David Bowie Gets A Bossa Nova Makeover In Wes Anderson’s ‘Life Aquatic’

Brazilian samba star Seu Jorge remade 11 Bowie songs for the film.

Wes Anderson is to movie scores what Quentin Tarantino is to film casting: He revives old relics and dusts them off for a new generation.

Of course in Anderson’s case, the music he uses is by no means forgotten; rather, he takes underground ’60s and ’70s classics and recontextualizes them for his well-defined film world.

Fans wait with bated breath to see what songs he’s going to use next. “[I listen to] the Rolling Stones one week and then Radiohead the next,” Anderson said nonchalantly. “But it kind of goes in cycles. It’s always changing.”

In Anderson’s debut, “Bottle Rocket,” the musical focus was ’60s psychedelia (obscure cuts by Love and the Rolling Stones); in “Rushmore,” the British Invasion seasoned the seriocomic tone (the Kinks, Donovan, the Who, Creation and the Stones); and in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the musical themes were tethered by melancholy folk and classic rock (the Velvet Underground, Nico, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake and again, his beloved Keef and Mick). All of Anderson’s films have been scored by the idiosyncratic Mark Mothersbaugh, the driving force behind late-’70s pop deconstructionists Devo.

With his latest, “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” the director again taps vintage rock classics (Zombies, Scott Walker, Stooges), but this time, with a twist.

The tastemaking filmmaker decided he wanted to take the songs of David Bowie and give them a worldly feel appropriate for the movie’s international cast and at-sea setting.

Enter Brazilian samba star Seu Jorge, who was asked to take lesser-known Bowie classics (“Queen Bitch,” “Rock N’ Roll Suicide” and “Five Years”) and give them a bossa nova spin. In total, Jorge remade 11 Bowie songs, all of which were used in the film.

“Seu Jorge is a great musician, and I think he made these really beautiful pieces,” Anderson said. “Because the songs were woven throughout the whole movie, it’s something that ties it together. For me, he’s an important character in the film, even though his only line is, ‘I didn’t see it, boss.’ He’s a real presence in the movie.”

In the film, Jorge’s character, Pelé dos Santos (an obvious homage to ’70s Brazilian soccer superstar Pelé), serenades the crew upon the Belafonte (an obvious homage to Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso), the vessel owned by oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray).

But Jorge (who also played Knockout Ned in the acclaimed Brazilian film “City of God”) was initially worried that 11 songs might be overkill. “I thought it might be like drowning your food in ketchup, with me being the ketchup — too much,” he said. But once he saw the film and the way the songs carried the emotional arc in brief snippets, the musician/actor thought the balance and tone were “perfect.”

“I think [Anderson] is inventing a new form of language in comedy,” said Jorge in his heavily accented English. “He’s so soft, but so particular; he likes the details. I liked the movie very much.”

Why Bowie? The answer is simple. Anderson’s been dying to use his songs since “Rushmore.”

“I’m a big Bowie fan, and I’ve never used one of his songs in my movies,” Anderson said. “There’s one that I’d been thinking of, ‘When I Live My Dream,’ which is an early Bowie song that I tried in ‘Rushmore.’ This was a chance to use a bunch of them. Halfway through the writing, we made the character Brazilian, [so] the songs needed to be in Portuguese.”

During the film, Anderson was never quite sure if Jorge’s bossa-styled Bowie translations were “faithful renditions,” and as it turns out, they weren’t.

“I look to the [characters] in the film and to my life, and I create the songs,” Jorge said of the way he tweaked the lyrics. He cites his version of “Changes” as a song he found inspiration for in his own life, having gone from being a homeless addict to a national pop star in the span of a decade. More recently, Jorge, like the rest of the cast, had to uproot his life to Italy for the film’s arduous six-month shoot.

Another interesting surprise: Jorge didn’t know any of the Bowie songs that Anderson asked him to cover. “It’s a different culture in Brazil,” he said. “We only know ‘Let’s Dance.’ ” But he quickly took to the task, stripping the songs of all their embellishments until they were just vocals and acoustic guitar.

The rest of “Aquatic” is marked musically by the cheesy, Casio-electronic and characteristically regal orchestration of Mark Mothersbaugh and Sven Libaek’s score to the 1974 television show “Inner Space.”

Acquiring the rights to classic David Bowie songs is no easy feat, even for Anderson. (So far the only person Anderson’s been turned down by was Yoko Ono, who wouldn’t allow him to use the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and “I’m Looking Through You” in “The Royal Tenenbaums.”)

So what does David Bowie think of all these changes to his songs?

“Well, we had to license [the songs] from him. David’s heard them and supposedly he’s really liked them,” Anderson said. “He was on the radio a few months ago, and he was very positive about [Jorge's versions], but I [haven't] spoken to him about it yet.”

The “Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” soundtrack track list, according to Hollywood Records:

  • Sven Libaek – “Shark Attack Theme”
  • Mark Mothersbaugh – “Loquasto International Film Festival”
  • David Bowie – “Life on Mars?”
  • Seu Jorge – “Starman”
  • Mark Mothersbaugh – “Let Me Tell You About My Boat”
  • Seu Jorge – “Rebel Rebel”
  • Mark Mothersbaugh – “Zissou Society Blue Star Cadets/Ned’s Theme”
  • Devo – “Gut Feeling”
  • Sven Libaek – “Open Sea Theme”
  • Seu Jorge – “Rock N’ Roll Suicide”
  • Joan Baez – “Here’s to You”
  • Mark Mothersbaugh – “We Call Them Pirates Out Here”
  • Iggy & the Stooges – “Search and Destroy”
  • Paco DeLucia – “La Nina de Puerta Oscura”
  • Seu Jorge – “Life on Mars?”
  • Mark Mothersbaugh – “Ping Island/Lighting Strike Rescue Op”
  • Seu Jorge – “Five Years”
  • Scott Walker – “30 Century Man”
  • The Zombies – “The Way I Feel Inside”
  • David Bowie – “Queen Bitch”

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.”

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