Music’s Conflicted Relationship with the Movies

From The Jazz Singer to Nick Cave

Crowds waiting outside Warners’ Theatre, New York, to see The Jazz Singer, 1927

Crowds waiting outside Warners’ Theatre, New York, to see The Jazz Singer, 1927

I barely remember the story – only the scene, and the song. In Hal Hartley’s Amateur (1994), Elina Löwhenson’s character strides through an airport, pausing to don headphones. She clicks a button: ‘Tomboy’, from Bettie Serveert’s 1992 album Palomine, fills her head, displacing any source elements on the soundtrack. The moment has stayed with me, though not because it was particularly effective. Here was an ‘indie’ director I admired, using an ‘indie’ song I’d enjoyed, well, independently; yet the song’s prominence in the movie seemed to detract from both. Knowing about the filmmaker’s soundtrack deal with Matador Records, Serveert’s label at the time, it was hard not to see this overdetermined bit of music supervision as a cross-promotional compromise.

I might have taken a longer view. In 1929, just two years after the release of the film The Jazz Singer, the Hollywood fan magazine Photoplay asked: ‘Is the motion picture industry just a subsidiary of the music publishing business – or have film producers gone into the business of marketing songs?’ Song-based scenes that arrest narrative have been a staple ever since, and not just in ‘movie musicals’ or as title themes, from the jazz vocal standards first sung by femmes fatales in noir nightspots to Doris Day’s delivery of ‘Que Sera, Sera’, as a lullaby in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Countercultural films often operate no differently: the students in Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) foment revolution to the yé-yé beat of Claude Channes’s ‘Mao! Mao!’ More recently, Pulp Fiction (1994) rescued Urge Overkill’s cover of the Neil Diamond song ‘Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon’ – from an unheralded vinyl EP – and Garden State (2004) advertised The Shins’s 2001 single ‘New Slang’ in another headphone scene that made Amateur’s seem a model of dramatic integration.

Resistance to such moments, as common and (sometimes) compelling as they are, may be part of a long-standing bias against treating popular music as real film music on a par with the through-composed, non-diegetic score, especially one with the orchestral texture of Western classical music. The traditional score has a paradoxical character: it enjoys a certain artistic status (though, being functional, a lower one than ‘absolute’ music), but is often most effective when least attended to. (So goes the received film-theoretical account, pursued at length in Claudia Gorbman’s 1987 book Unheard Melodies.) Pop songs, in many contexts, are simply harder not to hear than bespoke instrumental music, given filmgoers’ pre-existing associations with a particular song or style, and the potentially distracting interference between sung lyrics and spoken dialogue. Some films exploit pop songs for just these qualities, whether by using them as period markers (American Graffiti, 1973; The Big Chill, 1983; Hairspray, 1988), or by treating their lyrics as commentary on characters’ inner states, a technique popularized by Mike Nichols’s use of Simon and Garfunkel’s songs in The Graduate (1967). The newest variant – the ‘key’ song used as narrative glue for a montage joining disparate characters and plotlines, as in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 Magnolia (Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise Up’) and Paul Haggis’s 2004 Crash (Bird York’s ‘In the Deep’) – is already threadbare from overuse in television dramas like House (2004–12) and Gray’s Anatomy (2005–ongoing).

Many contemporary films include both a ‘real’ score (though synthesizers and expanded instrumentation have changed that game as well) and some pop elements, which remain the focus of ancillary marketing. Increasingly, however, musicians from pop and rock backgrounds are writing scores that fulfil traditional non-diegetic roles while making use of their own idioms and methods. There are precedents, from Pink Floyd’s score for Barbet Schroeder’s More (1969) on, but the practice is now common, with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Blur’s Damon Albarn, and the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, among others, developing strong second careers in this direction. Whatever the merits of a particular score, these arrangements always involve some horse-trading of cultural capital: the rocker or rap producer is allowed to ‘compose’, while the producers gain a recognizable name to add to the credits, and the independently saleable soundtrack album.

Since The Proposition (2005), which he also wrote, Nick Cave has scored eight films in collaboration with violinist Warren Ellis. (Ellis is a member of Cave’s band The Bad Seeds; his instrumental group, Dirty Three, often elicits the vacuous epithet ‘cinematic’ from rock critics.) In 2012, they supplied music for Amy Berg’s West of Memphis and John Hillcoat’s Lawless. The first documents the ongoing legal travails of ‘The West Memphis 3’, three young men convicted of a ritualistic child-murder in 1994, as the result, some believe, of an unjust trial. When the case began, the defendants were teenage metal fans whose dress and affect won them little sympathy in the courtroom; since then, many rock musicians have agitated for their release or retrial, and one can see why Cave – author of such Death Row-themed songs as ‘The Mercy Seat’ (1988) – would be drawn to their story. Activist showboating often inflects celebrity participation in such causes, but Cave and Ellis’s contribution to West of Memphis is understated: often based around contemplative piano, the underscoring goes ‘unheard’ as the film lays out its exculpatory evidence.

Lawless clearly allowed the pair a freer hand. The screenplay, again by Cave, adapts a 2008 novel by Matt Bondurant, based on his family’s experiences as bootleggers in Prohibition-era Virginia. Despite some strong performances, the film doesn’t quite come off: Hillcoat’s naturalistic direction pulls against Cave’s attempts to mine the material for mythic resonance. Music plays a more prominent role here than in West of Memphis; and while it doesn’t save the movie, it does no harm. The instrumental cues, ranging from bluegrass fiddling to John Cale-like electric-violin atmospherics, fulfil their usual expressive roles: establishing mood, telegraphing danger, amplifying violence. The songs – folk and blues covers (and a new Cave original) sung by the likes of Emmylou Harris and bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley – are used in similar ways, and most appear only briefly. Some are better encountered at full length on Lawless’s soundtrack album, such as two country-styled covers of the Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/Heat’. Connecting Lou Reed’s 1968 paean to speed with the ‘white lightning’ by which the Bondurants live and die is clever enough, but in the film, with its resolutely period mise en scene, the anachronism seems an indulgence.

Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) signals its less conventional approach to music with its title, which nods to soprano Cathy Berberian (1925–83), a major interpreter of 20th-century avant-garde vocal music. The film tracks the psychic disintegration of an British recording engineer and Foley artist (Toby Jones), hired by an Italian director to provide sound effects for Il Vortice Equestre (The Equestrian Vortex), an absurdly gory giallo. Some of the movie’s loveliest shots are of nothing more dramatic than the engineer’s elaborately coloured multi-track cue sheets, and both setting and story often seem little more than a pretext for interplay between music, dialogue and other aspects of ‘sound design’. We are often unsure whether what we are hearing is part of the film or the film-within-a-film, of which we’re shown only the credit sequence, scored by a prog-rock waltz built out of thick organ tones and flanged cymbals.

Though credited to the fictional ‘Hymenoptera’ onscreen, this is the handiwork of the British band Broadcast, whose singer and co-founder Trish Keenan died unexpectedly in 2011. Assembled by bandmate James Cargill, the score’s album version is as singular and unsettling as the film itself, and arguably more arresting than its creators’ more conventionally structured releases. Most of its 39 tracks run between six seconds and two minutes: some, centred on Keenan’s wordless vocals, are purely musical; others unhook the film’s Italian dialogue and other ‘source’ sounds (screams, thuds, a tape machine on rewind) from their accompanying visuals in the manner of musique concrète. Neither a traditional ‘unheard’ score nor a grab-bag of free-standing pop songs, this is the rare soundtrack album that remains intimately connected to the film for which it was made while successfully obeying its own musical logic.

is a writer and musician based in New York, USA. He is the author of the poetry collection The Accordion Repertoire (Edge, 2012); his latest album is Another (Shrimper, 2012), with The Human Hearts.

Issue 154

First published in Issue 154

April 2013

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