Victor Hugo once said, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” There is something innately powerful about music that allows us all to express ourselves. Whether it’s dancing to a song in the middle of the street (like in West Side Story (1961)), or being able to play an instrument with supernatural skill (like in Shine (1996)), music makes our lives that much more interesting. Nearly every movie that has ever been made has music accompanying the action on screen, but fewer of them have music as a central piece of its plot. Sure, some movies visually synchronize with a playlist, whether intentionally (like Baby Driver (2017)) or unintentionally (like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon), but these are not the ones where music is almost its own character. This week’s two films highlight music as a significant plot device.
The Sound of Music
Length: 174 minutes / 2.9 hours
It’s easy to see how music can feature prominently in a musical. And yet, many musicals pull their songs from the mundane, singing about common things and situations that help to propel the plot. In fact, sometimes you can cut the music out entirely and still have an excellent film. Pygmalion (1938) works just as well as My Fair Lady (1964), and at half the length. However, My Fair Lady won Best Picture and Pygmalion did not, much like West Side Story won, and the non-musical Romeo and Juliet (1968) did not. Clearly, music adds something to these movies. The Sound of Music (1965) cannot be separated from music and maintain its plot. Heck, “music” is right there in the title. The music in this film is powerful enough to warm the hearts of children who have lost a mother, as well as help a family escape the oppression of an invading force of Nazis.
When Maria (Julie Andrews) is given an opportunity to be a governess for a local widower, she jumps at the chance partly because the stodgy discipline of Nonnberg Abbey stifles her free spirit. However, upon arriving at Captain Georg von Trapp’s (Christopher Plummer) house, she finds the seven children waiting for her to be cold and mischievous, likely due to their father’s parenting style. Through songs that she teaches these children, eventually, they come to respect and love her. Maria’s presence in the family changes the children so drastically that it takes some time for their father to come around. When he does, he marries Maria just as the Nazis start to invade Austria. Using the family’s singing talents to be part of a talent show, Georg and Maria use their connections to escape during the performance and evade capture just long enough to make their way into Switzerland.
La La Land
Length: 128 minutes / 2.13 hours
If we’ve learned anything from Damien Chazelle’s first two, critically-acclaimed films, it’s that he likes music. From the brutal world of competitive jazz competitions in Whiplash (2014) to the realities of success in the realms of music and acting in La La Land (2016), Chazelle shows the audience how intense music can be. In La La Land, particularly, we see how music is a creative and free force that helps individuals express themselves, but at the cost of not being nearly as commercially viable as other forms of music. While La La Land is itself a musical (albeit with fewer songs than the musicals we’re used to), the influence of music on the plot is undeniable. Not only can you hear how music sets a variety of tones between parties and thoughtful walks on a pier, but you can hear the difference between music from the heart and music for a paycheck.
Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) is trying to make ends meet as a talented musician. However, while the gigs he gets pay the bills, they are far from the improvisational jazz he wants to play. In fact, he is fired from a gig at a restaurant for expressing himself musically, instead of playing the required Christmas music. As he stormed out of the restaurant, he literally ran into Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who is also relegated to a barista job on a movie lot until she finds her big break. The two of them are initially irritated at each other’s quirks but soon fall in love. While both Sebastian and Mia pursue their dreams to own a nightclub and become a successful actress, respectively, it soon becomes clear that Sebastian must take an opportunity to play in a band to support them both. Putting his dream on pause, Sebastian supports Mia, and eventually, she earns an audition which starts her career. Years later, Sebastian has realized his dream by creating a nightclub that features jazz, but at what cost?
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 musical masterpieces