Writers' Note: Melodious Movies
In January, the BFBs were asked to select their favorite music movie. The genre could encompass anything from musical to the simply music-related, containing original compositions or soundtrack background or covers. We narrowed it down to exclude concert films, although band documentaries are fine. From Moulin Rouge to The Young Girls of Rochefort to name-any Bollywood movie – why does the writer rock with the film, and more importantly, the music within it?
John Carney is a director that has become synonymous with the modern musical. Diegetic music, typically produced by his talented characters, drives his themes of loneliness and companionship, adolescence and maturity, and betrayal and romance throughout his movies. My first answer to a question of favorites in music movies would be to present his filmography. While his best work may be yet to come in Flora and Son (2023), currently premiering at Sundance, revisiting his films brings me to the conclusion that my favorite music movie – and one of my favorite movies of all time – is Once (2007).
Singer/songwriters Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová play the lead characters known only to the credits as “Guy” and “Girl,” respectively. Guy is a street performer and “hoover” mechanic in Dublin and Girl is a flower salesperson and immigrant from Czechia. The two meet, become friends, and make unforgettable music together. When Guy says that he plans to travel to London after the two record an album together, they both must decide whether they want that music to go on or to remain as a warm memory.
Much of the magic of Once comes from the fact that the two leads wrote the music that their respective characters perform in the movie. Carney proves his skill at bringing out the best in his actors by letting the real-life friendship between Hansard and Irglová, along with their charming performances, take center stage. The audience is spending time getting to know them as they are spending time with each other. All those elements together make viewing the movie like wrapping up in a warm blanket of feelings – so be sure to watch it before the winter is over.
The highest achievement of Once, and the bar that any movie falling into the category of “music movie” should strive for, is that the tone of the movie matches note-for-note with the melancholy and potency of the music it features. It’s rare to find a movie without a soundtrack, and while brilliant directors have crafted gripping moments without music, movies often need the emotional backdrop that music provides. Once is a beautiful example of the two art forms presented in balance and perfect harmony.
When thinking about my favorite music movies, I initially conjured up thoughts of happy-go-lucky musicals: comfort movies that utilize music to create a genuinely joyous experience, such as Singin’ in the Rain, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, Sing Street, An American in Paris, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg…
As I listed all of these in my head, I started thinking about how similar these movies were in the sense of using music as a form of escapism, and I realized that maybe the most effective music movies are ones that use music to confront the human experience head-on. Think Suspiria (2018), Whiplash (2014), Black Swan (2010), and my pick: Gaspar Noe’s nightmarish, trippy masterwork, Climax (2018).
Climax is divided into three sections (with an epilogue), and with that, there are technically three “musical” numbers in the form of choreographed dance. The first section is a compilation of VHS interviews of all the members of the international dance troupe, as if they’re the “players” in some twisted Shakespearean play. Though we get limited information about each of these players, they reveal to us their insecurities, their motivations, and their reason for devoting themselves to dance. It’s a bit slow at first, but we see why it’s important to know as the first euphoric dance number begins, set to Cerrone’s “Supernature.” Whatever sense of negative emotion these players feel in their day-to-day lives doesn’t matter anymore because they are putting their all into performing kinetic and joyous choreography.
In the second part of the movie, we see how human all the players are, jumping back and forth between player-to-player conversations, some friendly, some gossipy, some menacing. This drama can only exist when the players aren’t actually dancing, so after, we are treated to another animated dance routine. While this happens, 40 minutes into the movie, the credits (of the actors, director, and musicians the players dance to) are shown, ushering in the beginning of “something.” When we find out as audience members that that “something” is an LSD-spiked punch bowl of sangria that all the players and a young child consumed, the real movie begins.
The third section of the movie can only be experienced first-hand, with some of the most impressive coordination of camerawork, choreography, cinematography, and soundtracking I’ve ever seen. The theatricalism that was required to film it (which, by the way, is centered around a 42-minute long take, which conveys the internal panic of a bad trip with the external contortion of modern dance player-by-player) is only rivaled by that of Inarritu’s Birdman or Sokurov’s Russian Ark, though both of those movies could not get close enough to the viscerality of Noe’s long take.
Climax uniquely uses its soundtrack, choreography, and musical cues to convey an interesting conflict of what it means to “let yourself go,” no holds barred. It’s unsettling, yes, but an incredibly underrated and effective movie when examining the relationship between music and film.
I’ve discussed Martin Scorcese's The Last Waltz once before for the BFBs, but I am thrilled to bring it up again. I only watched it because at the time I was writing an essay about the best films from 1978. I’ve never been a big fan of music movies, but I was pleasantly surprised after watching this beautiful celebration of music captured at a distinct time in American history.
“The Last Waltz” was the name of The Band’s farewell concert held on Thanksgiving day of 1976 featuring music from Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Niel Young, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, and more music legends. Prior to watching, I had no idea what The Band was, who was in it or any of their songs. But by the end of their breathtaking performance, I considered myself a fan. The best song hands down is “I Shall be Released” sung by The Band and the whole ensemble of musical guests. It is such a beautiful ending to a musical masterpiece. Thank you Martin Scorcese! I’m in desperate need of a rewatch, but I’m curious if I'll feel any different now that I know all the words to their songs.
I am a (recovering) former theater kid, so I was at one point fairly deep into the world of movie musicals. Singin’ in the Rain got me jazzed about show business, just as it did for many film lovers before me. My Fair Lady has some of my favorite tunes of all time. Chicago, Cabaret, Hairspray, Rocky Horror. Awesome films with absurdly catchy music, made better with great company.
Outside the obvious musical genre, there is no shortage of stunning cinematic moments in jukebox assemblies and tributes to classical geniuses; I am often comforted by the vision of a music supervisor and the filmmaker believing in a piece enough to accompany an original human moment. Making that connection is powerful. If I had to narrow down a music genre that marked a big shift in my life, however, it’d probably be my discovery of rock. And which contemporary filmmaker loves classic rock more than Richard Linklater?
I actually didn’t see School of Rock (2003) until a few years ago, so I might not have the deep, life-altering connection to it that those who experienced it in the corresponding elementary school age group probably have. But as a young adult with a depressing lack of childlike zest and wonder left within me, I am proud to say that I was beside myself with giddiness when I saw Jack Black tear up that stage.
School of Rock is great for many reasons – Jack Black, the chemistry of the cast, its incredible sense of humor – but I think the main reason that it’s held up so well is because of how Richard Linklater levels the playing field between child and adult. A story about a fraudulent substitute teacher invading a classroom to teach youngins’ about the power of music probably sounds, to adult ears, cheesy as hell, and from another angle, a little creepy. But Linklater is aware of this, using those preconceptions to poke fun at jaded adults who are stiff and unimaginative in the “real world.” Dewey Finn is a man-child, but his responsibility and genuine wisdom kick in during crisis, and he learns from his students just as they learn from him.
Bowie, AC/DC, KISS. It’s a killer assembly of sonorous momentum. I lack instrumental talent or patience, but fuck if School of Rock didn’t motivate me to be bold, get out there and try something new. I’m also grateful that there’s a movie out there that encourages kids to be creative without stooping to cheap-laugh slapstick or shaming children for things beyond their control. Linklater believes in everyone’s potential; if not for glory, then just for fun. Fun is good.
Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) is a suitably eccentric study of a musical icon, as famous for his unique personality as his sublime artistry. Director Francois Girard forgoes practically every convention of the biopic, opting instead to show oblique fragments of the Canadian pianist’s life and impact, which gradually add up to something much greater. I’d loved Gould’s music for many years before seeing 32 Short Films last year, which blended with an intense personal resonance to make for a beautiful watching experience.
The episodic structure of the film is inspired by Bach’s Goldberg Variations, of which Gould’s maverick recording is the most famous. Girard weaves a gorgeous tapestry out of biographical scenes, documentary-style interviews, abstract shorts, and piano performances, each piece ranging from 40 seconds to 6 minutes. Each of these has their own poignant charm, whether it’s Gould interviewing himself about why he chose to stop giving public concerts, him listening to his new record with a hotel maid, or Gould’s cousin recounting his anxiety that no one would attend his funeral (an idea which turned out to be utterly wrong). Not only does it revel in details and digressions, but the ineffable power of music permeates every corner of the film, making an eloquent case for listening as an art in and of itself.
Where others may have resorted to caricature, Colm Feore portrays Gould with an incredible sensitivity, folding both his quirks and passions into a nuanced and compassionate tribute. Despite his fears, the pianist remains beloved to this day, and one of the final moments of the film shows his music accompanying the Voyager spacecrafts to the outer edges of space– so too will 32 Short Films stand the test of time as a radical and brilliant portrait.
-Josh, Spencer, Sophie, Lydia & Jonathan