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The Joy of Wong

Judging from Wong Kar Wai films such as 2046, In the Mood for Love, Happy Together, and Chungking Express, the acclaimed Chinese director does not take the relationship between music and cinema lightly. In fact, Wai provides moviegoers (and filmmakers alike) with the ultimate example of how to use music as a crucial aesthetic device. He understands that music actually has to enhance a given scene and serve a purpose within the greater scope of the film. Still, when watching one of Wai's movies, one gets the sense that he pretty much just picks songs that he likes — as you'd expect any other director to do.

But Wai goes a step further. He has an innate knack for putting together a group of songs that fall together like a perfectly crafted mix tape. That the soundtrack to Blueberry Nights (Blue Note Records) follows this mold makes it a worthy purchase. Even without the benefit of the film to go along with it, the soundtrack stands alone as a work of art. Not only do the songs satisfy, but their running order, the way they hang side by side, and the way the album seems tailored to marry itself to your own life experience all reveal a level of caring, intent, and artistic integrity that's virtually extinct in the soundtrack genre.

Yes, Blueberry Nights (the film opens in New York this week) marks Wai's first venture into directing in English, and it features Norah Jones in her acting debut. What's most important here is that Wai and Jones (who helped select material as well) put a hell of a lot of time and thought into the songs that made the cut. Wai, for his part, often plays music while shooting to inspire his cast and set up moods. He also drove across the country three times with music playing in the car in order to explore how different songs matched different settings. He initially rejected having a Norah Jones song on the soundtrack at all, but caved after he heard "The Story," which Jones wrote at daybreak after a long night of shooting and is now the soundtrack's leadoff song.

Other than three instrumental Ry Cooder interludes commissioned specifically for the score, the rest of the songs bear Wai's trademark mix-CD sense. Cat Power appears twice alongside the likes of Otis Redding, Mavis Staples, and Cassandra Wilson. The whole experience unfolds like a spellbinding trip through the familiar landscapes of R&B, soul, blues, rock, and American roots music. That's even more impressive through the eyes of a Shanghai-born director — and more reason to support this disc. Wai and company elevate the art of the soundtrack to new heights while showing up the industry douchebags who've turned the form into one giant marketing platform.

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Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

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