The general consensus seems to be that indie rock and sports go together like oil and water, Yankees fans and Red Sox fans, Sunnis and Shiites. We’re hard-wired from puberty or our first Pavement record (whichever comes first) to believing that those who take their guitar tone seriously can’t take their muscle tone seriously. Such prejudices are understandable, but formed as they are amid high school’s sectarian warfare, they are becoming increasingly outmoded, particularly as independent music finds itself thrust into the mainstream on the backs of the Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse, and the Shins. When Explosions in the Sky — a west Texas quartet making brash, operatic guitar rock — writes a successful soundtrack for 2004’s Friday Night Lights (a film about west Texas high school football players), indie rock’s coveted outsider-art status has gotten a little more complicated — and a little more interesting. The losers are writing warm-up music for the jocks.
With Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, now it’s the sports fans themselves who are writing scores for their own heroes. Last year, Douglas Gordon hired fellow Glaswegian post-rockers and massive football (i.e. soccer) fans Mogwai to write the soundtrack for his documentary on French football superstar Zinedine Zidane, the same Zidane who ignominiously ended his career with a head-butt to Italy’s Marco Materazzi in the final minutes of the 2006 World Cup. Mogwai’s unabashed fandom — the group once posted a request on its official Web site asking some sympathetic soul to record an important Celtic Football Club match while Mogwai played a show — has never hurt its reputation. If anything, it’s remained an endearing parenthetical to the band’s enduring twelve-year career.
Mogwai’s instrumental art-rock — at times cataclysmic, at times meditative — seems perfectly suited to the silver screen, but Zidane is Mogwai’s first soundtrack. (The group missed the final cut to score Mary Harron’s 2000 film, American Psycho, and although Mogwai performed on last year’s soundtrack for Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, composition credits went entirely to Clint Mansell.) Laid over the full, ninety-two-minute length of a single football match between Zidane’s Real Madrid and Villareal, Mogwai’s score is almost frighteningly pensive. The eleven tracks focus exclusively on all the ennui and languor in the band’s quieter turns — the moments when the music isn’t building up or breaking down — precisely what’s required for a film focused on a singular moment in a star’s long career.
In execution, Mogwai is often breathtakingly effective. Building off one of only a handful of musical themes driving the record’s seventy-four minutes, bittersweet opener “Black Spider” works an oblique guitar line through plaintive Rhodes keys and Dominic Atchison’s velvety, languid bass. “Terrific Speech 2” is rich with anxiety, its haunting piano chords pitched perfectly on the knife-edge between major and minor. And “725” is a dazzling rumination on Philip Glass, the bright guitars spinning a single C-major melody into quiet oblivion.
Tony Doogan, who’s had a hand in Mogwai’s previous three records, does wonders here again behind the boards. Everything from Martin Bulloch’s assertive snare to Stuart Braithwaite’s wayward guitar pick invades your living room. You can hear through, over and around these songs.
Given Mogwai’s musical aesthetic and that of soundtracks in general, Zidane does get a bit ponderous in spots, particularly on the wholly atonal and arrhythmic “Wake Up and Go Berserk.” But monotony is precisely what can result from listening to a film soundtrack without watching the film — half the experience is lost. It is to Mogwai’s credit, however, that the vast majority of Zidane works on its own. In fact, the record’s success does much to show just how silly our worries about indie-rock’s occasional fraternity with the great and terrible world of sports really are. Zidane sounds unequivocally like Mogwai, yet it concerns a subject most of their American fans care to know little about. I think that’s a good thing.