Deceptive Cadence
9:42 am
Thu June 28, 2012

Why Is There So Much Britten In 'Moonrise Kingdom'?

Originally published on Sun July 1, 2012 12:20 pm

Music by British composer Benjamin Britten plays a surprisingly prominent role in Moonrise Kingdom, the newest film directed by Wes Anderson (who also co-wrote the movie with Roman Coppola). Anderson's output frequently features excellent and often obscure tunes thanks to music supervisor Randall Poster, from Seu Jorge's David Bowie covers in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou to Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle singing "Typewriter, Tip, Tip, Tip" in The Darjeeling Limited.

But the impetus to make Britten integral to Moonrise Kingdom was all Anderson's. The film's duo protagonists, 12-year-olds Sam and Suzy, first meet at a rehearsal for a production of Britten's Noye's Fludde (Noah's Flood) — and this opera written for a mix of professionals and amateurs proves integral to the film's plot.

As Anderson explained to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, he performed in Noye's Fludde himself when he was 10 or 11 years old. He says he's been humming "these hymns and things from that play/opera all my life."

And there's something about Britten's "children's music" that appeals pretty directly to Anderson's sensibilities as an auteur. As the filmmaker observes, they are "classical pieces that are meant to have an audience of children, but are not written down to children — they're meant to educate children in what classical music really is. Britten seemed really motivated by that." (No surprise that Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, narrated conducted by Leonard Bernstein, also makes a cameo in Moonrise Kingdom.)

It's also pretty fun to tangle oneself up in "deep" theories about the significance of Britten's music in Anderson's film. To wit:

  • Britten's opera Peter Grimes takes place in an insular seaside village on England's east coast. Moonrise Kingdom takes place in an insular seaside village on New Penzance, an imaginary island off the coast of New England.
  • Grimes: a terrible storm. Moonrise Kingdom: a terrible storm.
  • Grimes: in Britten's words, an opera about "the struggle of the individual against the masses." Moonrise Kingdom: nearly everybody struggles, with the possible exception of Social Services (Tilda Swinton).
  • Britten's opera Billy Budd: major cruelty in the British navy. Moonrise Kingdom: sadistic machinations amongst Khaki Scouts.
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