Sound & Vision – Music in Cinema: Opinion

Music, whilst it cannot solely make a film (silent cinema, although often set to orchestral scores, is proof that sound is not always necessary), it can certainly break one. A judicious song selection; a world expanding Classical motif; or a spiralling adventure in sonic improvisation; music frequently provides an elaboration that can lift cinema into its most rarefied stratosphere or place it within the grimiest of gutters.

Yet for many years, soundtracks and scores were under-valued, under-estimated and treated as an adjunct to the filmmaking process that could be dealt with summarily. Their worth was primarily judged in terms of their ability to add diegetic heft to a movie or, worse still, simply as aural wallpaper for moments where ‘action’ was not present in the frame. Musical chords and notes persevered only as sledgehammer triggers for what a filmmaker intended, nay, demanded that the audience feel or perceive. Often crude, regularly sentimental, this was celluloid music as Mills &Boon for the ears (not that this is without value in cinema but it was suffocating in its ubiquity).

Fortunately, music for cinema and through cinema, began to acquire a more nuanced texture. Later still, it might even be said to have developed a life of its own, one that was not tied to the lead weight of narrative propulsion or melodramatic premise. At different points, when cinema became enmeshed in symbolism, abstraction and experimentation, so too did composers refine new musical registers and structures with which to supplement or compliment film.

Due to the proliferation of new philosophies, purposes and mechanics in movie-making, any attempt to define the desired intent or function of music in cinema is unavoidably quixotic. It is still worth the attempt however.

Why so, you might justifiably ask? If you begin to interrogate those sometimes fluid whispers, sometimes jaggedly hyperactive dialogues between music and movies, you do begin to identify aspects and terrains. These cinematic landscapes take on wholly new (or, at least, altered) dimensions when you view them through a different prism. Of course, you can just as easily consider cinema through the analytic prism of screenplays, cinematography, costume and set design, dramaturgy, editing and so on.

Today though, the prism is music.

On reflecting upon music in cinema and what it means to me, it struck me that I needed to focus selectively upon various dramatic pivots and emotional fulcrums rather than films in their entirety (not that I don’t have favourite scores – see Ennio Morricone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, IljaZeljenka’s ‘Dragon’s Return’ or Philip Glass’ ‘Mishima’ for those). I decided upon six fundamentals of movies, six feelings that often dictate key points in a film’s trajectory. Each will be considered in the form of a ‘moment’, a space within the film that uses music to exquisite or unforgettable effect where to remove the music would fundamentally change the scene and the movie. These are subjective choices but I hope that they will go some way to explaining how and why music can make such a difference to our cinema experiences – moments where blood has rushed through veins, eyes have moistened, skin has flushed with prickly heat and tingled with nervous anticipation…

Moment One (in three parts): Love

Celine Sciamma is a director who confidently explores love in her films. In so doing, she recognises the diversity and significance of this most universal emotion. With this in mind, we will take three different Sciamma films and three different expressions of love as our starting trilogy.

Part one: Fraternite

In ‘Girlhood’ (2014), we find a movie that boasts a fine, brooding synth score (by Para One) but it is not that which forever embedded itself in my mind’s eye (and ear). Instead, we are drawn to one particular scene where Marieme, the character whose life ‘Girlhood’ centres upon, is in a hotel room. Marieme is a teen of the Parisian banlieue, suburbs that are rife with crime and poverty. Nevertheless, there is hope and community within Marieme’s life in the form of a gang that she has joined. This is a gang of teenage girls, marginalised because of gender, race and class but in this hotel room, they appear at ease, secure in their fraternal bonds with one another. 

As they prepare to indulge in a hedonistic night on the town, funded by criminality and mercifully distanced from the repressive every-day, they sing. The song (Rhianna’s ‘Diamonds’) takes on an affectionate choreography and joyous evocation out of all proportion to the music. Simple lyrics amplify Marieme’s desire for self-worth as embodied by the esteem with which the gang hold each other in the face of so much that would tear them down. Every gesture, every lip-synced expression of defiant optimism is a summary in microcosm of ‘Girlhood’s cinematic mantra – that sisterhood can defy the worst that persists elsewhere in young female lives (if only for a fleeting moment, and, perhaps, longer still).

Scripted dialogue would probably have appeared overly earnest or replete with artifice but the song? The song does the heavy-lifting instead and far more convincingly.

Part two: Equality

Sciamma deals with a more romantic variant of love in ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ (2020). A narrative of desire and deepening affection, ‘Portrait…’dissects the social and economic suppressions of women in the 18th Century. Despite this, it strikes a celebratory pose for the most part. Indeed, it highlights how love can still, if not entirely dismantle rigid hierarchies of repression, certainly diminish them temporarily. ‘Portrait…’ begins with an artist named Marianne being commissioned to paint a marriage portrait of Heloise, the daughter of an aristocrat who shows no desire for matrimony. As the two engage in tense pirouettes of evasion, other potential fates emerge for them both. 

This culminates, in some ways, at the mid-point of the film when both Marianne and Heloise attend a gathering of local women on one of the rugged beaches dotted around Heloise’s island home. The setting is night; rough dunes with thuggish grasses; a blazing fire, casting shadows upon the assembled ladies of the isle. Quietly initially, in a moment of almost otherworldly communal expression, a song begins. It amounts to some kind of neo-pagan a cappella harmony (composed by long-time Sciamma collaborator Para One). Consequently, it becomes a strident, bold moment that allows Sciamma a dramatic aural background to Marianne and Heloise acknowledging their frustrated desire for one another. 

The musical context to the scene is essential, not least because it is antithetical to Marianne and Heloise’s own lived experience (they are high status, the other women are from local labouring families) and tastes. Indeed, this is related musically by Sciamma in the form of Vivaldi later in the film, an ambiguous musical embodiment of their romance AND their class. The power of the coastal scene is an earthy, direct challenge to the notion that any women, regardless of gender or class, should be invisible. It is a performance of communion, birthing a sacred bond and a mutual lust. It is a miracle on the Silver Screen.

Part three: Maternal

Sciamma’s most recent movie is Petite Maman (2021), a slender curio of a film that was completed during a lockdown-disrupted shoot. It offers a blend of fantasy and family melodrama and, interestingly, most of Petite Maman exists within a musical vacuum. Sciamma chooses to have the cast’s actions stand alone, without the need for a musical accompaniment. A young girl (Nelly) stays at her recently deceased Grandmother’s house in the country with her parents. It’s her Mother’s childhood home and she soon leaves Nelly and husband, seeking respite from the enormity of her grief (it is her parent who has died) and her own struggles with depression. In the midst of this lonely sojourn, Nelly meets a playmate who suffers from chronic illness and is poised to enter hospital for surgery. 

To reveal more, would be to ruin the film. Nevertheless, towards the conclusion of Petite Maman, Sciamma changes tack. She presents the two comrades taking a dinghy out on a lake towards a man-made pyramidal structure, portraying the two would-be adventurers engaging in a gleeful last hurrah before the reality of separation sets in. In seeking to match and echo their rush of exultation, Sciamma turns once more to Para One for the only music of the film – a rousing euphoria of choral declamations and sumptuous synth notes. The music, similar to the film, is one-part naïve gesture, two parts timeless connection between two lost souls. The fact that this emerges from stillness in the rest of Petite Maman’s soundtrack makes it all the more striking. Once more, Sciamma displays a bravura touch when it comes to utilising music in cinema.

Moment Two: Menace

If love could be seen as universal and life-affirming, menace is something that slithers throughout much of cinematic history, seeping between the cracks of more respectable dramatic scenarios. Yet, so much of what we love about film and its murky universe, is built upon the suspense that they generate. Music is often a central component of constructing that universe of unease.

Take the opening sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror ‘The Shining’ (1980), for example. The film opens with vertiginous landscape photography, as we sweep in and out of mountainous valleys and track a beat-up car winding its way in isolation. On its own, the visuals would be ordinary, even banal. They are not alone though.

Instead we hear Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s woozily eerie composition. Pitched betwixt a portentous herald performing funereal rites and an eruption of primal rage therapy, the music immediately absorbs the viewer. More importantly, it situates them in a position of peril, teetering on the edge of both a physical and a dramatized abyss. Of course, this mirrors the a-temporal evil that is omnipresent within The Shining – a deliberate context that proves as vivid as any of the surreal scenes that Kubrick presents us with later in the movie.

The simple truth of the start of The Shining is this: imagine the beginning sequence with different music (or no music at all).

You can’t.

Moment Three: Joy (as an act of rebellion)

Cinema has regularly been a source of joy for me, not least in the midst of COVID (or, more viscerally, when lockdown ended). Joy is a multidimensional shape of an emotion though, full of angles of incidence that subvert and re-constitute what prompts joy and how we express it. As cinema reflects that spectrum, we could single out so many divergent takes on joy. My choice takes joy as an act of rebellion as its central theme.

Kirill Serebrennikov’s ‘Leto’ (2018, and translates as ‘Summer’) is an elegiac film but it is nonetheless, an ebullient, surreal ghost train ride through Leningrad on the cusp of the Glasnost era. Western music fuels a sub-culture amongst Russian teens and twenty-somethings as they seek an outlet for their frustrations with totalitarian homogeneity.

Much of the movie revolves around inventive takes on rock/pop staples. The stand-out number is the cast’s cover of Talking Head’s ‘Psycho Killer’ where the song is ‘performed’ in the midst of harassment from the authorities (and the public) on board a train. The targets of that harassment are teen punks and rockers, exuberant symbols of everything that Soviet conformity sought to deny. The song is delivered in amateurish clarion call vocals and augmented by flashes and zig-zag animations, carved into the very celluloid of the scene, revealing that this is a fantasy of rebellion because the actuality was grimly different.

Serebrennikov does acknowledge this when he allows the real to supersede the fantastical (where far from successful, the punks are subdued with ease), demonstrating to the audience the problematic nature of rebellion against any dictatorship. Nevertheless, Serebennikov is affectionate in his recollections and the music reflects this – as futile as such rebellion may have been, it was not without heart or meaning. Their joyous songs live on.

Moment Four: Death (in two parts)

If cinema was going to be an adequate consideration of (and on) life, it was always going to have to deal with mortality. Films have long sought to make sense of death but they have not always focused on the same aspects of our own ends. 

Part One: Mourning

This is certainly the more traditional approach. Movies can choose to portray our melancholic ruminations on those that have passed and the cavities left behind in our lives by that loss. Cinematic eulogies are frequent but they are not always able to steer clear of cloying sentiment. Nevertheless, regardless of depth or sensitivity, films have positioned music at the core of these scenes of grief.

My choice though is slightly askew as we cannot be certain that a death (or, rather, deaths) has actually occurred. In ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ (1975), Peter Weir recounts the fateful consequences of a schoolgirl tea-party in the Australian outback where four girls and a teacher initially become lost when exploring a local geological feature. When two of the girls and their teacher remain missing, the film reveals the seismic impact that these unexplained events have upon the school and the surrounding community.

One of those most moved by the fates of those involved, is a young aristocrat (Michael). After a glimpse of the girls as they ascend Hanging Rock, he becomes obsessed with discovering what has become of them. This obsession extends to the point at which the effete Michael risks his own life to miraculously rescue one of the party. Nonetheless, his mind cannot rest whilst all the girls are not accounted for.

Is it a romantic fever dream? A sense of youth’s enigma that he is on the point of emerging from? It might even be something as crude as frustrated lust. Regardless of what Michael’s experience amounts to, he is haunted by the loss of something that he might never actually comprehend and this is shown in a scene rich with pathos. Slumped in a chair by a lake, languidly perceiving a swan, we begin to discern Michael’s own troubled mental state as a metamorphosis transforms the bird into one of the missing girls. All this is set to the elevating beauty of Beethoven’s adagio from the ‘Emperor’ piano concerto.

The music is a wordless representation of Michael’s class-oriented ennui and estrangement from the societal world he resides in. It impresses upon us, in a way that verbal musings could never achieve, that these traumas will always overshadow the people left behind. Life will never again be anchored so comfortably in the certainties of the past, something that deftly encapsulates the mourning process for most of us. Beethoven, as only musical geniuses can, conveys the ineffable in a supernatural marriage with Weir’s vision of pastoral ambiguity. Neither is quite as memorable to me without the other.

Part Two: Celebration

It seems odd to consider death, an event usually couched in sadness and loss, as an opportunity to celebrate on screen but many directors have done just that. This irreverence can be seen in films as varied as Hal Ashby’s ‘Harold and Maude’ (1971) and Monty Python’s ‘Meaning of Life’ (1983) but the film that I chose is the one that made the most concerted effort to utilise music in its ribald contemplation of life ceasing.

Bob Fosse’ ‘All That Jazz’ (1979) fashions a death out of music and lyrical subversion that is matched by no other in cinematic history. The movie is a thinly veiled therapy session with Fosse bearing all in the name of his art. A life lived as an egoist of titanic proportions, a serial philanderer and a substance abuser is refracted through Fosse’s alter-ego on screen, Joe Gideon (played by the persistently underrated Roy Scheider). Despite the personal flaws, Gideon is a supremely talented choreographer and filmmaker, something that complicates our take on him and the film.

This could have been a scabrous exercise in film memoir but instead, it revels in a bacchanalian spirit, laced with black humour and pulling no punches on its subject (without falling into tedious moral posturing).

The pinnacle of ‘All That Jazz’ is the film’s audacious conclusion, a 10 minute-plus re-working of The Everly Brothers’ ‘Bye Bye Love’ as a strutting farewell to the mortal realm. Fosse composes an extravaganza of innovative dance, funked-up bass and showbiz tack with which to see off Gideon – what better way to summarize a life lived through licentious excess?

Moment Five: Wonder and Awe

The Big Screen, if it was made for one reason above all others, was surely constructed in order to invoke awe in the viewer. Everything on a grand scale, including the music, as we, the audience, submit to being overwhelmed. Film scores and musical motifs have attempted to do just that, ranging from blockbuster bombast through to spectral fear.

My choice for this most cinematic of emotions is Werner Herzog’s ‘Aguirre’ (1972). Specifically, I am thinking of the unforgettable opening sequence, set to the hypnotic kosmische of Popol Vuh. Against the meditative pulses of the score, Herzog pulls the camera back sedately to reveal an ever-expanding human chain of conquistadors and indigenous slaves as they snake their way down an Amazonian hill-side. As our eyes take in the sheer enormity of Herzog’s filmmaking (physical, tactile, dangerous), the music embraces the sense of challenge and the potential inherent within human endeavours.

Of course, Herzog does not deny the insanity of these escapades but nevertheless, such folly retains the ability to strike us dumb in the presence of its lunatic majesty.

Those sonic undulations that Popol Vuh perform over this striking imagery confirms to the viewer that something far beyond these meagre colonists exists in the New World and in ours. The cosmology of Herzog’s cinematic philosophy is indelibly impressed upon us through both visual expanse and musical mystique.

Moment Six: Eroticism

Just as film audiences often crave suspense, romance and philosophical meaning in cinema, they have also regularly sought erotic stimulus. Beyond the obvious crudity of pornography or milder love scenes within mainstream cinema, there have been directors preoccupied with much more subtle intonations of that age-old siren song. In these attempts, ‘less is more’ has been the most effective mantra and music can, and does, play a significant part in fulfilling a subterranean connection with the audience.

One of my favourite scenes in film that matches this modus operandi is in Lee Chang-dong’s glacially measured thriller ‘Burning’ (2018). In it, a moment of sexual frisson is conjured from nowhere due to an astute synergy of sound and vision. The film revolves around an odd triumvirate of characters – the socially inept Lee Jong-su, the attractive but bored and poor Shin Hae-mi and the sinister, westernised fop Ben. In the midst of Burning, they have come together at a rustic farm (which is the clumsy Jong-su’s home) where they drink and smoke whilst gazing upon a languorous dusk.

Intoxicated by substances, atmosphere and tension, Shin Hae-mi proceeds to improvise a weaving dance worthy of Salome, to the strains of Miles Davis’ ‘Generique’. Against the setting sun, Shin Hae-mi gives a silent performance, completely captivating in its instinctive sensuality and viewed by the gauche Jong-su and the sociopathic Ben with differing degrees of heady fascination. The combination of fluid limbs and sinuous notes mimics the unknowability of much that we desire, casting something to the screen that we have all experienced at some point in our lives. Those stunning, lustful moments where we desperately seek connection with an enigma (ie another human being, who will always remain enigmatic to us in some way) are laid bare in a scene of dreadful, seductive universality.

Burning demonstrates that in the act of desire or being desired, at that point, we don’t know exactly what we want but the want is undeniably there. To that end, what better soundtrack than a Jazz genius? A musical genre that is free-form, often obscure and tied inextricably to the night. The juxtaposition is not just perfect – it is crucial to the scene.

The On-going Conversation…

This is not an exhaustive take on music in cinema but it is, hopefully, a conversation starter. It should further prove that the Silver Screen is far from being exclusively visual. In fact, even focusing entirely on the use of music in film excludes the many facets of sound design that can add substantial lustre to any movie. I can’t deny that I lack the technical knowledge and didactic intent to proffer anything more than a superficial graze around music in filmmaking however.

Instead, I hope that this has revealed how complex the engagement between music and cinema can be. The alchemy of that relationship is hard to pinpoint and harder still to fully understand but it exists and is unique. I spoke of a conversation before and that is exactly what music in film is – an ongoing dialogue between two vibrant art forms. Each hollows out spaces and etches meanings in the other. 

Moreover, each would be infinitely poorer without the other.

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