Do you know what a dearly beloved song does, when you come upon it unexpectedly in a film? It instantly pulls you back into the past, and you flashback to that old game: where was I when I heard this last, who was I with, what was I feeling? A song is not just a song, the thing made up of words, notations, tune, melody. It is so much more. It is an edifice. A bedrock. Memories. It takes you back to who you used to be.
In the past fortnight, I’ve seen a bunch of films which have done just that. David O Russell’s American Hustle opens with one of the best actors in Hollywood today. Christian Bale is creating a face for himself: a complicated hair-do is being fixed, a bald patch is being covered, and an actor is at work. You are looking at him, looking at himself in a mirror, and suddenly the soundtrack blossoms with A Horse With No Name, sung by one of my all-time favourite folk-rock bands of the ’70s, America.
Of their repertoire, my top spot is reserved by Sandman, which we were told by our worldly-wise, world-weary college seniors who were too cool for their Che posters, and who were always either fashionably stoned or about to be, was a song about Vietnam, and the draft, and friendship, and this line always slayed me: “Oh I almost forgot to ask, did you hear of my enlistment, ‘cause honey I’ve been there, and you’ve been here, we ain’t had no time to drink that beer.”
It was a song that made me sad, for some inexplicable reason, because it had a finality about it, of something left unfulfilled. Some songs you leave behind, some walk alongside you like old friends. Sandman has always made me feel wistful, and when I heard it, for maybe a millionth time, as a snatch in American Hustle, it was like a reckoner of time having gone by, of good friends to be reached out for, and, of course, a pint.
Hindi cinema’s standard lip-synching has a very different effect. When you see an actor mouth a song, you will always have that imprint in the mind’s eye: it is the most difficult thing to do to separate image from sound. Which is why background music is so powerful: you hear Lara’s Theme, and it evokes snow and fur and Julie Christie and Omar Sharif, but have you waltzed to it with someone who can’t take their eyes off you? Then it’s not just Dr Zhivago’s tune, it is also, equally, yours.
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The piano riff from Love Story is a certified ten-hanky weepy. The fresh-faced Ryan O’Neal, the winsome Ali MacGraw, that incurable illness, shattered dreams. I defy you not to smile through your tears, even if you are long past that soft-soapy sentimental age when you can be swept off your feet, in a heady, never-ending acceleration.
It’s funny how despite our movies being awash with meticulously created sound design (not just soundtrack), the two most recalled are these theme songs around 50 years old, from Dr Zhivago, and Love Story (and, of course, Come September, which is such a wedding band-on-the-run thing). My cynical core is always near melting when I hear these two: and as I write this, the notes of the piano are tinkling, and I’m thinking of a hostel room, and a hand-written scrawl, and the boy who wrote it. What a time it was, a time of innocent confidences.
I’d say it has to do with young love and growing awareness, for the first time, that there is another human being that makes you complete. I’d also say that we have changed: we are too busy Whatsapping and Instagramming and updating to actually stop and feel another person’s rhythms from the inside.
Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ latest film which has come and gone from my local ’plex in a hurried week, was a complete joy because it used the music of its time (the leading man plays a struggling musician of the ’60s, and the soundtrack is a nostalgia filled bon-bon) so perfectly. Oscar Isaac is Llewyn, the guy with the guitar and the marmalade cat trying to figure out a life in piles of snow drifts and unsympathetic faces. All the familiar ditties come streaming out, and in one of the loveliest scenes from the film, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake sing, sadly, softly and sinuously the classic folk ditty, A hundred miles.
This song had a face for me, of course, much before I encountered it in Joel and Ethan Coens’ gently melancholic film. I first heard it, via a cassette-on-a-two-in-one, stuck with transparent scotch-tape in many places because of repeated hearings, which belonged to a snooty folk-music-mad boy. He and I became friends, and then he vanished from my life.
I can hear the whistle blow, and it blows for you and me.