Unsettling the Score: What Makes Music in Film (Part I)

Movies can redefine a song without ever changing the tune. They can change the way we listen; they can even imbed themselves into the legacy of a song or artist. There was a song on the radio yesterday, for instance, and the only reason I knew it was because I had seen it in a film. It had been years, and yet sitting there, I could only think of that scene. The way the lyrics work with the subject. How the sound and style compliment the film’s rhythm. It reminded me of why I named this blog, You Remind Me of the Frame, as I have often considered film as little impacts, moments which register so deeply that you never forget them. Music plays a vast role in that, particular in non-musical (theatre) films. You are prepared for music in a musical, you might even be familiar with the score beforehand. Non-musicals are spontaneous, as you are never sure what you might encounter. The song just arrives with a scene, and when it’s done well, the film and song cannot be separated. It doesn’t even matter if you were already familiar with the song, because the film reshapes the way in which you remember it.

Trailers do this too, which is rather ironic since trailers often feature songs which are not included in the film. I recently saw the trailer for the new King’s Man (2021) film, and now I can’t stop thinking about how it relates to the trailer’s version of “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath. The film might be about WWI, and the song released in the 70s, but together, they suggest that the song’s lament, on how people in power manipulate and prosper in war without ever fighting, is universal and timeless. This example uses a song which matches the scene’s context, but the opposite can also be effective. Sometimes I am drawn to trailers or scenes because the song feels mismatched and that creates an eerie distance between the song’s connotations and the scene. The trailer for Ratched (2020) did this with the song “Big Spender” from Sweet Charity, putting a popular musical theatre number into a mental asylum. This approach is standard practice in modern superhero movies, as many feature a happy song from the 70s during a dramatic or violent/funny scene, thanks largely to the popularity of the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) soundtrack.

One of my favourite examples of mismatch, however, is the scene a Shrek 2 (2004), where the King enters a pub and Captain Hook is playing the piano and singing Tom Waits’ “Little Drop of Poison”. I call this mismatch simply because it’s a children’s film and the song includes lyrics like, “did the Devil make the world while God was sleeping”, and honestly, its moments like this which make the soundtrack to Shrek 2 the most formative album I ever received. It introduced me my first David Bowie, Tom Waits, and Nick Cave songs, in fact, I can clearly remember turning on “Little Drop of Poison” at around 8 years old and just blasting it through the house. While I later became a huge fan of these artists for their own merits, film is the reason I became invested with their music. These little impacts shape the way I view cinema and our world.

I am dedicating these upcoming weeks to a three-part series, where I will discuss the different types of music in film. This is obviously a huge topic, so I will only be focusing on a few examples in each, just some of the moments which have stuck with me. I may even return to this topic in the future. This week I am focusing on songs which are performed in the film, either by the actor or lip synced to. None of these are traditional musicals, just films which feature a scene with music. Next week I will focus on some non-diegetic examples, where the music is only heard by the viewer, and those where the songs are in the background of scenes, so the characters can technically hear it, but they do not acknowledge it. I will spend the final week discussing orchestral or instrumental songs, specific moments in the score which stand apart from the rest for how they work with or against the scene.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

There is a moment in this film that is so profound that I cried the first time I saw it. It begins with Darlene Sweet, played by Cynthia Erivo, sitting in a chair looking at herself in a hotel mirror. The walls are covered with thin mattresses for sound proofing. It’s just her, in a room, singing. We can hear the faint tick of her metronome as it keeps tempo, but other than that, she is alone and without any accompaniment. First there is silence, she takes a breath and waits, eyes closed. Then she begins “Can’t Hurry Love”, a song about patience and longing, but as the scene goes on to reveal, that patience comes with fear. The camera swings around Darlene, showing us the mirror and metronome, but then swinging further to reveal Father Flynn, huddled beside the twin beds with a pry bar and hammer. We then see what is behind the room’s the two-sided mirror, as Emily Summerspring passes through the dark hallway attached to each of the rooms. She carries a loaded gun, and casually glances into each of the rooms until she reaches Darlene’s mirror. Darlene sits and stares at the mirror, her mouth moving without any noise in this hallway. Emily turns on the stereo to hear her singing, and there is this terrible beat where you are not sure what will happen next.

Darlene knows she is in danger, she knows that there is someone on the other side of the mirror, but she doesn’t know when they will walk by or where the gun is. The song is both a distraction and a plea, as we travel to these extreme close ups of Darlene, Emily, and Father Flynn as they listen for different reasons. Father Flynn waits for a cue from Darlene, as she stands, walks to the mirror, and then begins clapping, masking the sound as the hammer hits the floorboards. The noisy hammer adds to the song, to the extent where music becomes synonymous with the literal tools used by Father Flynn. All the while, we have Erivo/Darlene’s extraordinary performance and singing, just the genuine heart and fear she gives the song. It’s perfectly timed, the film doesn’t even add a backing track.

The performance is so personal that it at first feels like we are looking at Darlene from the mirror, as though the cinema screen is a part of this two-way mirror. That placement is startling, because Darlene is singing to the mirror, to the viewer. This moment thus implies that the screen has always been a mirror, where we watch lives and stories without character’s noticing, but that relationship gets challenged here. What makes this scene so impactful is these first lyrics are to the audience, as we cannot see Emily or Father Flynn. Darlene sings multiple songs in the film, as she is a singer, and I should also mention her performance of “Unchained Melody” near the end of the film, which is also acapella. This one, however, stands apart, and marks this troubling distance between audience and character. We are initially placed as Emily, as we are facing Darlene, but then as the scene progresses, and Emily officially enters the scene and takes our place, we begin moving around. Our position becomes just as uncertain as Darlene, as neither she nor the audience know how this scene will play out. Will Emily shoot through the mirror? Will she overhear the hammer or recognize that this is a distraction? The tension is so high, and yet it’s met with a song. Both Darlene and the film take a quiet and personal moment in the middle of a high-octane story. Darlene knows there is a gun pointed at her, and yet -knowing that- she chooses to sing. It’s an invitation and a weapon, not just a song.

The Shape of Water (2017)

I briefly mentioned this film in my discussion on The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and I will most likely return to it in a full post, as it deserves its own time. The film is directed by one of my favourite directors, Guillermo del Toro, and much like his other work, it questions and complicates monstrosity, suggesting that humans are the true monsters and that we use fantasy to grapple with real world violence and trauma. Shape of Water adds a second commentary to del Toro’s ongoing theme by highlight the insane fetish around female silence, as its often treated as the ultimate passive and controllable characteristic. The film criticizes this violent male gaze by focusing on a mute woman named Elisa Esposito who is active and self-defining, and her muteness is never once treated as a disadvantage. She contends with Strickland, a figure who is obsessed with her, largely because she is silent and he assumes that this makes her some sort of Sleeping Beauty type, where she cannot verbally disagree with him. Elisa proves otherwise, and that refusal merits more discussion. For now, however, I am interested in the way music and singing plays into Elisa’s muteness, as there is one scene where Elisa begins singing because she is having trouble expressing herself to the Amphibian Man, which is the only name he has in the film. That trouble isn’t because of her muteness, it’s more that she cannot find the right words to express what she means. In fact, when we return to her ‘normal’ life, she is still signing, implying that she has been signing the song the whole time, and that the audience can just see what she is imagining. It also worth noting that the Amphibian Man cannot verbally communicate either, so her song is also lamenting that she doesn’t know how he feels, as he only knows some sign language. There is a distance between them, but also within Elisa.

The scene begins as Elisa sits across from the Amphibian Man at a dining table as he devours some eggs. They are already well into their relationship, as she is now hiding him from Strickland at her home. Studying him, she begins to quietly whisper the lyrics of “You’ll Never Know”, while also signing the song, talking to him about him but also, given the title of the song, talking about the people who dismiss her, or don’t understand sign language. Very suddenly, the whisper transforms into one sustained loud note, and the scene becomes a glamourous musical number, in the style of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers picture. Elisa, wearing a beautiful dress, performs a choreographed routine with the Amphibian Man, surrounded by glittery lights. There is no stumbling here, no lost words or violence. The scene is also done in black in white, just to fully convey that this is not taking place in the film’s reality. It’s a beautiful scene, and beautifully strange and camp. In black and white, like Creature From the Black Lagoon, it’s as though the Creature is dancing with Kay from this 1954 film, as they almost do in one sequence, but if this film had also taken a strange thematic turn and become a musical. And then the scene fades back to Elisa as she sits and fully acknowledges that this romantic world, like the one’s she enjoys at the movie theatre downstairs, is just a fantasy. However, Elisa treats fantasy the same way as del Toro’s films do, in that it is not an escape, it’s a discussion.

She wants to tell the Amphibian Man and the world that she in this position but cannot find the right words. As the lyrics suggest, “you’ll never know if you don’t know now”, Elisa has done everything she can, and now its up to other people to understand what she is saying. She has these grand emotions that take up room, and although she can convey them, other people miss this conveyance. That is a large dynamic in the film, as Elisa deals with people who either fetishize or dismiss her because of her muteness. In either case, they don’t recognize that she is perfectly capable and eloquent. The scene might include singing, but it does so to highlight that Elisa uses fantasy to understand what is happening around her, and to take control of that narrative. Her story might tread into the horror realm, but that is not the way she sees it, and her determination utterly changes the film’s style and content for this sequence.

Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010)

I was absolutely obsessed with the version of “Black Sheep” featured in Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim, and they only just released Brie Larson’s version. Before that, fans made do with the ‘extended’ version on YouTube, which features perhaps the best extra in history standing behind Ramona and Scott. I did talk about Wright’s music usage in my last post, but here we are again. Wright is an expert at using songs in every capacity for his story. The lyrics say something about the scene, they add style, the editing matches the tempo, and certain songs are even discussed at length inside his projects. Scott Pilgrim is arguably the most musical of his films, as Scott is in a band and performs in multiple scenes, and the actors had to learn how to play the instruments like a real band. Larson started as a singer, although it’s not what the now Academy Award winning actress is known for. Her version of “Black Sheep” is catchy, but more importantly, it is the perfect song for this scene. It’s an introduction to ‘popular’ music, versus Scott’s independent and rather eccentric music, like “Garbage Truck” and “We Are Sex-Bob-Omb”. What’s more, Envy Addams is the kind of character whose confidence extends into the film’s literal format, as she invades the conversation between Scott and Ramona just as Scott realizes that Ramona’s evil ex is Envy’s current boyfriend. Scott realizes this in a series of questions, which Envy answers on stage, before she is fully revealed. When Scott asks, “That guy on base?”, she replies, technically speaking to her audience, “Oh yeah?”. This call and response continues until Scott has fully understood the situation, after which Envy appears with a final “OH YEAH” and begins the song.

The film cuts away after about a stanza, but we do get the lyrics “I knew you when our common goal was waiting for the world to end” and “now that the truth is just a rule that you can bend”, which tell us everything we need to know about Scott and Envy’s relationship. Although Envy is portrayed as an ambitious mean girl, the film reminds us several times that Scott is not a good person. We get his version of events on their relationship, but this is the only time we get hers, and it doesn’t sound particularly healthy on either side. It’s often noted that later in the film, when Scott meets his dark side, Nega Scott, he is actually a really nice guy, which implies that the real Scott is the opposite of that. The whole film is about Scott learning to get some self-respect and to stop expecting people to feel bad for him. He becomes a better person, but that doesn’t come out of nowhere. Scott sets Envy up as this powerful villain, and while she isn’t a good person, she isn’t the person Scott makes her up to be and this song helps convey her anger, possibly justified.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

David Lynch has never directed a musical, yet music is fundamental to all his projects. Perhaps the most famous Lynch song is the theme from Twin Peaks (which spoiler alert, I will discuss in a later post), but his work also includes actual performances, where the actors suddenly sing. His films often feature these visceral music sequences, some of which are horrifying and uncanny given the contexts they arrive with. Because it’s difficult to describe Lynch films, especially Mulholland Drive, I will instead describe my impression of it, as audiences tend to have quite different experiences with Lynch’s films.

I initially saw the Club Silencio scene out of context in an English class on the Romantic period, which sounds strange, but the prof was interested in the distinction between sound and perception that occasionally appears in poems about the sublime. The word ‘sublime’ here means an experience that is so beautiful and overwhelming that it is painful, as it forces the subject to realize that they are absolutely miniscule in relation to this sublime vision. The Romantics used this term to describe nature or women who are like nature, and therefore inhuman and without human error. For instance, it would describe the moment where you are walking through a forest and suddenly come upon a mountain that reaches far above you. It has been there long before you and will be there long after you die. It’s essentially an aesthetic existential crisis where the laws of nature become illogical merely because you no longer belong in them, as you are so insignificant. That is certainly one of the first impression I had of this scene, as it is horrifying, but there is more to it.

The scene takes place at a theatre, where the announcer declares that everything you are about to hear is not alive, not really performed, just recorded. We begin with a few instruments, where the player will suddenly move the instrument after pretending to play, and the music continues without them. It’s a very eerie thing, as both the characters and audience are confronted with this lack of source, this thing that moves without us, that has no origin that we can see. We, as an audience, know this music is false because the announcer tells us it is a recording, and because we know how movies work. It’s all just a recording, but as the scene goes on to suggest, there is a horror to that breakdown and realization. A woman walks on stage, and sings with such emotion, tears welling in her eyes, and in our protagonists’ eyes. Then she takes a step back, looking up as though the music is surrounding her. Her mouth stops moving but the song keeps going. She eventually collapses on the stage and the song continues independently. It continues even as she is dragged off stage, entirely limp and almost dead.

The song is sublime in that it exists even after the woman is gone. Like listening to a song years after the singer has died. I was terrified the first time I saw this scene, again without context, although context in Lynch films is not always important let alone clear. I watch a lot of horror films, and yet this moment of a woman singing without a body still haunts me. I can see it just by writing this post. It’s not the only singing sequence in the film, there is also the scene where Camilla performs “Every Little Star” during an audition, but this is possibly my favourite moment in any Lynch film. It plays with the assumptions we have when going to the movies, arguably the same assumptions I want the rest of this series to discuss.

Movies are layers of shots, scores, costumes, actors, music, everything. They are entirely artificial and controlled, and yet, they are sincere and can evoke memory and meaning from their audience. You might be watching something from a projector, but you are also projecting onto what you see. Lynch once famously stated that Eraserhead (1977) is his most spiritual film, and when asked to speak more on that, he smiled and said “no”. People will make what they will of his films, and that is one of my favourite things about them. I might see and feel something that is radically different than my neighbour, and yet both of those experiences are valid. I have a friend who cannot even discuss this movie because of how intense she found it. Another who didn’t even remember the scene I am discussing here, and instead found Diane/Betty’s audition as the moment which impacted her. I mention this because I find that this moment breaks the illusion and easy format of cinema and implies that what we are hearing is not just a soundtrack or pretty song. There is something holding it in the film, something that even the characters are confused by. It acts without them, just as the film acts as an invisible witness to everything the characters do. This in turn complicates the role of the viewer, as suddenly what seemed secure is dismantled, and that leaves the question, what else can be dismantled? Is the film secure on the screen or can it invade our world, our reality?

Mulholland Drive operates through dream logic, where things make some sense, but there is always a threat of something else invading. This reality is constantly changing around the characters, and sometimes they are involved with this, and other times, like the moment at Club Silencio, they can only take a step back and recognize that something is happening. I wouldn’t just call this scene scary though, as it is deeply moving in other ways too. It feels like we and the characters are having an experience together, and when it takes this turn, we don’t know what to think. The announcer told us what was going to happen, and yet this woman’s performance makes it feel so real that her silence is shocking. You could even read that performance in light of Diane/Betty’s acting career in the film, and the way it plays with real and unreal, authentic versus marionette. The song might be a recording, and we might just be watching a recorded and edited story, but that doesn’t mean it is without sincerity and fear. What we experience and what the characters experience is always similar in films, it’s how we relate to the story. But here, we share the same questions and fears as the characters, as we are all just viewers in the scene. This scene is about cinema, and how its form is somewhat threatening, or at least beyond control, and that is worth paying attention to. Of course, Lynch is the one in control, he directed and wrote the scene, but much like his stance on Eraserhead, he doesn’t have that much control. He leaves it open, and so the work exists without a singer, without a singular voice, just a note that what you are seeing is a recording. The rest is left to you.

Want to read some more about music? Check out posts on O Brother Where Art Thou, Heathers, and Beetlejuice.

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