Deep End (1970) and the Musical Emphasising of Narrative (Jerzy Skolimowski).

This article contains spoilers.

There are many aspects of distraction within Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1970 film, Deep End.  Its highly sexualised, sometimes seedy narrative, its vast array of colours and its crisp, sharp direction are only a handful of its hyper-active eccentricities.  Even David Lynch, a long-time pessimist about colour cinema, is on record as a fan of Deep End‘s array of powerful colours, and styles.  Skolimowski’s film is an emotionally complex one which belies its dying counter-culture gasps, and its relationship with music is equally reflective of this complexity, containing one of the strongest, specifically composed pop scores in English language cinema.  Deep End was of course destined for a score of experimental pop rock and folk; from its main star Jane Asher, to its meanderings around London still jolting from its swinging pendulum (though yet again another illusion considering the majority of the film was shot in Munich), Skolimowski’s film has a heightened sense of counter-culture zeitgeist only shot through the prism of a true cinematic poet.  Combined with this is an essential choice of scoring, using popular music of the period to soundtrack and reflect the subtleties of the potential emotional pathways of both of its main characters.

Mike (John Moulder-Brown) starts a new job at the local baths after quitting school.  He meets and falls for the other attendant there, Susan (Jane Asher), who teases him for his lack of sexual experience and increasingly swaps roles with him so he has to deal with customers who want more than simply a bath.  Though the narrative on paper seems relatively straightforward, Deep End is all about the implication of darker ideals behind the tongue-in-cheek, Blackpool postcard-type sleaze.  The world of Mike’s follys doesn’t seem to have any genuine consequences outside of embarrassment which is worse than getting caught by the police for groping Susan or even cutting his hand open while smashing a fire alarm in anger.

Like so much of cinema’s opening title music, Deep End‘s presents the viewer with a musical and lyrical overture of the film’s overall narrative trajectory.  Collaborating with Cat Stevens, Skolimowski devised the lyric for Stevens’ to work on, initially supplying him with the track’s final line: “But I might die tonight…“.  This became the name of the song with Stevens embellishing the lyrics after a viewing of the temp edit but it was clearly enough to be able to reproduce a musical, lyrical equivalent of Skolimowski’s narrative.  The lyrics are as follows:

Don’t want to work away
Doin’ just what they all say
“Work hard boy and you’ll find
One day you’ll have a job like mine”

‘Cause I know for sure
Nobody should be that poor
To say yes or sink low
Because you happen to say so, say so, you say so

I don’t want to work away
Doing just what they all say
“Work hard boy and you’ll find
One day you’ll have a job like mine, job like mine, a job like mine”

“Be wise, look ahead
Use your eyes” he said
“Be straight, think right
But I might die tonight!”

Viewers in San Francisco complained about Skolimowski’s ending, saying it didn’t fit within the relatively positive narrative.  Yet, Susan’s poetic demise at the end of the film could easily have been predicted if closer attention was paid to Stevens’ lyrics.  The ending lyric alone suggests her demise but others suggest Mike’s psychological state too (as well as the obvious ties to the mundane new job in the opening lines).

To say yes or sink low
Because you happen to say so, say so, you say so

Mike has several moments later on where he appears to hallucinate and fantasise about Susan but to do this he requires to be underwater.  Though this allows for Skolimowski to produce some beautiful visual sequences with a dream-like quality to them, it also shows the tight-rope that Mike is traversing; to gain his fulfilment with Susan he must be breathless in an underwater void, sinking low in the deep end.  Stevens clearly picked up on this, even going further to suggest that Mike is out to solely convince himself.

This has a startling parallel with an important scene on a tube train, where Mike is convinced that a model stand-up that he has stolen from a Soho strip club in fact depicts Susan and not just a random lap-dancer.  He confronts Susan with this cardboard cut-out and seems to have a mental breakdown, smashing the tube light and being physically aggressive with her.  What’s interesting is the character trait represented in his dialogue; his persistence at finding out the truth seems to be more about convincing himself rather than getting Susan to admit or deny her role as a lap-dancer (it remains ambiguous).  Either way he loses, but Stevens has clearly found something within this character, almost emulating his psychological state when writing his music’s lyrics.

The second most significant piece of music comes in the form of Mother Sky; a fifteen minute psychedelic opus by the band, Can.  Though there is a lot going on in the piece musically, its use is far more simplistic though equally effective.  Mike’s relationship with his mother is hinted at being something more complex than he lets on.  He overreacts to Susan’s joshing about her when she visits the baths but also despairingly sighs “Mother…” when Susan has briefly left him in the pool towards the film’s finale.

This is, however, not where the music is used, though it does appear to have a simple, lyrical foreshadowing that adds to the character’s depth.  The majority of Can’s song is played over the film’s Soho sequence.  This sequence involves Mike following Susan and her fiancé (Christopher Sandford) around a club and the streets of Soho, stressing the moral illegitimacy of the place through visuals of greasy men, flesh and neon.  Mother Sky has a typical psyche-rock drone, dragging musical execution to achieve a heightened sense of detachment.  This makes it perfect for the scene which not only shows a detached location but a moment of detachment between Susan and her, admittedly sleazy, fiancé as they argue and then go off in different directions.

Within these two pieces of music, Skolimowski defines and emphasises his narrative and characters with pin-point precision.  The era of the 1970s was a golden age of popular music scores but not in ironic recontextualisation or commercial enhancement as would become the norm in the 1980s and 1990s, but for specifically collaborating with like-minded artists to add new depths.  Though there are many fantastic examples of this during the era  (Performance (1970), for example), few are so specific and as effective as the musical choices within Deep End.

Adam Scovell

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