The Sound of Pictures
The most obvious advantage of using pop songs on a soundtrack is that it locates the film in time and possibly place. In 1955, Richard Brooks started The Blackboard Jungle with Bill Haley and the Comets playing 'Rock Around the Clock'. The record had been released the previous year, to small acclaim, and now the film helped make it a hit. But from the first bars of the song in the cinema, the 1950s audience was bang in the middle of youth culture and it knew it. George Lucas's American Graffiti (1973) also has 'Rock Around the Clock' at the start, but this time it told filmgoers they were watching a film set in the past. In fact, American Graffiti is not set as far back at The Blackboard Jungle, and there are more than 40 songs following Billy Haley that span the eight years from 'Rock Around the Clock' to 1962, the year of the film's setting.
American Graffiti has one of the most celebrated soundtracks in cinema history, and it consists of much more than the songs. The sound designer Walter Murch constructed an elaborate montage in which we hear the voice of (real life) disc jockey Wolfman Jack introducing songs and filling in with foolish DJ-chatter ('Sneakin' around with the Wolfman, baby'). There are advertisements, hoax phone calls, the standard noise that cluttered commercial radio in the 1960s and clutters it still. The radio sound fades in and out of earshot as sources (mostly car radios) come and go. Very occasionally a radio is switched off, but in general, one car radio fades and another replaces it. The songs themselves serve two purposes beyond locating the film in time and place. The first and most important is to regulate the pace of the film, speeding up the action, slowing it down, helping the film to turn dramatic corners. The second is at the more local level of interaction with the story. The young people on the screen seldom seem to be actively listening to the sounds from their radios, but occasionally they pass judgement.
'Rock & roll's been going down hill ever since Buddy Holly died,' complains Milner (Paul Le Mat) as he gives the Beach Boys' 'Surfin' Safari' the flick. The radio shuts off, but only briefly before another radio takes over. And so it goes throughout the film. When Toad (Charles Martin Smith) and Debbie (Candy Clark) leave their car to make out in a field, their brief attempt at intimacy distracts us from noticing that the music has stopped.
'The radio's gone,' Toad says suddenly.
'That means the car is gone!'
It is, of course, the ephemeral nature of pop music that makes it so useful for situating a film and so good at provoking a wistful response. Pop music is of its time. This is possibly truer of disco than of any other music in history, and both Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997) and The Last Days of Disco (Whit Stillman, 1998), in their different ways, managed to take the likes of the Commodores' 'Machine Gun' and Alicia Bridges 'I Love the Nightlife' and give them a kind of nobility. Stillman even managed to create a genuine sense of regret for the passing of an era. That these films should achieve such feats when both are essentially comedies and when the music itself was, in its day, roundly despised by people who didn't go to discos (the vast majority of us), says something about the passing of time and the way it is capable of bestowing, if not gravitas, then at least nostalgia. Boogie Nights and The Last Days of Disco were films that looked back only two decades. The more years that have passed between the music and the film, the more respectable the nostalgia.
Woody Allen's Radio Days (1987) is a paean to the music and personalities on American radio in the early 1940s. In particular, it celebrates the way in which one family listened intently to everything from 'The Flight of the Bumble Bee' to Carmen Miranda, via sports reports and quiz shows. The radio helped define their lives and give it structure. A decade later in Terence Davies's Liverpool, the BBC of the 1950s was the purveyor of an equally eclectic mix of words and music. Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) includes Ella Fitzgerald and Eddie Calvert, Kenneth Williams and Kenneth Horn, but also A Hymn to the Virgin by Benjamin Britten and Vaughan Williams's A Pastoral Symphony. Perhaps most evocative to anyone acquainted with British radio from the period (and later) was the BBC Shipping Forecast, its list of magical names -- 'Humber, Heligoland, East Dogger . . . ' -- read at dictation speed and in a tone of mild regret by a male voice with an upper-middle-class accent. Both Woody Allen and Terence Davies have returned to the music of their childhoods, and especially when they are making films about their home towns. Where the Manhattan skyline will summon the ghost of Benny Goodman to a Woody Allen soundtrack, for Davies the freshly scrubbed doorstep of a Liverpool terrace evokes Kathleen Ferrier singing 'Blow the Wind Southerly'.
© Andrew Ford 2010
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