I’m a huge fan of film and music. Fuse those things together in a meaningful way and I’m in heaven. I wanted to write about a few of my favourite music movie moments, and I’ve decided to turn it into a little three-part blog series featuring two scenes per blog I think are just great. These will be a mixture of musical films and films that use music. In this first blog I’ll be discussing A Chorus Line (1985, Richard Attenborough) and Aquarius (2016, Kleber Mendonça Filho). I would love to hear your favourite music movie moments, comment below or send me a message if you’d like to chat.
One – A Chorus Line (1985, Richard Attenborough)
A Chorus Line is not a great film.
A box office bomb and met with less than favourable reviews, it suffered many missteps for a story about dancing. The faults of the film can mostly be attributed to a vital misinterpretation of the source text by director Richard Attenborough. Poor old Richard, directing the movie version of a much-loved, “All American” Broadway show under the always present shadow of Bob Fosse, who had spent the 60’s and 70’s revolutionising how movie musicals could be made. It’s hard not to compare the strangely soulless opening scene of A Chorus Line to the dynamic “On Broadway” opening of All That Jazz (1979). Despite the film’s flaws, I want to give props to the closing number, “One”.
A Chorus Line is mostly made up of a series of monologues and songs from individual characters all auditioning for a part in the chorus of an upcoming Broadway show. Over the course of 118 minutes we get an intimate portrait of each of these performers. We hear stories of grief, love, self-doubt and exploitation in the journeys each dancer took to land themselves on the Broadway stage.
In “One”, the iconic final number, we are thrown from the audition room into what we presume is the show all our characters were auditioning for- a glitzy parade of showmanship. At this point something chilling happens as all the stories we’ve just heard merge, all the independent personalities and journeys are packed into identical gold, chintzy suits. Their bodies flash out of the darkness and even the camera seems to struggle to focus on them as individuals, they become part of a showbiz machine. The camera cuts from sweeping shots of the stage to unsteady zooms into the spaces occupied by one face, then another and another in quick, syncopated succession. The song builds in intensity as more and more dancers seem to magically appear on the stage, mirrored from all sides.
One could see this as a celebration of how every body comes together in the dance of a chorus, but as the camera zooms out on the final scene, we’ve lost track of all the people we have come to know. They have blended into anonymity. The camera draws back and suddenly the stage, though impossibly full of people, looks tiny, framed by a theatre with no visible audience. The anonymous, gold coated dancers endlessly high kick into the darkness as the screen fades to black.
Pai E Mãe (Gilberto Gil) – Aquarius (2016, Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Aquarius is far from a glitzy, jazz-hands style musical. But the way it uses music is still extremely emotive, to the point that when I was re-watching the scene I want to discuss for this blog I still had to swallow tears!
A beautiful Brazillian-French film, in 2016 the release of Aquarius was tied up in heated political conflicts. The film itself has strong political undertones, the cast and crew were extremely vocal in their protest of the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and some showings were even boycotted by right-wing groups. The subversive strength of this film is perfectly reflected in its protagonist Clara (a glowing Sônia Braga), a woman living in the vacant apartment building she raised her children in, despite constant pressure from a property development company to sell up and move out.
I found this film so profoundly moving throughout. Sônia Braga is magical, the cinematography by Pedro Dotero and Fabricio Tadeu forges a bright, wide, blue tinted, sun soaked world, and if you haven’t seen it I urge you to seek it out! Music plays a huge role in Clara’s life as she used to be a music journalist, so the song choices throughout the film are all meaningful and memorable. I was torn which scene to pick to discuss, between “Another One Bites the Dust” (Queen), a short, thudding scene which brilliantly conveys the excitement of hearing a great song for the first time, and the one I eventually chose, Pai E Mãe (Gilberto Gill).
Clara is surrounded by her family, they drink wine and reminisce over old photo albums. Clara’s maid Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto) quietly works around them. Clara’s favourite nephew has come to visit, bringing with him his new girlfriend, Julia (Julia Bernat), who asks to play one of Clara’s records that she thinks is “really beautiful”. Once the needle drops the camera rests on a medium close up of Clara- the first notes come in, there’s a flinch of recognition on her face, it’s so subtle but carries a lot of meaning. Her features soften as she slowly begins to smile at Julia. We are implicitly told that this song carries significance to both women. The cuts between Julia and Clara are soft, the two look into each others eyes and some understanding and respect develops between the melody. A slow zoom on Julia’s face frames her in the centre of the shot as everything else falls into soft focus, we are seeing her through Clara’s eyes in the moment. The song has brought the two closer together than a conversation ever would have done. It’s a beautifully still scene that will resonate for anyone who has ever wordlessly bonded with someone over a song.
There’s not a clip of this scene on YouTube, but Aquarius is currently available on Netflix so I encourage you to get yourself a bottle of wine and watch the full film. The scene I described starts around 1hr38mins.