Though inherently an incredibly manipulative medium, film becomes doubly so when scores and soundtracks play a prominent role; the site of intersection between image and sound is by turns cynically prescriptive and sentimentally liberating. From the taut strings of Psycho (1960) to the exhilarating rush of Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ in Mauvais Sang (1986), music use is as varied as any other tool in the filmmakers’ arsenal.
Diegetic sound, for those out the know, is any audio occurring within the film’s world (diegesis). The most famously example from the last 30 years is probably the Stealers Wheel Reservoir Dogs (1992) scene. Usage of diegetic music in film tends to fall into three camps: reinforcement, counterpoint and what can be politely described as selling out (where a song is included less for creative than judicious marketing reasons). Counterpoint, the ‘using chirpy vintage records to render a moment sinister’ one, is always going to be popular since irony replaced cynicism a couple of decades back. Reinforcement, however, is arguably the more interesting choice; it appeals to baser yearnings, yearnings which haven’t gone away even when cynicism replaced Romanticism as the overriding de facto tone of Western cinema.
“Much has been written about Dolan’s decision to populate the soundtrack to Mommy with such ‘uncool’ songs and what this means”
The reinforcement mode of soundtracking is often rooted in feelings of nostalgia, of the past as a foreign country we can call close to us in spirit through the strains of an old ditty. Two films this year, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years and Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, both detailed relationships dictated to and haunted by the past’s oppressive grasp. The painful nostalgia they share is fundamentally compounded and informed by the musical choices of the films’ makers.
In 45 Years, the tale of mature couple Kate and Geoff facing relationship fractures thanks to the arrival of a letter the week of their eponymous anniversary, the past runs like fissures through the film. It’s about unresolved issues of the past refusing to let go off the present, and while thematically the narrative depicts a losing struggle against that, the music choices throughout reflect an array of intentions. The golden oldies on the radio station selected by the couple are from a past they now seem to exist solely to remember, even before the letter that shatters this petering out of life arrives.
When it does arrive and the rift begins, that same music becomes enveloping for Geoff and he detaches from Kate emotionally. Kate’s a satellite to her husband. The bulk of the film has the couple increasingly estranged, something the tunes faintly emitted from the wireless in the corner encourage just as much as Geoff’s late night trips to the attic to sit in his memories do. Cocoons may be protective, but they are also by nature isolationist, and this protective bubble afforded by the wistful crooning of The Platters proves destructive to a potentially irreparable degree.
This is also true in Mommy, where the music is used less obviously like a proverbial ball and chain than a tether keeping a lost connection vividly alive. The tale of troubled teenager Steve and his widowed mother Die’s navigating of life’s hurdles bristles with a messy emotional openness, and it is through its music cues that the film finds much of its most potent impact.
Sarah McLachlan. Dido. Eiffel 65. French Céline Dion. Much has been written about Dolan’s decision to populate the soundtrack to Mommy with such ‘uncool’ songs and what this means; suffice to say uncool, sentimental, painfully intense love is a hallmark of nearly all Dolan’s work, on every level, so such a collection of songs is natural and fitting step. More directly, the music mirrors the character of Steve and is strongly influential in how he engages with his past.
In the context of the film, these tracks form a mixtape made by Steve’s father for he and Die. The songs are temporally locked, if not to the time of their respective creation then to a period when the family unit was intact and happy. Nick Hornby suggested in 31 Songs that the only music with the power of memory, which draws us back to particular moments in life, is the music we experience vividly, intensely, then leave. The music which creates an anchor, which forms an X to mark the spot. This is the reason that (for the most part) pop music in all its ephemerality is a better portal to the past than a favourite album. The ideal which the Mommy mixtape/soundtrack harkens back to, a near Nuclear Family sense of order and security, is now an impossible, unachievable ideal.
The music then is allowing the opportunity to return emotionally (spiritually?) to that period, albeit just temporarily. The first of the two most exhilarating sequences in the film, where the boxy 1:1 framing expands to a more conventional yet expansive aspect ratio, is soundtracked by Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’. Their most familiar song, ‘Wonderwall’ is now a derided cultural meme. But when laid over (or coupled with) such a tension-releasing scene, the song finds 20 years of idolisation, then cynicism, then irony, are all stripped away, reverting it to its birth state. A safe space to be returned to – an aural cocoon, a sonic womb.
As with 45 Years though, what was once a comfort, to turn back the clock, instead turns black and decays. Prolonged exposure to the cocoon music only serves to make matters worse, as the current, comparatively fractured familial relationship is exposed. Being compared to that ideal for increasing periods of time sours the memory of then and engenders bitterness in the now. The second exhilarating sequence in Mommy, an alternate montage of what-ifs and might-have-beens presented late in the film (also in a wide aspect ratio), is accompanied by Ludovico Einaudi. A non-diegetic and more recent piece of music, the implicit message in the mingling of contemporary sounds and visual, thematic positivity is easily read: to progress you must ditch the past, be unchained from its hold in all forms – no matter how comforting.
Both Mommy and 45 Years feature characters dealing with an absence, a void they fill with music imbued with memory, utilising its associative powers to recall a sense, an essence of important past. In 45 Years it is ostensibly the missing Katya, but more implicitly the lost spectre of youth, of diverted and unused (wasted) potential. In Mommy it is the father, yes, but also the missing structure, the lost normalcy of the family unit. Both obsessions with the past are initially enabled and alleviated through temporally-locked music choices, but they ultimately become toxic and unsustainable through overexposure.
“Both Mommy and 45 Years feature characters dealing with an absence, a void they fill with music imbued with memory”
Though 45 Years principally follows Kate, she is mostly a reactive character responding to her husband and his accompanying constellation. The one time she is afforded a musical moment of her own, one which most directly comments on Kate’s impending crossroads, the song is the decisively final ‘Go Now’ by the Moody Blues, begun in the very final seconds. The open door to happiness seems to be achieved through abandoning the past. It is a door not afforded Geoff; perhaps he is too far gone, perhaps only Kate has the necessary strength.
Likewise, the ending of Mommy finds Steve’s final release from the past scored by the most recent song in the film. As Steve starts his headlong rush away from the people physically restraining him, the melodramatic strings of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born to Die’ begin, its sweeping romanticism quashing irony, its retro modernism placating the nostalgic urges. It’s an extreme way of breaking from solipsistic historical obsession, but both films argue that it is extremely necessary, and the only way.