Magnolia is a film about coincidence. From the way it can be funny or serious, tiny or seismic, nothing more than a piece of fun amusement all the way to life-changing, no film captures the chaotic nature of coincidence better than Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 masterpiece. Throughout its three-hour runtime, the film jumps between a mosaic of storylines that weave in and out of each other over a single day in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, exploring how even the most sheltered of individuals live their life as part of the all-encompassing network that is society. It’s an excellent film, and the way it utilizes its episodic structure to make every scene play out like a self-contained short film while still feeding into the larger narrative ensures its place as the strongest entry in one of the greatest filmographies in modern cinema. Flick through it at random and there’s a good chance you’d land on a moment that demonstrates this beautifully, but none illustrate this better than its legendary musical sequence. On paper, it sounds ridiculous, but it’s a testament to PTA’s skills as a director that he can transform such an outlandish idea into the film’s standout sequence. But its genius extends beyond the parameters of one singular film. It’s not just the best scene in Magnolia, but the crowning jewel of PTA’s career.
But first, some all-important context. Magnolia is an epic in every sense of the word, stringing together countless storylines that include (but are not limited to): a police officer (John C. Reilly) falling in love with a cocaine addict (Melora Walters), a pickup artist (Tom Cruise) and his attempts to reconnect with his dying father (Jason Robards), a former child prodigy (William H. Macy) who conspires to steal money from his boss, and a depressed trophy wife (Julianne Moore) trying to find her place in a hostile world. While these plotlines are initially presented as unconnected, gradually the pieces merge to reveal a complex web of intersecting relationships. Some of these are straightforward – such as Moore’s husband and Cruise’s father being the same person – whereas others are more ambiguous, inviting the viewer to form their own connections in ways that even PTA may not have anticipated.
‘Magnolia’s Musical Sequence Gradually Builds From Believable to Fantastical
Amongst the sea of irate characters who populate this inflated corner of Los Angeles, none are more tragic than Claudia, the drug-addicted misfit who had extinguished all contact with her family following a traumatic childhood experience. We first encounter her in the wreckage of a visit from her estranged father, with her only solution being the same one she always has. However, a glimmer of hope appears in the form of the neighborly police officer Jim, with Claudia agreeing to go on a date with him. Things start pleasant enough, but quickly the horrors of her past see her fleeing from the restaurant, whereupon she retreats to the comfort of her usual vice, allowing her a modicum of peace (however brief). Amid her crying, the song “Wise Up” by Aimee Mann begins playing – quietly at first but gradually rising as the scene progresses. Initially, it is just background noise, with the assumption that it playing from an offscreen radio or is a piece of non-diegetic music as is common in most films. But then – in a moment that no audience member will forget in a hurry – something peculiar happens. Claudia starts singing.
Now, it’s not very good singing and has more in common with the half-singing/half-talking approach that Tom Hooper’s version of Les Misérables employed rather than something you would hear in a traditional musical, but that’s the point. It’s not supposed to be good, because, at the end of the day, most people aren’t good singers. To expect a suicidal drug addict in the throes of one of the worst episodes of her life to burst into song with the power of Whitney Houston is silly, and would push this already unusual idea into straight-up farcical. Instead, letting Walters use her real voice elicits a far stronger effect. It feels real. Everyone has bad days, and putting your favorite music on and trying to forget about the world is an image most people can relate to. Watching Claudia struggle her way through its opening verse, tears running down her face the entire time, might sound unusual, but it’s also the most believable thing that has happened up to this point.
But then, with the power of a single cut, Paul Thomas Anderson flips the scene on its head. Mid-chorus, we cut to Jim… also singing “Wise Up”. We hold on to him for a few seconds before PTA flings us to another of the film’s characters, Jimmy (Philip Baker Hall), who is also singing “Wise Up”. And then another. And then another. Before long we’ve witnessed every member of the primary cast sing a few lines, culminating with the young Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman). As the sequence draws to its conclusion, a total of nine characters have showcased their singing talents… after which the scene is never mentioned again.
Why Is This Sequence the Perfect Encapsulation of ‘Magnolia’s Tone?
To those who have not seen Magnolia, reading the previous paragraph might make it sound ridiculous, and in many ways, it is. Magnolia spends its runtime on the fault line between the plausible and the absurd, with the grounded nature of its storylines seeming to clash with the melodramatic way Paul Thomas Anderson presents them. This a film where even the simplest of scenes have the actors cranking their energy levels right up to eleven and then some, and when combined with the extravagant cinematography and preposterous nature of some of its key plot points (with the opening scene of a man being murdered on Greenberry Hill by three assailants named Green, Berry, and Hill, respectively, establishing that perfectly), there’s no denying that Magnolia isn’t afraid to get flashy in its pursuit of critical praise. This is a criticism occasionally leveled against PTA’s early work (back when he was in his Robert Altman/Martin Scorsese fanboy years) before he adopted a more subdued attitude from the exquisite Punch-Drunk Love onwards, and Magnolia is the clearest example of this. However, given the hyperbolized state of its Los Angeles backdrop (whose essence has sunk its teeth into everyone we cross paths with), it makes for an effective partnership between setting and style that affords the film a truly unique mood.
Given everything the viewer sits through during the first two hours of Magnolia, a musical sequence isn’t the leap it may appear to be. Yes, everything up to this point has operated in the realm of believability, but stranger things have happened. In a film all about the power of coincidence, nothing illustrates this better than a group of disparate characters all deciding to sing the same song at the same time. It’s a brilliant portrayal of the film’s central conceit – one made better by the flawless song choice. Aimee Mann’s songs play on Magnolia’s soundtrack frequently, becoming one with the wallpaper. The result of this is the transition from background noise to enveloping wonder is achieved seamlessly, as though PTA had been planting the seeds for this moment from minute one. The quality of the singing varies from passable (Moore) to outright bad (Hall), but Paul Thomas Anderson circumvents this issue by having Mann’s voice continually play in the background, reinforcing the idea that the characters are singing along to the radio after a bad day.
Judging by the lyrics, “Wise Up” should be a poor choice for this scene. The song is all about encouraging the listener to stop finding solutions in bottles and meaningless distractions and instead face up to reality. While this is reflective of the mental state all of Magnolia’s characters are currently in (and is exactly the kind of pep-talk they’re desperately in need of), it seems at odds in a sequence that is as far removed from reality as this. But it’s also this contrast that makes it the ideal choice. These characters are searching for anything that will bring light to the shadows of their existence, and this song does exactly that, realism be damned. With its gentle orchestra swells and lyrics that hit the right mix of gloom and optimism, the song propels the film into its final act where positivity finally wins out. If nothing else, the sequence also serves as a nice interlude between acts, allowing the viewer to reflect on what has come before whilst also giving them a moment of respite before the story continues. In a film of this length, one welcomes it.
It Was Brave of Paul Thomas Anderson To Include This Sequence
Ultimately, its greatest strength is that Paul Thomas Anderson had the confidence to include it. The suggestion of putting a musical sequence into an otherwise serious drama sounds like only something a director with complete creative control would do to satisfy their ego, but in practice would fail spectacularly and eviscerate all positive vibes they had built with the audience. It’s something even the most talented of directors would be nervous about, and watching PTA pull it off so effortlessly is what cements it as his greatest directing moment. Yes, it’s self-indulgent, but that’s what Magnolia is – an overlong love letter to narcissism made by someone still basking in the 24/7 high that is stardom. Cinema would be a more interesting place if more directors went hell for leather with whatever crazy idea popped into their heads, and that PTA also happens to be a filmmaking genius whose worst releases still rank as “pretty good” is the cherry atop the cake. The scene is self-indulgent, but it’s also brave, heart-wrenching, and unapologetically poignant – all words that apply to Magnolia as a whole.
Nine lonely people, struggling their way from one roadblock to the next in search of a better life. But then, by virtue of nothing but good old-fashioned luck, they find unity in the same piece of music… and for one brief moment, there is peace.