Spinning Songs from Movies



Most people who've heard of Pogo, a young music producer who lives in Perth, Australia, know him for a series of songs built around snippets of dialogue and music lifted from movies. This isn't the only technique that Pogo (born Nick Bertke) employs—many of his songs are agile, diverting hip-hop instrumentals that take no obvious inspiration from films—but it might be his most interesting.

The melodic information in a work like "Upular," one of the movie-based songs, comes from mostly unmusical moments in the 2009 Pixar film Up: the old man shouts something crotchety, the little kid says something cheerful, and Bertke plucks out syllables and vowel sounds and stitches them together into a tune you can hum. He sets this against a bed of chords sampled from Michael Giacchino's score, adds a couple of understated cymbal tracks, and a pop song is made.

By the same or a similar process, we get "Bangarang," from Steven Spielberg's Hook; "Alohamora," from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone; and "Alice," a dreamy swirl of sonic fingerpaint taken from sounds in the 1951 Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. The results are hard not to like (as The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan can confirm).

The movie-based songs are different, in a hard-to-place way, from Pogo's other music, and from most pop songs in general. The reason, I think, has something to do with the way Bertke is taking one form (the feature film) and stuffing it into another (the three-minute pop track). Listening to "Upular" isn't exactly the same thing as watching Up, but it's as close as you're likely to get without setting aside an hour and a half, finding a DVD player, and allowing yourself to slip out of this reality and into the one that directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson have made. Movies demand a lot of us; they ask for our eyes and ears and a fair bit of our time, and in return they build a world for us to live in for a little while.

Pop songs, on the other hand, don't require nearly as much. They come and go in the space of a few minutes, and because they only occupy one of our senses, we can exercise or write an e-mail or clean the kitchen while we're listening to them and still get more or less the bulk of their effect. If movies transport us out of this world and into another one, what songs do is make the ordinary world pop with colors we wouldn't otherwise notice. You can walk down the street listening to, say, Sonic Youth, and the next day walk down the same street listening to Lily Allen, and though nothing will have changed except your soundtrack, it'll seem like a very different street. And if you walk down that street listening to "Upular," you'll feel giddiness, and wonder, and a hot-blooded determination to see what lies over the next hill. This is what I feel, anyway, and it can't be a coincidence that these are all sensations experienced by the characters in Up.

At his best, Bertke is wonderfully adept at boiling down the strongest feelings of a movie into the quick-consumption form of a pop song. Let's be clear: in the case of Up and "Upular," the song doesn't displace the movie. It doesn't, and can't, do justice to the growth of the characters and the full emotional palette of the story (particularly the lovely, heart-quickening first act, generally regarded as the film's best sequence, where two characters meet and fall in love and grow old together). You have to watch the movie for this. But you can't watch the movie while you're walking to work in the morning, and so the movie also doesn't displace the song. If you want to feel some of the things that Up can make you feel—or Alice in Wonderland, or Hook, or Terminator 2, or any of the other films Bertke has dipped into and made collages of—and you want to do it at a time and place of your choosing, well, you've got the Pogo songs. They allow you to put some of those feelings in your pocket and carry them around for when you need them.