The snow covered French Alps might not be a place where you’d expect to hear the propulsive sound of Caribbean island steel drums.
But that wonderful boinging is audible – extremely audible – right at the start of “Anatomy of a Fall,” the twisty mystery that won the Cannes Film Festival top prize for director Justine Triet.
The French film, now in limited release, depicts the ordeal of novelist Sandra (played by Oscar contender Sandra Hüller), who is suspected of murder when her husband Vincent dies after plummeting from a high window in their mountain chalet.
During the whole first segment of the film, Vincent has cranked up the volume on an instrumental cover of 50 Cent’s 2003 “P.I.M.P.,” a hit single from his major studio debut album “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.” The version we hear in the film is a 2008 remix by the German music ensemble Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band:
“The song is very special and very important in the film,” Triet explained to TheWrap. “The husband does not speak in this scene, so the music is his way of expressing himself. The song is his voice. We found that music was sort of aggressive without being too heavy, or you could say passive aggressive. That says a lot about his personality.”
But the song was in fact a late addition. One month before filming began, Triet found out that the production could not secure to the rights to use her intended choice for the scene: “Jolene,” Dolly Parton’s 1973 classic about a wife’s fear that her husband will stray.
“I was obsessed by ‘Jolene’ during the writing process,” she said. “And so with this in mind, we had written a big scene in the courtroom where the lyrics of ‘Jolene’ were fully analyzed. I was very attached to that part of the movie, because we went very far with it, in terms of how much the song was woven into the script.”
But “Jolene” was not for sale to use in the film. “Maybe we should ask them again now,” said Triet’s partner and co-writer Arthur Harari, with a wry smile, at the film’s New York Film Festival premiere.
Enter the 50 Cent cover track, which had been on Triet’s personal playlist for the last three years, and entered her mind as a possibility to use for the film. The original single would have been too expensive to license, Triet said. But the rights to the cover were available via Big Crown Records, the label for Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band.
The script was then tailored accordingly. “Even though we never hear the lyrics (to “P.I.M.P.”) in the film, we found a way for the lawyers in the courtroom to discuss the original song and they talk about if the lyrics are misogynistic. And I thought, ‘OK, this works.’ And with the instrumental cover version, we really remember the beat of the song.”
Björn Wagner, the lead musician of Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band, has seen peaks in the group’s Spotify numbers since the film opened in Europe. Based in Germany, Wagner is seeing ‘Anatomy of a Fall’ for the first time at this month’s Vienna International Film Festival.
“I have only heard great things about the film and the music’s placement,” he said to TheWrap. “The tune was pretty big before, but it‘s nice that more people will hear it now, especially if it’s a cool usage.”
For sure, at last May’s Cannes Film Festival, Kyle Buchanan of the New York Times was among the attendees to note the song’s newfound popularity, when he tweeted that 50 Cent’s track was “unexpectedly the song of the fest given its frequent, semi-hilarious usage in the courtroom drama ‘Anatomy of a Fall.’”
And on YouTube, the user comments for both 50 Cent’s original and Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band’s cover are populated with references to “Anatomy.” Among the remarks are: “I knew it was going to be an awesome movie when this started playing near the beginning”; “Perfect song to be played out loud in a chalet”; “Would absolutely throw myself out of a window to this.”
“No!” Triet said with terrific amusement when told about the YouTube comments. “That is incredible.”
And ultimately, the director said, “I think this song works better than ‘Jolene.’ I’m not an American but I think ‘Jolene’ is like a hymn and maybe it would have been too significant, too serious in that sense.”
She added, “In the 50 Cent song, the steel drums are very exotic in a way, contrasted to the setting of the story, and it creates something else in the mood of the film. We arrive at this house in the mountains and we have no idea who these people are and what is their relationship is to a broader culture arena. And this song puts them on the cultural grid and places them in a larger cultural environment.”
“Anatomy of a Fall” is playing in select theaters now