Venice: Noah Baumbach Finds the Music in ‘White Noise’
VENICE — Noah Baumbach is not a fan of Netflix’s “skip credits” feature. When he directed “Marriage Story” and “The Meyerowitz Stories,” Baumbach implored the streaming service not to speed viewers past the closing credits and into the next piece of content before the film has technically concluded. Still, the 52-year-old director realizes that on this front, he might be an old-school outlier.
“When I’m watching a movie with my 12-year-old and it finishes, I like to decompress and watch the credits, always,” Baumbach told me Thursday at the Venice Film Festival. “And he’s like, ‘OK, what’s next?’ For him, it’s just words on a screen, but I’m like, ‘Let’s just vibe out on the fonts.’”
To ensure the survival of closing credits, filmmakers now have to make something truly unskippable, and it’s here that Baumbach has delivered in spades: At the end of his new film, the Venice opener “White Noise,” he delivers a full-blown musical number starring the entire cast and set to the first new LCD Soundsystem song in five years. It’s a deliriously fun sequence that has dominated chatter in the first 24 hours of the festival and is doubly surprising because, like the movie itself, it finds Baumbach working at a scale he’s never before tried.
In “White Noise,” adapted from the 1985 novel by Don DeLillo, Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig play married parents Jack and Babette Gladney: He’s a paunchy professor who blathers about his “advanced Nazism” course, she’s a pill-popper with a mighty ’80s perm. (“She has important hair,” coos Don Cheadle as one of Jack’s colleagues.) The couple’s pillow talk involves morbid debate over which of them will die first, but when a toxic spill forces their neighborhood to evacuate, our leads must confront their obsession with death in a way that hits much closer to home.
The only thing that ever seems to soothe these neurotics is the local supermarket, a gleaming, jumbo-sized temple of consumerism where everything is always in the right place. With its abundance, bright-white lights and collection of familiar, beaming faces, a trip to the supermarket in “White Noise” isn’t just like going to heaven — it’s better.
That makes it the perfect place to set the end-credits number. Don’t worry, the sequence isn’t a spoiler — it’s more of a coda, and “a visual, visceral, physical representation of what I felt like the whole movie was about,” Baumbach told me.
Here, nearly every character in the movie cavorts among aisles of Hi-C, Doritos and Ritz Crackers while Driver and Gerwig pull boxes from the shelves with Busby Berkeley-level precision. Later, workers in the checkout area throw plastic bags into the air as if they were feathered fans, and a coterie of college professors — played by the likes of Cheadle, Jodie Turner-Smith, and André Benjamin — boogie in a charmingly fussy fashion.
The sequence made me think of the dance-heavy curtain calls from “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai” and “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again,” though Baumbach, a more refined cineaste, was motivated by “8 ½” and “Beau Travail,” he told me.
“As I arrived at the end of the script, it revealed itself to me as the thing to do,” said Baumbach, who likened it to smaller cinematic flourishes that close his previous films: “‘Frances Ha’ has no unmotivated camera until the very end, and then there’s a push in on her face — it’s very simple. ‘Meyerowitz Stories’ is all piano music and then an orchestra comes in at the end. I like trying to listen for those things.”
He went to LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy, who also contributed to Baumbach’s “Greenberg” and “While We’re Young,” to craft “New Body Rhumba,” an upbeat, catchy song about death for the sequence. “I said, essentially, write the song you would have written if you were writing songs in 1985,” Baumbach said.
“For me, that’s not a hard nudge,” Murphy said at the film’s premiere party. If writing ’80s-inflected songs is well in his wheelhouse, what was the greatest challenge, I asked? “Trying not to die before the song was done,” Murphy replied mordantly. (Jack and Babette could scarcely have phrased it better.)
The dance sequence, choreographed by David Neumann, was shot over two days at an abandoned Ohio superstore. “It actually was as happy shooting it as it is to watch it,” Baumbach said. “It was this contagious feeling. It just felt good. And though Baumbach has flirted with making a movie musical before — he and Driver once explored the idea of adapting Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” eventually using that show’s “Being Alive” as the climactic sung number in “Marriage Story” — making “White Noise” hasn’t fully scratched that itch.
“It makes me interested in doing more of that,” said Baumbach, who also used Neumann to choreograph the movie’s chaotic family breakfasts and massive crowd scenes. “I think this whole movie opened up things for me, aspects of moviemaking that I’ve always been drawn to that the movies I’ve made haven’t needed or wanted.”
And it may offer a tantalizing throughline to Baumbach’s next project: “Barbie,” a big-screen take on the iconic Mattel doll that Gerwig is directing from a script she co-wrote with Baumbach. Little is known about the plot of the movie, which stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, though co-star Simu Liu has divulged that it will feature dance sequences, and Baumbach appeared to confirm that.
“‘Barbie’ definitely has that as well, that kind of choreographed naturalism. Well, it’s an artificial world, but a choreographed naturalism,” Baumbach told me.
“It’s always exciting to me,” he said, “when a movie can be many things at the same time.”