Movies and Film: A Musical Interlude

A Musical Interlude

Music is one of those filmic elements that we tend to take for granted. But it is a major determinant of how we feel about characters and narrative from moment to moment.

Music: In or Out of the Plot

Most of the time, music can be part of a film in one of two ways. It can be used as the background music for a film—the theme song that plays at the opening and, perhaps, recurs over the course of the film, as with "Tara's Theme" in Gone With the Wind (1939). Or it can be an integral part of the film's plot, as in the tinny piano music played by Charles Aznavour in Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Sometimes the musical score may seem to be one, but is actually the other, as in the previously mentioned examples from Bananas and Last Tango in Paris. Sometimes, as in George Lucas's brilliantly funny and poignant American Graffiti (1973), music (in this case the very nostalgic rock-and-roll of the early 1960s) serves both functions at once.

Music sets the mood for the sequence, as described earlier, but it can also describe the mood of the character. You can tell the moments that Blanche Dubois is going mad in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) because the soundtrack begins very softly playing a waltz associated with her youth very softly, almost as an echo. When Dr. Zhivago looks out over the Russian countryside and we hear "Lara's Theme" (not to be confused with "Tara's Theme") we know he is thinking of his main squeeze even though she is not present.


Classic musicals—Golddiggers of 1933 (1933), Singin' in the Rain (1952), Fame (1980), Yellow Submarine (Great Britain, 1968)—most of the time have in common the ability to make us think that the world is a musical place, that music springs naturally from the human psyche and soul. Though this kind of message sometimes seems corny in a Fred Astaire movie, it is equally present (if a bit ironically portrayed) in Amadeus (1984), James and the Giant Peach (1996)—feature-length Disney animation—and much MTV. Sometimes, however, the musical becomes a vehicle for overt irony and satire: Pink Floyd: The Wall (Great Britain, 1982) satirizes, among other things, war and the self-centeredness of artists. All That Jazz (1979) examines the self-destructive nature of artistic creation. However, most of the time people in musicals tend to burst into song, and this bursting is a reflection of an innately human joie de vivre, spontaneity, community, and cultural values such as friendship, monogamy, and decency. Even famously mediocre singers have made names for themselves growling their way through musicals: Yul Brynner in The King and I (1956), Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady (1964), and even Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon (1969).

To summarize, from now on, when you exit the theater, you should not simply sing the theme song and promptly forget the rest of the sounds in the film. Rather, you should be asking what kind of theme music was used, what other use of music within the narrative, what sound effects were created for which situations, whether certain effects were synchronous or asynchronous, and why. So get out to the local multiplex and start listening with both ears!

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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