Although the ’60s were, in America at least, synonymous with bright, psychedelic colours, beads, incense and androgynous clothing, Europe was somewhat behind in the youth revolution. Aiding costume designer Louise Stjernsward, writer Gilbert Adair was astonished to revisit his youth and find that the wardrobe was so formal. While kaftans were taking hold on the West Coast of the USA, the French counterculture still seemed firmly rooted in the conservative ’50s, with shirts, ties, tanktops and sports jackets popular among the boys. Girls, meanwhile, had yet to rediscover the louche pleasures of retro clothing from the ’20s and ’30s, preferring the demure couture of the recent past.
“It's a funny period, ’68,” says Adair. “It’s not like the Renaissance or the 19th Century, where there's a recognisable set of codes and conventions. It’s a difficult period to capture. People forget that it wasn't like the ’60s in London, which was very Mary Quant and Swinging London. Paris ’68 was a very different look. Would you know, for example, that most kids in their early 20s and late teens wore ties and v-neck sweaters? They weren't hippies, wearing Carnaby Street gear, they were wearing neat little jackets. That's quite a difficult difference to establish.”
In fact, given the age of the films consumed by Bertolucci’s young trio, and the stylish functionality of the clothes they wear, one could easily mistake this for a film set any time in the decade leading up to May ’68 — that is, if it wasn’t for the music. Selected by Bertolucci himself, with significant input from musician and consultant Nick Laird-Clowes, The Dreamers' soundtrack is a riveting blend of white rock and progressive blues, starting with an exhilarating freefall down the side of the Eiffel Tower scored to the distinctive sound of rock icon Jim Hendrix.
Laird-Clowes had known Bertolucci through mutual friends for some years. An unlikely pop star with his bands The Dream Academy and Trashmonk, he also had some experience of the 60s youth culture as a contributor to underground magazine Oz while still at school. Nevertheless, he was still surprised when the maestro called him one lunchtime and invited him to see a rough-cut of the movie. “I went and sat in a screening room with Bernardo behind me, watching it for the first time and thinking, Wow — maybe there's no work for me to do! I thought they were onto something already. They'd already got some ideas about the music, especially with the opening music and the use of electric guitar solos from that period — 1965 to 1968. Take Janis Joplin with Big Brother And The Holding Company, the sound of those guys noodling around seems so good now. And to me, what's unbelievable is that those guys were in their early 20s and they had no role model. They were experimenting in ways few musicians had done before. So after the movie was over, I said, ‘It's already great — why do you need me?’ We went next door and Bernardo explained that certain tracks were unavailable and he needed some extra work. I didn't know it then but the next five weeks were to be among the most intense of my life!”
For those five weeks, Laird-Clowes ran backwards and forwards from record shop to record shop, mentally replaying the film’s images and matching them to fragments of sound from his memory. “I tried to use all the things that I thought hadn't been given a good shot somewhere else,” he says. “I'd take them in to Bernardo and we'd listen for about an hour to various things — and he'd always picked the good one. The right one. The attention to detail was fabulous. It got to be like jam sessions, they were fun, and we'd put our favourite choices on screen against the images. As you can imagine, things changed. Things that were loved, that seemed so definitely in, he changed, saying, ‘It’s too choreographed.’ And he was right! He's a full-on 100 per cent details man.”
But although the music from that era is distinctive, Laird-Clowes was careful not to wander too far into obvious territory. But even that wasn't always the right tack to take. “Something that worked incredibly well, which wasn't what I thought, was The Doors. They absolutely were one of the great revolutionary ’68 bands anyway, but the track we ended up using was totally unexpected. We didn't want to be obvious, so we were mining for unusual pieces — Jim Morrison did a lot of ad-libbing, and I wanted to use that, rather like the way we were using the guitars. There was one scene where Bernardo wanted to subtly remind the audience of Mick Jagger in Performance, where the older brother goes out foraging for food wearing nothing but a green jacket. I thought, How can we do this? First of all I came up with ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ by Van Morrison and Them, because it sounded right, and that was good for a while. Then, an ad-lib by Jim Morrison came to mind. I knew that somewhere on one of the albums he sang, ‘Illegitimate son of a rock’n’roll star…’ And when we put that one in, we thought, Yes — that's fabulous.”
Another bonus came from another unexpected challenge: though Bertolucci was insistent on having Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’ for a bathtub scene, the rights were not available. “The Jimi Hendrix estate won't allow you to use his music against images of sex and drugs, because his family don't approve of it,” says Laird-Clowes, somewhat incredulously. “I mean, this is someone who invented sex and drugs! So that was extraordinary — but how could we recreate it ‘Hey Joe’? And Jeremy Thomas said, ‘Well, Michael’s a singer…’ Immediately, I feared the worst, but when I heard Michael's demos I realised he could definitely do it. He's got a great voice. But now we faced another problem, which was to recreate a 1968 vibe so it wouldn't feel out of place with the other material.”
To get the right performance, Laird-Clowes visited Pitt before the recording session. “I went to his hotel room in Notting Hill Gate — and it already looked like a ’60s rock'n'roll star's heyday bedroom! He said, ‘OK, what d’you want, man?’ Now, I knew there would be some generational issues, so I asked him to listen to ‘Where Do You Sleep Last Night’, a song written by Leadbelly about murder, which was one of the songs on the last Nirvana album. I said, ‘This is the equivalent of 'Hey Joe.’ It's a song about murder, for God’s sake — it’s chilling stuff, but nobody addresses it like Hendrix! So we got the band together, Michael came in went into the booth and in the second or third take he was, like, BAM! ‘Heeeey Joe!!!’” Laird-Clowes replicates Pitt's reptilian drawl and laughs. “They jammed for about four or five hours,” he recalls. “It was mind-blowing.”