Distant Voices, Still Lives (Part 4) – Communal Singing and Domestic Abuse.

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7.

Communal Singing of Popular Music.

“Song lyrics threaten to offset the aesthetic balance between music and narrative cinematic representation. The common solution taken by the standard feature film is not to declare songs off limits – for they can give pleasure of their own – but to defer significant action and dialogue during their performances.” (Gorbman, 1987, p.20)

The presence of popular music in the film seems an oddity, more for its presentation than choice of song. Instead of records and jukeboxes, the majority of the popular songs in Distant Voices, Still Lives are sung by members of the cast. Again, the opening segment of the film provides a snapshot to this use, which is a recurring motif throughout the whole film. As the sound of the Shipping Forecast and the diegetic sound of the children coming down the stairs fades, the sound of Maisie singing “I Get The Blue When It Rains” can be heard. This is an obvious tie in to the sound of the rain heard outside and pointer to the melancholy which surrounds most of the film.

Most of the scenes set in the public house and at parties are excuses for long takes of communal singing. Songs such as “That Old Gang of Mine” made famous by Gene Vincent and “Barefoot Days” by Art Mooney are just two of songs that have extended usage as groups of people enjoy singing them. However, the use of the singing seems to have more of a character role than anything else. Most of the characters are very obviously repressed; firstly by the father then eventually the sisters’ husbands and sister’s friend’s husbands too. “The popular song scores in the hands of a skilled director and music editor can be used to signify narrative events and characters in a similar fashion as the classical Hollywood score” suggests Rodman (2006, p.135). The songs sung by female characters are often used to voice their feelings which they would not dare to show otherwise. The best example of this is when Eileen is upset at the treatment of her friend Jingles, by her husband Les.

Les is clearly an aggressive character, shown to be controlling by making Jingles leave the public house after only being there for a short length of time. When Eileen voices her anger at the treatment of her friend, her husband intervenes complaining that she needs to mind her own business. Angry and upset, she goes on to sing “I Wanna Be Around”; a song about heartbreak and revenge by Tony Bennet. Its lyrics work as the perfect expression of Eileen’s feelings; bringing her close to tears and the emotional release she is seeking. Gorbman believes that popular music usage in film is part of an Adornian process of profit;

“Behind the phenomenon, of course, lies the motive of commercial profit through the consolidation of large financial interest: the music recording industry, the television and home video industries, and the film industry mutually advertise one another through music.” (Gorbman,1987, p.162).

Perhaps Davies was conscious of this, yet his reinterpretations of popular song are very obviously for cinematic rather than commercial reasons. The music of course has hints of nostalgia and period flavours too but added to this is an extra voice used give to many of the repressed characters a release of their feelings and emotions.

“Takin’ a Chance on Love” and Domestic Abuse.

“One of the worst practices is the incessant use of a limited number of worn-out musical pieces that are associated with the given screen situations by reason of their actual or traditional titles.” (Adorno, 1947, p.15).

As previously mentioned, there is one major exception to the assertion of Distant Voices, Still Lives having two different strands of music. This example seems to share some of the logic that the other uses of music have but instead switches around the genres for a profound and deeply disturbing effect. In a montage specifically about the domestic abuse suffered by the mother at the hands of the father, Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “Takin’ A Chance On Love” appears nondiegetically within the soundtrack.

It is again lyrically metaphorical in the most horrifically whimsical of ways; displaying the suffering of abuse while lyrically highlighting it as an outcome of a known gamble. When discussing the work of Quentin Tarantino, Coutlard (2012, p.170) argues that “…words in lyric based musematic songs can disrupt or intensify the already repetitive song form.” It is different from the classical nondiegetic score in that it seems ironic rather than rose-tinted. It also doesn’t hide the diegetic soundtrack unlike when the Christmas carol was played, allowing for a disturbing juxtaposition between the cries of the mother and jovial music.

It also seems opposite in its intentions to the renditions of popular music in that this time, the music is hiding the character’s inner feelings and is actively taking a part in the repression of the mother. Everett addresses the scene thus; “…but the lyrics centring on the notion of love as a gamble, will be savagely undermined by the images of reality that accompany them; there is no chance and never was.” (2004, p.178). The lyrics are reflecting what the mother is doing in public and in front of her children; hiding the violence and the fear she is living in under the rule of the father. However, Everett somewhat ignores the point that the character was obviously aware of the lack of chance. The music isn’t ironic simply because “there is no chance and never was” but because the character is very obviously aware of the trappings of married life. Here, nostalgia is used to a disturbing effect. By recalling the situation with such a soundtrack, Davies is also reflecting the reality of the situation by making it as equally awkward for the viewer to experience. “And occasionally there is a strident discord (as when we watch the mother being beaten by her husband to the sentimental strains of “Taken a Chance on Love”, for example).” is Everett’s (2004, p.69) take on the scene yet to simply label it as a discord undersells Davies’ whole delineation of memory and nostalgia.

Distant Voices, Still Lives is the most complex of the examples looked at when it comes to sound and music. Its multiple uses are proudly embedded in a deep nostalgia for the era, even if it is a problematic one shown to be filled with repression, fear and violence. Flinn (1992, p.153) argues that “One connection is immediately apparent, though, is that both contemporary film scholars and the classicists before them use the past in order to retrieve something found presently lacking.” Here she is discussing approaches to film score analysis but her summation of their attraction to a utopian past could equally be applied to Davies’ style of filmmaking. The passing of time has allowed this complex and nostalgic view to be the only natural way to approach the sound world of such a film; one with emphasis on the memory and footprint of the era but with some refreshing acknowledgment of the actuality and the boot as well.

Part 9 coming soon.

Adam Scovell

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