Max quitting school, working at the family business, avoiding Margaret Yang, eating a TV dinner on Thanksgiving and sinking deep into a gray funk. Mick Jagger’s lyrics offer a vague type of restlessness, but they matter less to the movie than the song’s wintry aesthetic.
When writing the movie with Owen Wilson, Anderson used to listen to the song “when I was driving around, and suddenly I realized a certain part of the story,” he told The A.V. Club. “That whole part of the story evolved out of the feeling that that song has. It's like it was right for a certain part of the story.” It wasn’t the first Stones song used in one of Anderson’s movies – he and Poster were able to get “2000 Man” into Bottle Rocket. And it wouldn’t be the last – The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited and Fantastic Mr. Fox all feature Stones tunes.
Yet even the band’s lesser-known material (“I Am Waiting” was but a quiet album track on 1966’s Aftermath) didn’t come cheap and often was too pricey to be licensed for soundtrack albums (the Rushmore album was released sans-Stones). “We were saying the other day that [the Rolling Stones have] kind of become members of the troupe, and they’ve become very supportive of us,” Poster told The Guardian in 2007. “As for the expense, these are arguments that I have with film producers all the time: Sometimes the cost of a song, I don’t mind it, because if something is expensive it just means that everybody else hasn’t been using it.”
‘Rue St. Vincent,’ Yves Montand
Upon learning that Blume hasn’t seen Cross in six weeks, Max makes one last attempt to try to win the teacher’s affections. He fakes a bicycle accident to gain sympathy – and entry into her bedroom on a rainy night – then lays down on the bed and pops in a cassette with French chanson. “This music that he puts in is Yves Montand,” Anderson said on the DVD commentary track, “which seemed like something Max might use to set the mood.” Although the teenager thinks that a French ballad might tip the romantic scales in his favor, he likely doesn’t know that “Rue St. Vincent” (written in 1911, but recorded by Montand in 1960) is about a woman who is murdered by her lover in Paris’s Montmartre neighborhood. Unlike Max, Anderson knew exactly what song he was using by the Italian-French singer. But the cinephile might have first become acquainted with Montand from his other career as an actor (Montand starred in Grand Prix, Le Cercle Rouge and Jean de Florette, along with a host of other films).
‘The Wind,’ Cat Stevens
Exhausted by his failures and made to face his bad behavior (if ever-so-politely) by Margaret Yang, Max flies a kite and – to paraphrase Cat Stevens’ lyrics – begins to listen to the wind of his soul. “The Wind,” from 1971’s Teaser and the Firecat, comes in softly and slowly, reflecting the maturity gradually taking hold within Max. With his eyes to the skies, Max plans a new club, then extends an olive branch to the equally busted-up Mr. Blume. As with “Here Comes My Baby,” Anderson and Poster had the tricky task of securing permission from Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam to place “The Wind” in Rushmore. “I was really pleased we were able to make that work out and make him comfortable,” Poster told Terry Gross in 2012 on Fresh Air. “That was the first time he allowed his music to be used in a film in many years.” Cameron Crowe should have sent Anderson and Poster a thank-you note. The Almost Famous writer-director did equally great work with “The Wind” a couple years later.
‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,’ the Vince Guaraldi Trio
On more than one occasion, Anderson has deployed a song from Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) in his films. He used “Skating” in the Bottle Rocket short (that predated the feature-length version) and “Christmas Time is Here” in The Royal Tenenbaums. In Rushmore, he tapped “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” which featured Guaraldi’s Trio along with a children’s choir from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, Calif. By playing the song in Bert’s barbershop, Anderson wasn’t merely signifying the season. For so many viewers, the Peanuts Christmas special brings back memories of childhood; it signifies a simpler, more innocent time. And so here, it plays underneath a moment in which Max gets right (and honest) with his friend Blume and helps bring him back to life with a shave and a haircut courtesy of Bert. On the DVD commentary, co-writer Owen Wilson winks at the similarities between melancholy Max and Charlie Brown, pointing out that both of their fathers are barbers.
‘Oh Yoko!,’ John Lennon
Like “The Wind,” “Oh Yoko!” might not be strictly British Invasion, but it is British Invasion-adjacent, given that it’s a solo track by former Beatle John Lennon. Regardless, the joyful, shuffle of this 1971 piano-forward track coalesces beautifully with Max and Blume’s comeback montage. As John sings about devotion (with maybe a tinge of obsession), the recently repaired friends work out in Herman’s factory, do tandem (if modest) jumps on their bikes and try to win back Miss Cross (this time for Blume’s sake) with the Herman J. Blume Marine Observatory. Yoko Ono must have liked the way Anderson used her namesake song. In 2018, she provided the voice for Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono in the director’s stop-motion feature Isle of Dogs.
‘Manoir des Mes Reves,’ Django Reinhardt
Again showcasing Bert’s jazz influence and Max’s penchant for French culture, the young playwright celebrates at “The Heaven and Hell Cotillion” with Django Reinhardt’s ambling “Manoir des Mes Reves” – or “Castle of My Dreams.” Unlike his choice of “Rue St. Vincent,” this 1943 recording by the legendary jazz guitarist is the right song for the moment: Max’s latest production has been a success, he has a new girlfriend and he’s made amends to just about everyone he’s wronged in the film. In some ways, he’s living in the castle of his dreams. But when Miss Cross asks him to dance, he has a different song in mind, “something with a little more…”
‘Ooh La La,’ Faces
Just as “Ooh La La” was the only song on the Faces’ studio albums that featured solo lead vocals from guitarist Ronnie Wood, “Ooh La La” was the only one of Rushmore’s soundtrack selections that Anderson didn’t come up with on his own. “The first time I heard this song … it was played to me over the phone one day by my friend Randy Poster, our music supervisor,” Anderson said on the DVD commentary. “And right when he played it to me on the phone, I knew that that’s the song at the end [of the movie]. I don’t even really know why because I think Max would never know the song, but it has the right sadness and wistfulness.”
The writer-director told Entertainment Weekly that he “hung up the phone and wrote the last scene with the song still playing in my head.” “Reuben!” Max calls out to the post-show party DJ, signaling him to put on the jangly Faces track, which was co-written by Wood and Ronnie Lane for the band’s 1973 album, also titled Ooh La La. The song is about a grandfather and his grandson, with the elder yearning to help the youngster avoid the pitfalls of young lust and love, but acknowledging that everyone has to learn from experience. As the song plays, Anderson takes the final scene into slow-motion and we see all of Rushmore’s important characters dancing around Miss Cross and Max. In the course of the film, Max grows a bit wiser for his experience, but there’s no mistaking that he’s still smitten with this woman. The curtain closes on Max and the Rushmore gang, just as it did on the Faces. It was the last song on their fourth, and final, LP. Not a bad way to go out, in both cases.
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