The Cinematic Universe of Sufjan Stevens’ Soundtracks

“Stevens’ songs are the soundtrack to falling in and out of love.”

With his melodramatic tones and heartfelt lyrics, Sufjan Stevens is a master of emotional projection. With lyrics and melodies that tug at heartstrings, Stevens’ haunting sound conjures the heavenliest of songs.

Perhaps in the most Sufjan Stevens move that Sufjan Stevens could have made, he wrote and composed two original tracks for the Call Me By Your Name soundtrack. ‘Visions of Gideon’ and ‘Mystery of Love’ are two tracks that meld into the film, tackling religion, history and sexuality. It is a remastering of ‘Futile Devices’ for Call Me By Your Name that completes Stevens’ involvement in the soundtrack.

Carefully composed, Stevens’ was a brilliant choice for these intimate and emotional scenes Call Me By Your Name boasts. It is ‘Mystery of Love’ in particular that carries symbolism that attaches itself wonderfully to the narrative of the film. Lyrically, the track croons with references to elements that are so key to Call Me By Your Name. Within the narrative of Stevens’ ‘Mystery of Love,’ he references Hephaestion and Alexander: “Like Hephaestion, who died, Alexander’s lover.” Hephaestion and Alexander are described as ‘one soul split between them.’ This became clear in a literal sense as they visit the Persian royal family where the Queen mistook Hephaestion for Alexander. But Alexander pardoned her: “You were not mistaken, this man too is Alexander.” Hephaestion is Alexander and Alexander is Hephaestion. The sharing of names is so reminiscent of “call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.” A quote from Call Me By Your Name that goes on to show this pairing defines the entire film. The first time Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) meet is a handshake while Mr Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) introduces them “Elio, Oliver. Oliver, Elio.” Immediately, a joining of names similar to how Stevens presents the bond between Hephaestion and Alexander. A ‘when two becomes one’ type connotation, without the Spice or the Girls.

Indeed, Stevens’ compositions beautifully capture the omnipresence of love, even when heartbreak is the tone of these melodies. A spectrum of emotion in every note, he conjures feelings from the depths of memory. This way of writing is both earnest and introspective. It is ‘Visions of Gideon’ that instantly protrudes this exact feeling of sinking melancholia. A spiralling force of emotions, good and bad, comes to a head with “Is it a video?”, a soundtrack for such an emotionally vulnerable moment in Call Me By Your Name only amplifies the expressions on Elio’s face. With the fire burning and table being set behind him, Stevens’ invites entrance into Elio’s memories of love, laughter and sorrow. A moment that is finalising in its emotional yielding of soothing heartbreak.

Stevens also composed two songs intended for the I, Tonya score, but they never featured in the film. ‘Tonya Harding (In D Major)’ and ‘Tonya Harding (In Eb Major)’ stand alone as pieces that express Stevens’ admiration of Harding. Although, it’s been reported Harding herself was not a fan of Stevens’ songs. A simple tribute to the Olympic figure skater, without analysing or drawing conclusions from her life.  With the release of the song came an essay from Stevens’: ‘Tonya Harding, My Star. By Sufjan Stevens.’ Within the personal essay he admits he’s been “trying to write a Tonya Harding song since I first saw her skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1991.” The tracks became a tribute to the woman, in his own words, Stevens’ explains: “I began to feel a conviction to write something with dignity and grace, to pull back the ridiculous tabloid fodder and take stock of the real story of this strange and magnificent America hero.” Graceful in its soothing verses, ‘Tonya Harding (In D Major)’ and ‘Tonya Harding (In Eb Major)’ are dedications to the woman herself. Stevens’ songs act as personal letters written to Harding. Stevens’ graceful approach reflects the visuals of Harding taking to the ice. 

Sufjan Stevens, the cinematic songwriter, composes soundtracks that pluck the heartstrings of listeners. Heavenly, tearful and resonating, Stevens’ songs are the soundtrack to falling in and out of love.