Warning: Spoilers ahead for the movie Little Woods.
There is no sound of North Dakota. The state was the birthplace of a few well-known crooners of yore like Lawrence Welk and Peggy Lee, who they both left for Hollywood to find their big breaks, and blues guitar virtuoso Johnny Lang. But few from North Dakota make it big in music because there is no well-known local music scene — there isn’t really a sound of North Dakota. There is no scene, period, because it’s one of the least populated states in the country. It was out of that nothingness that writer/director Nia DeCosta and music supervisor Meghan Currier had to make something for the modern-day Western Little Woods, in theaters April 19.
"My idea was that we should use music to give the film a little bit of levity, without taking away from how serious the subject matter is and these characters,” Currier says. “Because, in the end, these two women who are the main characters survive and thrive. That was the intention behind a lot of the music."
Currier and DeCosta found that selecting the voices of women artists to compliment Ollie and Deb’s stories evolved naturally. Songs are used sparingly, making a huge impact when they do come up. And the selection of music that spans decades, from Emmylou Harris to Valerie June, makes it feel timeless.
One of the film’s most dynamic musical moments comes when we see Ollie doing her best to solve a near-insurmountable problem and retrieve her sister’s camper, along with her drugs and money, from an impound lot against all odds. It’s a tense moment that calls for a heightened sense of suspense from the viewer, and the song that plays was selected with the intention of getting at a primal instinct. "The only curveball that skews away from the country-rock feel is the Dead Weather song, ‘I Feel Love Every 1000 Miles,’ when Ollie is breaking into the impound lot,” Currier explains. “It was impactful because you see the desperation, determination, and despair in her being. Instead, having a driving rock song sung by a woman [Alison Mosshart] there elevated the moment."
They brought on composer Brian McOmber (It Comes at Night), also of the Dirty Projectors, to create a score that would suit the vast, empty scenery of the location. While North Dakota is not part of that country/blues tradition, musically, the wild west vibe that’s sprung up in the state as oil drilling has boomed has brought a certain roughneck element that the sound reflects. "We wanted to focus on certain types of instrumentation and of voices that embody an expansiveness that's reflected in a lot of the scenes, cinematography-wise: the sweeping landscapes in rural areas, shots from the road of cows and oil rigs. A lot of these sounds can be reflective of that, which is why we chose from that palette,” Currier says.
It’s an interesting sonic choice, one that allows the film the room to center on women in a state heavily populated by men, many of whom came in search of work during the oil boom and created a new kind of roughneck culture that didn’t exist before. That the film centers its sounds on country-themed music, long considered the music of the working-class, feels radical to give the loudest voices to women — musically and thematically.
Little Woods, directed by Nia Dacosta, is a neo-Western that tells the story of two sisters, Ollie and Deb, who are driven to work outside the law to better their lives. Grab tickets here.