Non-Diegetic Sound: What Makes Music in Film (Part II)

Non-diegetic music exists between a film and its audience. The audience can hear it, but the characters cannot, even though it defines much of their environment. I tend to visualize non-diegetic material as a layer on top of the story, in that it exists in this strange mid-plane which is technically separate from both the characters and audience. Although the audience can hear the music, they are not in control of what song it is or how it’s edited into the film. It thus exists in this inaccessible place between the narrative and its reception, accessible only by taking apart the film, layer by layer, and examining each. An easy way to imagine this is by picturing editing software, as you add some files to a row, others in a separate row, and they come together in the program to form the film or final product. A chaotic way to picture it, and incidentally the only way I tend to picture it, is like the Princess and Pea story. There is just a ridiculous pile of blankets and mattresses stacked precariously and below everything is an idea (or the pea). Each layer forms the bed, in this example, and you could count every layer if you really want to, but you’re more likely to just climb to the top and feel that idea underlying it all. I’ll admit, it’s a weird way of picturing things, but to each their own. My point is that the non-diegetic layers help build the film. It doesn’t just cover the idea or story, as like the Princess and the Pea, you can feel that idea in every layer.

Non-diegetic material alerts the audience of the tone and style of the film or a specific scene, but also, because it exists in this middle realm, it can draw on the audience’s background, one which the characters might not share. For example, a period drama might use a rock ballad in one sequence. The characters cannot hear the song, nor would they know the song, and so its left for the audience to project onto. They are either familiar with that specific song, or at least familiar with the kind of connotations such a song comes with. It can be difficult to do this time warp version of non-diegetic music without disrupting the period accurate tone and style, but when it’s done well, it works tremendously.

I would also define non-diegetic music as music which plays in the background of a scene but is never addressed. There are certainly those who would disagree with this position, as it makes this term more subjective. For instance, a song playing through an old radio at a grocery store. This is different than traditional non-diegetic music, as the characters can technically hear it, but I would argue that it operates through similar principles, as it’s not there for the characters, per se. The song instead conveys something about the characters’ state of mind, like playing a happy song in the background of a depressing scene or character. It kind of balances between non-diegetic and diegetic because of this role, as it creates this specific environment (like diegetic material does), but it also has a secondary role to the audience. I am not discussing examples of this here, but I do think it’s an important note. Some of my favourite films operate through this troubling diegetic and non-diegetic realm, films like Suspiria (1977). You’re occasionally not sure if the character can hear the music or not, as the score and sound effects switch between these terms to create broader confusion and horror. Side note, I am focusing this post on lyrical non-diegetic music and reserving instrumental or orchestral for Part III of this series.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

I had a specter following me this past Halloween. Anywhere I went, anytime I pulled up Halloween playlist, I kept hearing the same song: Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy”. It falls into that weird Halloween category where its not technically about Halloween, but it becomes a Halloween song just because of its apparent subject matter. The song is not actually about candy, just something to keep in mind. No matter how many times I heard it, however, I kept picturing scenes from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Just these bright and excessive pastel colours. It doesn’t even feel like a Halloween song anymore, thanks to Coppola’s use in this biopic, which goes out of its way to be period appropriate with a few exceptions, especially its soundtrack. The decision to feature a modern, well primarily 1980s rock/pop score, was criticized when the film was first released, but has since been widely celebrated. The film is ‘accurate’ so far as I feel comfortable using that term. There was meticulous research done on costuming and royal protocol, so any time the film veers to more modern aesthetics, it does so knowing what it is moving away from, and what that move means.

The costuming does feature modern style, going so far as to include a pair of sneakers in one shot. The story is also more of an interpretation of history, and was produced for largely American audiences, hence it being in English. But it still knows this history, and these modern inclusions are very purposeful. Perhaps the best demonstration of that ‘accuracy’ is that Coppola was allowed to film inside Versailles and was one of the first to do. She was given exceptional access to the palace, and the majority of the scenes were done there, in the very place Marie Antoinette lived. My point is that Coppola had these extensive resources and experts, but rather than doing what Stanley Kubrick did with Barry Lyndon (1975), which is almost entirely shot by natural light, she tries to bridge the past with present to imply that these realms are not so different.

Now, I have seen some terrible films which try to do the same, more so now that I am interested in historic fashion. Bernadette Banner, who is an incredible dress historian and YouTuber, does an excellent series on this, where she explains why it is so important to feature quality costuming and historic research in your films. Her argument, and I highly recommend hearing it in her own words, is essentially that film offers this unique ability to show what history was like, even though it is ultimately impossible to recreate it fully. You can still show people what certain realities were like, and it is important to do so and recognize these features rather than just filling the past with dreaded beach curl hair and no corsets, both modern tendencies. Our concept of beauty drastically changes, and it’s vital to demonstrate that rather than suggesting that modern aesthetics are the only ideal that has ever existed. I think this perspective is crucial to recognizing what is engaging about Coppola’s film and how it respects modern sensibility while also trying to respect this accuracy. It knows what it is rejecting and repurposing, and it doesn’t just reject things because they are different from the present. Take Little Women (2019) as a contrary example, which tries to ‘modernize’ its women by featuring modern hairstyles and no corsets. This was done in an attempt to make the characters feel more ‘real’ and relatable to modern audiences. It caused a slight scandal in the historic costuming community when the film won an Oscar for costuming, because it felt like the film insulted the vast resources of historic costuming. The film had this incredible platform, but contrary to a film like Emma (2020), it doesn’t try for any form of accurate costuming.

Some might argue that Marie Antoinette holds a similar argument as Little Women, as it too wants to make a story feel more approachable from a modern perspective. However, it doesn’t simply invent or insert things, it reintroduces, hence it uses music from the 80s and before, not mid-2000s. The benefit of non-diegetic music here is that it never enters the past, not exactly. It’s different than a film like A Knight’s Tale (2001), where the characters sing Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, as the music Coppola’s soundtrack never appears in the world of Antoinette. Instead, it acts as a sort of ongoing commentary on her world and shapes this huge historic figure into someone we recognize. The modern aesthetics are almost left as an intentional invasion, as the film essentially argues that you cannot distance modern perspective from Antoinette’s legacy, as she exists in this bizarre cultural role which is simultaneously past and present. It’s as though our attention to the film has consequences in this world.

Coppola’s film is ultimately concerned with fame, and the disastrous way it frames and violates young women. It asks us to remember that Antoinette isn’t just a person we learn about in a history class, she was also a teenager when most of these events were happening. She has similarly been a victim of propaganda since the early days of the revolution, as people continue to use her identity to say something about themselves. Certain revolutionaries needed her to be completely out of touch (which honestly wasn’t difficult) and so the “let them eat cake” myth began and persisted. Such myths and portrayals continue long after her death, and Coppola’s film is one of them, but it at least tries to self-reflexively comment on what that means.

I have spent other blog posts discussing elements of Coppola’s film, including one on its portrayal of excess, and another on cottagecore romanticism then and now. I mention this earlier post because I have technically discussed “I Want Candy” before, noting:

“There is something sinister about the repetition in the song, like the repetition in the scene. It keeps repeating the same lyric over and over, “I want candy”, until it too loses its meaning. The song matches the scene because both it and Antoinette are fixated on the joy which sweet objects bring, perhaps to replace those missing in life. The song is thus a way to close read Antoinette and her situation as it introduces a new way to consider history as a familiar continuation.”

I stand by that position, but I think there is more to say. Perhaps I am repeating myself, but given the context on excess, I think that is appropriate. I spend time close reading specific shots in that earlier post, but one notable thing I exclude about this sequence is the incredible isolation it puts onto Antoinette. We begin the film as she leaves Austria for France as a teenager, where she deals with vicious gossip and confusing court protocols. The film ends, however, before the real drama begins, right as Antoinette and her family are taken from Versailles, but before she and Louis XVI are executed. The film thus excludes the most recognized moment of Antoinette’s life- her death- and in doing so, reminds us just how sad that recognition is. Her life, everything we have just watched, is typically summarized as “Marie Antoinette was a French Queen who was executed during the revolution”. Although the film refuses to follow through with that summary, it’s still quite clear what happens to Antoinette at the end of the film, and so it doesn’t technically refuse that summary. Rather, it complicates it, it asks the audience if they recognize this person in their own media and world. This portrayal suggests that while Antoinette was not an innocent person, she was a teenager. That is not to diminish the fact that she was a guilty party in the ludicrous excess of the French court. The film is both a critique and a warning about excess, and how dangerous that unhinged lifestyle can be.

Such commentary is also found in Coppola’s other films, especially Bling Ring (2013) which is a true story about a group of teenagers who break into celebrities’ house and steal, and how long it takes authorities to catch them because so many of the celebrities didn’t realize they were robbed until they began paying attention to what they had. The film is a critique on both the robbers and those robbed, and the excessive system both parties belong to. In a similar vein, the 80s music featured in Marie Antoinette would have been released when the film’s target audience were teenagers, and so it is meant to resonate with their experiences of teen hood. More importantly, I think the criticism and dismissal the film faced, both for its soundtrack and female director, is another reflection on the film. It’s ironic that a film concerned with re-examining a woman who has been routinely dismissed or viewed through an extreme and sexist gaze was met with a similar dismissed and sexist gaze by certain critics. It’s no coincidence that this version of Antoinette survives Coppola’s adaptation, as that almost suggests that Antoinette lives on in a similar non-diegetic space as the film’s soundtrack. Caught in the middle, sort of undead at the end of the film. She survives here, but the audience knows that she will die shortly. Her survival implies that Antoinette continues to live in this strange cultural position, where she is used and then destroyed in various media. She is thus between the contemporary audience and her own history, much like the soundtrack, neither old nor new but stuck in that middle.

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

David Bowie’s music is cinematic, I think even he pictured his music. There is an inherent visual quality to his work, both in the writing and the way he performed songs. One of the major reasons Bowie is my favourite musician is that he speaks about moments as though you are there. These can be small moments, like someone seeing you across the street from a café, or big moments like stepping off a spaceship. Each is given time and meaning. His music is never just about falling in love, being in love, or breaking apart. There is more in it, and it’s often interested in more than just romantic love. It’s political, spiritual, and even when it is interested in love, it’s interested in the way people experience love, even how they see it. Compare that to the popular running joke that many musicians make their music as vague as possible, so anyone can project onto it and have it perfectly mirror their life. Even songs which are named after specific women tend to generalize them so they can be about anyone and that one person simultaneously. Bowie’s music is often tied to specific people and moments, like writing a song about Andy Warhol or “This is Not America”, which is concerned with the artificial nature of the American dream.

Bowie’s songs continue to resonate with people, and I think one of many reasons for that is their specificity and visual nature. You might not have experienced a moment described in the song, but you can still picture it, and understand the emotions that underlie that moment. I mention this because Bowie has an interesting cinematic legacy, from involuntary biopics like Velvet Goldmine (1998) to being featured or having his music featured in films. Bowie wrote for multiple films, including The Hunger (1983), Cat People (1982), Absolute Beginners (1986), and of course my personal favourite, Labyrinth (1986). His music, however, has also expanded through film, moving through countless stories, and growing because of that usage. I learned about Bowie from the duet version of “Changes”, with Butterfly Boucher, in the Shrek 2 soundtrack. There are countless films which do the same, either introducing audiences to Bowie or evoking the audience’s experience with Bowie’s music.

“Heroes” is one of the most popular Bowie songs in film, as it treats love as a rebellious and glorious act, a very cinematic perspective. It’s found in films like Moulin Rouge (2001) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), both of which treat it as this powerful manifesto for love in chaos, or celebration in the midst of depression. It’s noteworthy that these films use it in a romantic sense, as Christian sings it to Satine in Moulin Rouge, while Charlie falls in love with Sam the first time he hears it in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and spends the rest of the film looking for the song so he can revisualize this moment. I love each of these usages, but my favourite has to be its appearance in the final scene of Jojo Rabbit, a comedic drama about a young boy growing up in the middle of WWII Germany. The song is technically non-diegetic, as although the characters are dancing to it, they cannot hear it, so they are actually dancing to nothing. It’s more like the music has just come into this scene from our perspective, rather than theirs.

What is beautiful about this scene is the way the music slowly builds from the environment, emerging from other sounds like sweeping, children playing, and cars. It starts as this little hum which steadily grows as Elsa realizes that the Germans have lost the war and she is free to come out of hiding. The music becomes this realization, and everything mentioned in the song becomes part of her dream. It’s everything that is possible now, every terrifying thing that she hasn’t been able to dream about for years, and it all just builds up until Jojo snaps his finger and the song pushes forward into the scene. The two begin dancing, almost imagining this song, which implies that Bowie’s music travels in impossible ways. The song incidentally relates to the aftermath of WWII, the film even features Bowie’s German version of the song in a separate moment. “Heroes” might be timeless, but it’s also rooted to a specific moment Bowie experienced.

To quote my earlier post on Moulin Rouge, the song began when Bowie was living in Berlin, and saw “his producer Tony Visconti, kissing vocalist Antonia Maass beside the Berlin Wall as a guard yelled at them to stop. It was a short thing, and Visconti and Maass ultimately didn’t stay together. And yet, this moment of love is immortalized in Bowie’s song”, which suggests that love, even in a short moment, is heroic. The fact that love can exist in spite of ongoing trauma is a miracle, and that sentiment is so moving for the end of Jojo Rabbit. Neither Elsa nor Jojo knows what will happen next, as both have been through something horrific, and that horror doesn’t just go away. Bowie’s lyric, “We could be heroes, just for one day” is poetic, implying that even though Jojo and Elsa are alone and don’t know what comes after this moment, this moment is enough for now. The very fact that it exists is heroic, and notably, it’s not tied to romantic love in this scene. Jojo has a crush on Elsa, but that isn’t as important for this particular moment. The love here is a broader kind, its freedom, at least “just for one day”.

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