click to buy “Pop Fiction” at Amazon.comThe study of sound in film has proven to be an increasingly stimulating and diverse field of academic endeavour. Particularly exciting and invigorating is the work that has been undertaken in the area of the compiled music score (1). A recent addition to this area is the edited collection Pop Fiction: The Song in Cinema, which offers twelve thought-provoking articles structured around the concept of analysing the function of one pop song in a particular mainstream film. Appealing to both a general and an academic audience, this collection blends academically rigorous essays with contemplative pieces that present the germ of an idea in a simple and accessible manner, thereby inviting the reader to extend these ideas further. This range of responses results in a renewed consideration of previously explored concepts surrounding the use of pop songs for both the diegetic and non-diegetic score. More importantly, it generates excitement for further development of these concepts as well as further investigation of this highly complex and rich area of film studies.

In her foreword, Anahid Kassabian states of the approach employed by Miguel Mera in his contribution, “Reap Just What You Sow”: “such careful musical analysis will, I believe, be central to the future of film music studies” (p. 6). This careful analysis is a defining strength of the majority of the articles in this collection. I would add to Kassabian’s prognosis that I hope that an extended engagement with the diverse range of methodologies employed by the contributors to this collection is equally a feature of film music studies in the future. The benefits of a multiple methodological approach are evident through the inherent synergies between Miguel Mera’s, Phil Powrie’s, Robynn J. Stilwell’s and John Roberts’ contributions. In his article “Always Blue: Chet Baker’s Voice”, Roberts employs the Kleinian-influenced psychoanalytic concept of “‘the good voice’, the voice that is soothing and supportive” (p. 126). Stilwell further develops the psychoanalytic concept of song and the voice by locating the realm created by the song as ambiguous, as simultaneously threatening and reassuring, a function of song that Powrie identifies in the “Stuck in the Middle with You” scene in Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992). The function of the “good voice”, the ambiguity of meaning and the “lulling sensuousness of heroin addiction [that] finds an expressive correlate in the plaintive voice” (Roberts, p. 126) inform not only Chet Baker’s work but the use of Lou Reed’s “A Perfect Day” in Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996). Mera’s sustained engagement with academic theory on film music and his employment of multiple methodologies support his insightful analysis of the function of this song in the scene where Renton (Ewan McGregor) overdoses, making this one of the most stimulating and notable contributions to the collection.

Equally exceptional academic contributions to Pop Fiction include the pieces by Ian Inglis and Jeff Smith, as well as Stilwell’s (mentioned earlier). In his consideration of the multiple roles of the song “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” in The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), Inglis has produced an academically rigorous and skilfully developed argument which insightfully explores the link between the dualities of the film’s narrative structure interwoven with a duality of character construction, and the dualities inherent in the use of this song, which accompanies the same scene shown twice but with radically different effects each time. Inglis’ consideration of the ability of popular song to layer a filmic text with additional levels of subversive ideologies provides the solid foundation for the most well-crafted contribution to this collection. Just as those familiar with Inglis’ work would expect a contribution of this calibre, equally those familiar with Smith’s and Stilwell’s work will be rewarded by their continued academic rigour and insights which structure their invigorating contributions. Smith’s contribution considers the use of Guns’n’Roses’ version of the James Bond theme song “Live and Let Die” in the convenience store scene in Grosse Pointe Blank (George Armitage, 1997). Part of the pleasure in reading Smith’s work is identified by Kassabian in her foreword: “Smith’s analysis pointedly suggests that we overlook such songs at deep cost to our understanding” (p. 7). Smith considers the complex intertextual relay that is evoked by the use of this song, which initially defines Martin Blank as exceptional in accordance with a James Bond persona, then later locates him within the domesticated discourses of mundaneity and the bland conformity of consumerism evoked by the musak version of the song played in the Ultimart. Smith’s compelling and detailed consideration of this song provides the dynamic foundation for his exciting, innovative and richly rewarding piece. A similar academic depth and complexity structures Stilwell’s consideration of Phil Collins’ song “In the Air Tonight” and its use in Risky Business (Paul Brickman, 1983). Stilwell historically situates the use of song in this film and builds her argument through an analysis of the lyrics and structure of the song as well as the complex codes of identification with the song and its artist generated through its multiple uses in other media forms. These codes are then mapped onto the already discordant use of the song for the narratively ambiguous scene of romantic fantasy fulfilment in the film. While all the articles in Pop Fiction contribute to a consideration of the role of song in popular film, the articles I have discussed here are exceptionally rewarding contributions to an academic investigation of pop song and cinema.

A fascinating derivative of these insightful analyses of the complex synergies, meanings and identifications generated through the pop song/film text intertextual relay is a highlighting of the pivotal role of the editing process and, consequently, the film editor. For example, an analysis of the “Le Tango de Roxanne” musical number in Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) reveals that the emotional resonance of this piece owes more to the skilful editing of Jill Bilcock than it does to the costume design of Catherine Martin or the theatrical stage direction of Baz Luhrmann. It is intriguing that the pivotal role of the film editor in integrating song into cinema remains under-acknowledged not just by this collection, but in general.

Another often under-acknowledged role is that of the editor of a collection of essays. The strength of an edited collection is the direct result of the discernment of the editors regarding the pieces selected for inclusion. This influence is clearly evident in Pop Fiction. Without detracting from the overall efforts and the invigorating vision of the editors Steve Lannin and Matthew Caley, I find their justification for not including contemporary film musicals in the collection – in particular, Moulin Rouge! – problematic. The editors assert that “the diegesis of a popular song in a musical is very different from any other cinema” (p. 12). This contention is offered as explanation for their exclusion of a consideration of the use of the compiled soundtrack in contemporary musicals. I would argue that, on the contrary, the use of music in the musicals from the post-classical period onwards is not very different from “any other cinema” (p. 12).

This development has been an interesting area for academic investigation. Alexander Doty has noted that the cross-over appeal of marketing films through a popular music soundtrack commenced with the use of Barbra Streisand in A Star is Born (Frank Pierson, 1976) and The Bee Gees on the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977), a convention which has continued throughout the contemporary period (2). Todd Berliner and Philip Furia further argue that this cross-promotion has resulted in a situation where “films we do not ordinarily think of as musicals, such as The Graduate (Mike Nichola, 1967) […] have developed conventions that build upon traditions established by the ‘classical’ Hollywood musical of the studio era” (3). The songs used on The Graduate’s non-diegetic soundtrack stand in the place of the classical Hollywood musical’s use of the supradiegetic soundtrack. The legacy of this pop song reconfiguration of the musical’s dominant conventions is reflected in the work of two of Pop Fiction’s contributors, Stilwell and Powrie, who briefly consider the musical’s primary elements, song and dance, in Flashdance (Adrian Lyne, 1983) and Risky Business, and Reservoir Dogs respectively. As Stilwell’s consideration of the “Old Time Rock’n’Roll” musical number in Risky Business reflects, it is difficult to draw a clear distinction between what constitutes a musical film vs a non-musical film. Equally, the ways in which an audience reads the musical’s key elements, especially the use of song for plot and narrative progression, are governed via an intertextual relay between a prior familiarity with the pop song and the generic, narrative and stylistic devices of the film in which they appear. Consequently, in these examples the diegetic use of the popular songs in these films directly borrows from the conventions of the post-classical and contemporary musical, reflecting the complexity of film genres and the employment of film music in contemporary cinema.

In addition to the editors’ reason for excluding a consideration of the use of pop songs in contemporary musicals, I am intrigued, but not convinced, by their contention that

during the 1980s it is also possible to envisage the compiled score as replacing the need for the Musical’s song and dance elements, in a period where fantasy was a way of life, not a change of scene. Post-modernism insisted on no longer attending the fantasy celebration, but becoming it. The film became an extension of life and both were expected to move to the beat of a similarly compiled score. (p. 12)

Whether these elements are celebrated or debunked, fantasy and stylistic excess have persisted as the defining elements of the musical genre since its inception (4). Equally, I cannot reconcile memories of Thatcher’s Britain or Reagan’s America with the notion that, in the 1980s, fantasy was a way of life.

The editors note that the final reason for excluding a consideration of musicals from the collection was due to the musical genre’s unique diegetic engagement with the non-diegetic soundtrack. Although their reasoning is compelling, the term defined by Rick Altman to describe this engagement is supradiegetic, not super-diegetic. This distinction is more profound than a mere spelling mistake, as the prefixes actually constitute an entirely different meaning and it is an error that the editors extend into a consideration of the characters of the musical as performing “super-human” activities. According to Altman’s definition, in the musical’s supradiegetic moments the image is subordinate to the musical soundtrack to create “a ‘place’ of transcendence where time stands still, where contingent concerns are stripped away to reveal the essence of things” (5). The new form of reality that this convention invokes is not, contrary to the editors’ contention, “radically different to incorporating a song into a film, whether performed or merely compiled” (p. 12).

This is evident in Stilwell and Powrie’s arguments. Stilwell argues that the train scene in Risky Business, set to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, produces a space defined as simultaneously nurturing/seductive and threatening, which accords with Julia Kristeva’s definition of Chora. Similarly, in his article “Blonde Abjection: Spectatorship and the Abject Anal Space In-Between”, Powrie draws upon Kristeva’s work to analyse the scene in Reservoir Dogs in which Mr Blonde’s dance performance to “Stuck in the Middle with You” is combined with his violent act of severing his hostage’s ear. Powrie argues that the severed ear acts as a visual metaphor for the disembodiment that governs the use of the song in this scene, as the song is similarly separated from the image, exacerbating the gap between sound and image. He further argues that rather than the Kristevian notion of the maternally abject, the song in this scene evokes the masculine-defined abjected anus. The creation of these spaces where, following Altman, “normal day-to-day causality” is stripped away (6), is reliant on the supradiegetic interconnection between the non-diegetic song and the diegetic realm. These scenes therefore function as a darkened reconfiguration of the musical’s supradiegesis as a place of transcendence where the real world has been superseded.

Pop Fiction: The Song in Cinema stands as testimony to the complex and exciting possibilities of academic investigation into the role of the pop song in cinema. This collection evokes the diverse and stimulating range of work previously undertaken in this area and indicates the exciting possibilities afforded by an application of multiple academic methodologies. As such, Pop Fiction: The Song in Cinema is a valuable contribution to a consideration of sound and film, an inspirational text for both the general public and academics alike.

Pop Fiction: The Song in Cinema, edited by Matthew Caley and Steve Lannin, Intellect Books, Bristol, 2005.

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  1. Notable works in the area have included Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music by Anahid Kassabian (2001); Cinesonic: Experiencing the Soundtrack, edited by Philip Brophy (2001); Rebecca Coyle’s edited collection Screen Scores: Studies in Contemporary Australian Film Music (1998); Jeff Smith’s The Sounds of Commerce: Marketing Popular Film Music (1998); Popular Music on Screen: From the Hollywood Musical to Music Video by John Mundy (1999); and Justin Wyatt’s High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (1994). See also Soundscape: The School of Sound Lectures 1998-2001, edited by Larry Sider, Diane Freeman, and Jerry Sider (2003); and Soundtrack Available: Essays on Film and Popular Music, edited by Pamela Robertson Wojcik and Arthur Knight (2001). This is by no means intended as an exhaustive list, but suggested as suitable companion pieces to many of the articles included in Pop Fiction.
  2. Alexander Doty, “Music Sells Movies: (Re)New(ed) Conservatism in Film Marketing”, Wide Angle, vol. X, no. 2, 1988, pp. 70-79, p. 76.
  3. Todd Berliner and Philip Furia, “The Sounds of Silence: Songs in Hollywood Films Since the 1960s”, Style, vol. 36, no. 1, Spring, 2002, pp. 19-38, p. 20.
  4. The contemporary persistence of the musical’s fantasy and stylistic excess is the subject of irony in Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000), humour in Moulin Rouge!, and pastiche in Superstar (Bruce McCulloch, 1999).
  5. Rick Altman, The American Film Musical, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1987, p. 69.
  6. Altman, p. 69.

About The Author

Dr Diana Sandars is a lecturer in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, Australia, where she teaches courses on Australian Film and Television, Screen and Cultural Studies and Social Justice.

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