Music in Period Movies: the Tyranny of the Iconic3 minute read

Where has the 20th-century soundscape gone? We’re less than two decades into the new millennium, and already I’m asking myself, “How fast are we forgetting our own pop culture?” With the ubiquitous Googles, YouTubes, and Spotifies of the world that make it possible to see or hear anything at a moment’s notice this should be a golden time to bask in popular culture of all eras. Most everything you want is on the Internet. But as at key points in the past, society is drifting away from the cultural roots that led to where it is today. And as in the past, musicology is the best barometer for this growing change.

A notable recent example of this cultural amnesia is Carol, the Rooney Mara/Cate Blanchett drama set in a department store circa 1951-52, which was nominated for a “Best Picture” at the Oscars this year. It has the slew of anachronisms that plague period pieces these days—regular mention is made of “stereophonic music consoles” a full half-decade before the first stereo LPs became commercially available.

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No special care was taken with the musical soundscape of the film, mostly dominated by the picture’s minimalist orchestral score done in the modern style. Little more is necessary to evoke a period than the pop songs of the era, yet this film, among others, neglects that simple truth. The key pop piece used in the film is “Easy Living” by Billie Holiday, a recording she made for Decca in 1947, and even then, the producers had trouble differentiating between a 78 rpm record and an LP.

Carol Movie Still
If they miss the mark on the period music, what else might they be getting wrong?

Likewise, the Oscar-nominated Trumbo also ended on a Holiday number, head-scratchingly after a coda set in the 1970s. Screenwriters, producers, directors, and music editors all apparently share the same opinion—Holiday is shorthand to the public for what cool people listened to between 1947 and 1962.

The earliest I can recall movies boarding the Holiday Express is the 1986 Kim Basinger/Mickey Rourke raunch-flick, 9 ½ Weeks, where super-cool Rourke seduces Basinger with a cut off an LP of Lady Day’s “Strange Fruit.” “It’s Billie Holiday,” he reveals to her, nearly breaking the fourth wall in his delivery, while the wildly inappropriate selection drones on. Holiday’s music seems to have been cemented as code for period music by the time Spielberg tracked “God Bless the Child” for Schindler’s List in 1993.

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But let me not just rail on Holiday—all of this happened decades after her tragic demise. And she’s not the only artist who falls into this pit of type-tracking. How many times must the viewing public endure Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?” Plaudits to Martin Scorsese, an avid music-lover and proponent of good musical selections in his own films, for reviving this hitherto forgotten track in Goodfellas, but isn’t it time to give this one a rest?

This overuse of music to telegraph a point or period is nothing new, and the lampoonery that follows is a time-honored tradition. Tropes of the music of the silent era were being burlesqued even in the 1910s, an era of music which most people erroneously believe set the stage for the foibles of high melodrama.

Theo. Tobani’s “Hearts and Flowers,” Gustav Lange’s “Flower Song” and classical pieces such as Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig,” once staples of the Nickelodeon settings, became joke cues for comedies as early as 1913. By the time Carl Stalling was using them for Looney Tunes, they were jokes of jokes, but it’s the cartoons that are best remembered for their use of these now-immortal pieces.

But what is the point at which we reject the rest of popular culture and boil it down to quick sound bites to convey an idea or period? How has this Lady Day Syndrome had an effect upon what the hoi polloi listen to? If one was setting their film in the 1950s, wouldn’t it be just as easy, and perhaps offer more variety, to sample tracks from more prolific artists such as Peggy Lee or Kay Starr?

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There is some reprieve. The Academy Award-nominated Brooklyn was one of the few films this Oscar season that thought outside of the box with its musical choices. More appropriate numbers by Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, and Ruth Brown were refreshing selections to hear, while accurately portraying the soundscape of 1952 New York.

Those who haven’t taken note of this epidemic in film might say, “What’s the harm? Who’s going to know?” The harm is that these are red flags of laziness in production quality. If a film is shorthanding its music, where else are they drawing the line? Film is entertainment first, for sure, but when you start compromising detail that your audience may possibly pick up on, it’s not only setting the bar low, it is insulting the intelligence of the audience.

 

Music in Period Movies: the Tyranny of the Iconic
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