United Archives / Alamy
By Erik Thompson
The most significant accomplishment of any movie soundtrack is to compliment the overall mood and creative ideas of the film itself. And in doing so, the best soundtracks become innovative, groundbreaking artistic statements in their own right.
In an enigmatic picture like Cameron Crowe’s 2001 psychological sci-fi thriller Vanilla Sky, the songs used throughout the film serve as musical and lyrical threads that connect the themes of loneliness and isolation to the inscrutable narrative of identity loss and mortality. When the difference between dreams and reality becomes convoluted, and the lines separating the past, present and future are rapidly blurred, the music used in a scene helps provide some emotional cues and clarity to the characters while also propelling the plot forward.
From Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” augmenting the iconic opening sequence when Tom Cruise first opens his eyes, to the frantic rhythms of Mint Royale’s “From Rusholme with Love” as Cruise wildly sprints through an abandoned Times Square looking for any signs of human life, the music provides some much-needed context to the confounding action unfolding onscreen. During those moments when we can’t quite make sense of what precisely is going on in the movie, the compositions themselves ground us in a familiar, recognizable “place,” even as the film continuously calls the idea of reality into question.
Music has always played a crucial role in Crowe’s films, as well as his professional and personal life. From his early days writing for Rolling Stone (depicted in his classic coming-of-age film, Almost Famous) to landmark movies like Singles, which captured the love life and nightlife of Seattle twentysomethings while the grimy birth of grunge exploded around them. Vanilla Sky carries on that proud tradition, with a soundtrack that plays out like an expertly curated mixtape compiled by that one friend who only buys the best records.
Tastemaking roles that used to be the responsibility of older siblings are now occupied by filmmakers and social media stars. With the Vanilla Sky soundtrack, Crowe helped introduce moviegoers to the musical charms of emerging artists like Sigur Rós, Josh Rouse and the Chemical Brothers. Those cutting edge sounds fit seamlessly alongside music icons like R.E.M., Radiohead and Paul McCartney (whose track “Vanilla Sky,” written specifically for the film, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song). The dichotomy between the modern tunes and classic anthems used in the film only enhances a storyline where the past and present collided head on.
“The music for Vanilla Sky, I’m really proud of. Nancy Wilson’s score is super evocative,” Crowe reflected in a 2020 interview with Vulture. “A big part of people who discover the movie — it stays with them, in large part I think, because of the music. The idea that pop culture can be so ingrained in your vision of the perfect relationship, or the perfect life or the perfect Bob Dylan tune playing at the perfect time can change your life choices, change who you are.”
While the ambiguous conclusion of Vanilla Sky is up to many different interpretations — only compounded by the additional scenes and alternate ending included in the 2015 Blu-ray release — the lasting significance of the universally-praised soundtrack helped turn the film into a cult classic. As Vanilla Sky proved, the right song can immediately bring you back to a specific time and place, and remind you of a particular feeling, mood or memory that you thought was long forgotten. So, drop the needle on this brilliant soundtrack and prepare to be taken somewhere special once again.
Open your eyes. You’re going to be fine.