It turns out, despite 21 years of practise, that I’m not that good at sleeping. My sister always used to tell me how much she envied my ability to fall asleep within moments of my head hitting the pillow, but for the last year I’ve really struggled to sleep like a normal person. I don’t have insomnia; I’ve never missed a night’s sleep in my life. The worst night of sleep I ever had was when I was about 15/16 and my group of friends were verboten from sleeping in the house we were expecting to stay in that night. Instead, we were banished to the garden, to sleep in the most horrible and terrifying caravan. Long story short, upon expressing the fact that I’d never pulled an all-nighter, a friend convinced me to stay awake until 7am. At which point I fell asleep for 45 minutes, ruined the attempt and so gave no justification for feeling quite so horrible the next day. The point is, I can’t not sleep, but I’m just not very good at getting there. I know it’s bad sleep hygiene, but watching telly and films at night send me off a lot better. I now have a Pavlov response: without something to watch it can take me hours to sleep, but when I start a film playing I’m asleep a lot faster. Problem solved. My watching of choice tends to be David Attenborough documentaries – Blue Planet is particularly relaxing – his voice is soothing, the images are pretty and I’m asleep before the programme even gets going. When David (first name terms) isn’t on iPlayer, though, I watch films, and it was watching the penultimate film on this list the other night that inspired me to write this post.
I wish I knew more about soundtracking. My favourite theatre company, Propeller, soundtrack their Shakespeare in a way that I envy. The actors often sing and play instruments, creating music together that I dream of knowing even how to start to compose. Particularly haunting was their singing to their version of Richard III (which I saw in Coventry in late 2010), in which the unaccompanied singing had folksy, child-song and choral qualities. I wish I could write down my memory of the tune, but what would that even look like? For those who don’t know, Shakespeare’s Richard III was pretty much wholly responsible for our assumption that he killed or at least ordered the deaths of the princes in the tower. In Propeller’s version, the assassin we’d watched Richard hire earlier came away from the four-poster bed in the centre of the stage, having just killed the boys. He was a short but almost impossibly stocky man, with the shoulders of a rower who has such big muscles that he can’t put his arms by his side. He wore a tight white shirt that held him uncomfortably and on his face he had a completely clear plastic mask, which reflected the stage lights giving him a bizarre and brilliantly terrifying doll visage. The other actors, dressed in doctors’ white coats with their faces covered, sang the music as they rearranged the stage. Downstage, the very Aryan Richard entered stage left and shot the assassin, who had turned to face him. The singing stopped, the assassin fell to his knees before falling backwards, his knees still bent. A beat passed. Unexpectedly, the singing started again, but this time they sang the same tune and words backwards as the assassin pulled himself back up in an exact reverse of the way he had fallen, before walking off stage. It was so simple but so brilliant to watch and I felt that the soundtrack of this singing backwards was what really made the moment. This ten-or-so seconds of action at once summed up the whole bizarre nature of these bodies that pile up throughout the play, but also the idea of this moment being replayed in the nation’s memory for the next four hundred years. This idea of replaying was great too: the concept was full of post-modern film references: American Psycho, Conspiracy, Schindler’s List, Saw, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Matrix, Psycho and even old Western films particularly stand out in my memory, though at the time I recognised so many more and the whole notion of post-modernism is this idea of replaying things that already existed. Most people know the story of the murdered princes, and most people suppose that Richard was to blame (Shakespeare was living under Tudor rule. The end of Richard III shows Richard killed by Henry Bolingbroke, aka Henry VII, the first Tudor king, so obviously they want to portray Richard as badly as possible and Henry as the opposite. It’s propaganda, innit), but here it is made so strange and ridiculous, so replayed but also so haunting that even as we see the aftermath of the moment that we waited to see, we can’t escape the idea that it probably didn’t really happen like that. Now THAT is good soundtracking.
(On the topic of Richard III, watch this. My favourite bit is when they rhyme Plantaganet. Amazing!)
I played with soundtracking when I directed Titus Andronicus earlier this year. I didn’t have the resources to get something composed, but I used Clint Mansell’s soundtrack to The Fountain (dir. Darren Aronofsky) in a perhaps too ambitious attempt to give more depth and weight to some of the harder and more emotionally draining scenes. A few moments fitted better than others, a scene where there’s an attack in the woods worked well, as did the mutilated Lavinia’s entrance, but I wish I’d done other moments better. Of course, I can’t compose music but I have no doubt that writing music to fit with the action in front of you is tough, but equally trying to make action fit to music that already exists and so is unchangeable is still really tough. I’d love to learn to do it better, but I suppose one can only learn through practice.
I wrote the other day, however, that I was really struggling with this post. I had hoped to publish it a week ago, but I held back. I’d written 5000 words, including the above introduction, on what I was arguing were my favourite soundtracked film/television moments. I thought that the reason I was reluctant to publish it was that it was too long, but I realised today that it wasn’t the entire problem. If people want to read it, they will, and I won’t know what their decision is unless they tell me (don’t tell me).
The problem, actually, was that they weren’t my favourite soundtracked moments. The reluctance actually came from embarrassment: I have no idea what I’m talking about with this. I don’t know anything about films and I don’t anything about music. I do enjoy films, but I’m sucked back into the same films again and again because I like this guarantee that I’ll enjoy it. It sounds stupid, I know that – three hours (maximum) is not much of my life to give up, the worst that can happen is that it’s boring and I can always switch it off. I have no excuse, I just like the comforts of what I know. I’m making this sound very serious, when really all I want to do is explain that this list isn’t what I intended and is based on no knowledge at all. I’ve got rid of all the moments that I inserted that I wasn’t sure about or that I hadn’t written about properly.
This is a stupidly long introduction: I have no confidence in what I’m about to copy and paste, but I like these moments and maybe you will too.
A list of unranked but enjoyably soundtracked moments in film (and one on telly)
Billy Elliot – Town called Malice by The Jam
I’ve been good at accents for a while, but even though I lived with a Geordie girl for two years, I could never get the hang of that accent. I used to pester her to say “Some dancers are as fit as athletes” or “Ah coulda bin a professional dancer” (that was my attempt at writing the accent) in homage to this film. Considering how frustratingly often I asked, she was kind enough to almost always comply.
Billy Elliot is a cracking film, it’s all dancing and accents and anger and denim and miners and swearing and ballet n that, which is a winning combination. Favourite moments include when Billy asks his brother if he ever thinks about death (not repeatable on a family friendly blog), when his father admits he’s never been to the capital city because there’s “no mines in London” (an enjoyable stereotype to use on a friend from the North East who really hasn’t been to London) and the moment when he dances angrily. There isn’t much to say about it: it’s great music (this film has a brilliant soundtrack, it’s such a shame that the final credits are ruined by Stephen Gateley. Who died over two years ago now, how weird is that?), great dancing and that Jamie Bell kid grew up NICE. It’s all a very satisfying conclusion to the angry build up of the scene before.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame – The Bells of Notre Dame
I’m not sure if this counts as soundtracking because it’s a song, but this is my list and I like it. Also, yes yes I know I’m supposed to include The Lion King, like that moment when the pridelands are restored but that film always made me cry so I just avoid it.
Moving on. I love this as a Disney opening because it’s so dark. Maybe it’s because I only saw this film for the first time a few years ago, but the opening to me just seems so terribly sad in a way that I probably wouldn’t have recognised as a child. I love the repetition of the bells/eyes/steps/etc of Notre Dame and the cry of “Sanctuary, please give us sanctuary!” is a lovely foreshadowing of the way this religious right is used later in the story. I just bought Victor Hugo’s novel in an attempt to read the real story, but I’ve got a few more books to get through first. It’s a great big tome of a novel, which makes me feel guilty for having it on my bookshelf because it feels like a lie. I haven’t read it and people might think I actually know stuff about books when they see it. Awkward.
Back to the Future – The Power of Love by Huey Lewis and the News
I love this film. I love this film more than is reasonable. Nobody can out-nerd me on BTTF knowledge: seriously, try it, you will fail. This song is my ringtone, it has a great opening and makes me smile every time I hear it, though whenever the song comes up on shuffle it freaks me out because I egotistically think I’m ringing. More fool me. As an opening song, this is such a great one, it warms me up for the rest of the film and the 80s-ness that is to come. Plus there’s a great cameo from Huey during Marty’s audition to play at the dance (YEAH CHECK MY KNOWLEDGE). This introduction makes me want to go back to school (just so I can yell “DAMN, I’M LATE FOR SCHOOL!”) and I want to skateboard all the way there.
I can’t mention music from BTTF without a reference to the theme music, which makes me want to wear high tops and a life preserver and travel THROUGH TIME.
Tangled – When will my life begin
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It was songs/music like this that made me question my list in the first place I think. I didn’t think through every single film that I’ve seen or rewatch everything ever – I just looked through my iTunes soundtracks and got excited. I love this song, and the film is excellent. This is probably one of my favourite movie montages. It’s great, because she’s super cute and squeaky clean (in part thanks to Mandy Moore, equally super cute and squeaky clean) but also because it is self-aware of the cuteness of Disney: “And by then it’s like 7.15” as a good example. I love that it gets a bit random: ventriloquy, candle-making, etc. It’s such a great film, classic Disney in its cuteness but also great jokes. Plus the chap in it is super hot.
The Prince of Egypt – The Plagues
(Sorry about the weird first 40 seconds, I don’t know why you can’t hear them speaking, but stick with it ‘cos it gets good)
I vividly remember seeing this film in the cinema as a child. I was completely blown away: at the time, it was the cutting edge of animation and I’ll never forget watching the moment when the Red Sea parts and the sea creatures are seen behind the wall of water. Animation has moved on, but every time I watch this film I’m still amazed by how beautifully it was made.
The scene when the plagues strike Egypt was the other moment I couldn’t forget. The music was so haunting, the voices that come in as a whisper of “Thus saith the Lord” before the plagues are listed in quick, neat rhymes that I appreciated more every time I listened and even as I write are giving me goosebumps. The visuals stood out too, the image of that cow collapsing always scared me, along with the two girls cowering from the burning hail. This is a story so filled with amazing miracles and I feel like this film captures these moments of the plagues in such a great way.
I just love the style of animation. It’s definitely worth watching The Road to El Dorado, which is drawn the same way but with songs by The Lion King team and it’s super funny. PLUS, Kenneth Branagh does one of the voices. YES.
Atonement – Elegy for Dunkirk
I read a scathing review of this tracking shot, saying that it’s all very well to do such a long scene with no cuts in filming, but it doesn’t add anything to the film, it’s just the director showing off. Surely that’s in part what directing is – I was criticised during Titus for the self-indulgence of choosing to direct a play where I didn’t answer to anyone else, but I’m not really sure what else I was supposed to do. Directing is as much about showing off your own ideas and talents as those in your cast. Really, I just think who cares if he’s showing off? This scene is great, no wonder he wanted to show off what he could do. And this “showing off” doesn’t get in the way of the scene: the length isn’t so much that we notice nothing else, but rather I found myself sucked in, wanting to watch the busy scene again and again to notice everything. The edges of these shots are just as important as James McAvoy at the centre. A good example for me was the horses, which I think are particularly important. I read somewhere after seeing the film that these horses are trained to collapse upon hearing gunshot noises, specifically for scenes such as this. I have no idea how one trains a horse, I don’t even like them, but the way that they collapse, just in the background, is so real and so difficult not to watch. They’re perhaps the most obvious way that we’re shown the bizarre nature of Dunkirk, of this waiting and worrying and preparing right out in the open. Just as the horses seem strange and shocking because it’s shown right in front of us, so was the whole experience (I imagine) because the soldiers were so exposed, so out in the open.
Perhaps the best bit about this bit of soundtracking is the use of “Oh Lord and Father of Mankind” by John Greanleaf Whittier, one of my favourite hymns. The high notes, fading in and out as the trio walk past, are haunting with the words “Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire”. The idea of this “still, small voice of calm” being visible in this strange chaos is so alien, and yet there’s a dramatic irony as we watch this scene. The audience may understand the anxiety of those they see in front of them, but we all know that Dunkirk ends well for the British in not just an amazing escape but also a very calm and organised one considering the danger.
I don’t like this film, not because it’s badly done or badly acted, but just because I can’t believe the premise, which is why I never bothered fully with the book (yes, yes, bad literature student watching films without reading the book). It always seemed bizarre to me that Briony was believed above her sister and it seemed like so little evidence was taken. Regardless, Dario Marianelli’s soundtrack is great, I used to listen to it while pretending to write essays. My particular favourite is Briony – I love the way the music uses the noise of the typewriter at the start, mirroring the way that Robbie’s typewriting and Briony’s imagination (which, in turn, makes her write) kick-start the rest of the action.
Corpse Bride – The Piano Duet
When I was about 14, I was, like pretty much everyone else who considered themselves to be “alternative”, pretty obsessed with The Nightmare Before Christmas. I’ve overwatched it, but I appreciate the time that must have gone into creating what was the first full-length stop motion animation film. And if you haven’t watched it, it is a total delight. Corpse Bride was definitely a nod back to this film, done in the same style but all the better for Tim Burton’s improved casting (Johnny Depp & Helena Bonham Carter, obv, in the lead roles with characters who look delightfully similar to their actors).
So, because I’m a loser I wanted to make it really obvious and clear why I love the piano duet so much before I link to the video. Basically, there’s two worlds in this film – the world of the living and the world of the dead. The former is grey, Victorian and austere, but the latter is fun, filled with jazz and bright colours. While still in the former, Victor (Johnny Depp) is waiting awkwardly in the house of his never-before-met fiancée while his parents negotiate his wedding to this unknown girl (she’s the one listening to the music. She’s called Victoria and we like her) and begins to play the piano. So, Victor’s solo:
Through a chain of events that look ridiculously stupid when I tried to write them down just now, Victor ends up in the land of the dead (still alive!), with the corpse bride (Helena B-C) convinced that they’re engaged, which he immediately tries to explain was an accident. Obviously heart-broken, she sings of her sadness in a song called No More Tears to Shed. This isn’t the best song, but it’s worth it for the next bit. Bear with me.
These bits of music are fine on their own, the former being rather lovely, but the really great moment is when Victor comes to apologise to the Corpse Bride (she seriously doesn’t have another name.) and finds her playing the melody of the latter tune. When she won’t listen to his apology, he begins to play alongside her, choosing to play parts of Victor’s Solo that we heard earlier. What we end up with is a great duet, because the music blending together is so clever. I’d love a chap to apologise by playing piano with me, though he’d have to be good enough at piano to not ruin it but also not so good that he’d make me feel rubbish because I haven’t played properly in a few years. Tough crowd.
The Phantom of the Opera – All I ask of you (Reprise)
Ok, I’m cheating slightly here. I loved this bit of music long before I saw the film, and to be honest, I still think the Michael Crawford version of this bit is a million times better, just because the chords are slower. But this is supposed to be films and telly, so I have to put the film bit in. If anybody wants to hear a better version, just click here. But anyway, everyone knows that the Phantom is better than Raoul, who is an idiot, even if his name is Erik (seriously). I love that the Phantom’s chords are brought back as he gets angry and we wait (and sort of hope he’ll win) for him to go after Christine for reals.
Peter Pan – ‘Flying’ by James Newton Howard
It was when I was watching this the other night that I decided to write this list. James Newton Howard is probably my favourite soundtrack composer and has the kind of IMDB profile that makes me feel a bit sick with the sheer number and quality of the titles. When I first saw this film I was the same age as Jeremy Sumpter & Rachel Hurd-Wood, who play Peter Pan and Wendy respectively, and pretty much was wracked with jealousy for the latter (I still am, she has had some great roles) and was totally in love with the former. Now I watch it and am like YOU ARE A CHILD AND THAT IS GROSS, but I guess I was too at the time. I think the music is fun and so magic and just that sequence is enough to make me tear up a bit (as in, the edge of crying, I don’t go crazy ripping things), which is all I really want from any film.
This particular music comes back at two other really lovely bits, when Tinkerbell is brought back (“I DO BELIEVE IN FAIRIES, I DO, I DO!”) and then when Wendy gives Peter the thimble, which is also SUPER GREAT. I love the way that it builds up in the background as you see the Darling parents run up the stairs and Peter pretty much seducing Wendy. “Never is an awfully long time.” There’s just this moment where you think GO WITH HIM, FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE HE IS REALLY HOT FOR HIS AGE, and the narration is lovely because it says just what we want to hear: “But then we would have no story!” – And we’re away! The music explodes, much louder and more prominent now, as the children fly over the sleeping London. The narration is done by the beautiful (if slightly chinny?) Saffron Burrows, who played the grown up Wendy in the alternative ending, where Peter comes back and she’s too old for Neverland and he takes away her daughter for an adventure. I always thought that was such a sad ending in the original J.M. Barrie version and I’m pleased that they cut it (also because when you watch the, albeit unedited and so full of strings to carry the flying children, alternative ending then the child playing Wendy’s daughter is REALLY BAD AT ACTING). Growing up is so sad, I find it totally bizarre that my childhood is over and it’s downhill towards feeling like a real grown up now. But also, I wouldn’t want to stay young – Peter’s situation is also sad. In this version, Wendy and Captain Hook (very hot, played by Jason Isaacs in a great Charles II-esque wig, who also plays her Dad, which is a very clever bit of double casting) discuss how Peter cannot love and I think that’s probably the saddest notion of all. Other versions of this story are fine, but I love that this film uses actors who are on that weird edge between childhood and sort-of-adulthood, where feelings don’t make any sense. It’s sad, then, that Peter will never grow old enough to understand any of it.
Anyway, the music’s great.
Casanova – soundtrack by Murray Gold
Murray Gold is a bit like the James NH of telly, probably most famous for his Doctor Who theme for when it was brought back a few years ago. If you haven’t seen this, go and buy it – it’s available on Play.com for a few quid – it’s great value for a beautiful and fun three hours. This was where I first fell in love with David Tennant, and clearly so did the Doctor Who team, as it’s also written by Russell T. Davis. It’s a fun and mostly light-hearted romp around Europe, with Venice at its heart. At the centre of Casanova’s infamous exploits is his love for Henriette, who is played by Laura Fraser, who gets to wear really nice dresses and have great hair and I’m always jealous of that. I pretty much want to live in this film.
There’s a piece of music that follows Casanova and Henriette around, let’s call it Henriette’s Theme. The first time it plays is the second time he meets her, just as he realises that she’s engaged to Rupert Penry-Jones’ character, Grimani, who is a massive douchebag. From then on, the music plays every time he thinks of her, every time Peter O’Toole who is playing the old Casanova reminiscing about his past remembers her then we hear twinklings of the music. It’s really beautiful, have a listen to the first time we hear it here:
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The act of remembering is a big part of film, literature, theatre and television. It doesn’t have to be a postmodern way to deal with what we remember, but all four mediums rely on their audience to remember what they’ve already seen, heard or read. It would be stupid to show murder mystery programmes, for example, if the audience couldn’t even remember who the suspects were when they’re told whodunnit. Perhaps that sounds really obvious. The above is essentially a list of stories that were written and filmed as a way of retelling, which in itself is an act of memory. We are, at the most basic level, watching the actors remember – remembering lines, remembering direction, remembering what they know about their characters, etc – and we, too, remember. But we don’t just do that, we don’t just remember what we are told, what we see, what we hear and what we read. Crucially, we retell it and it becomes part of us. This is exactly what I was writing about with Richard III – we are part of huge stories that people remember and retell and manipulate ad infinitum, and that’s so exciting. You don’t have to be retelling the story of Rapunzel every thirty seconds for Tangled to become a part of you, just as you don’t have to turn into someone you’ve met for them to be a part of you too, but human beings are sponges for what they hear and see and who knows what words or phrases you might have picked up along the way and find yourself using without even realising (a few days ago I caught myself saying laughing with a northern “A” rather than the “larrfing” I’m used to down south: people never stop being a part of you) and so, we, too, are involved in this process of retelling in this huge and complicated narrative that we are constantly trying to understand.