Songs in Film and TV Drama

Your attitude will depend on how you think fiction works. For example, you might like to feel, as you watch a cast of characters in action, that the events on the screen are actually taking place. You’re well aware that this isn’t the case but suspend your disbelief till the drama is over.

Now imagine two lovers reluctantly bidding each other farewell in an airport never to meet again. You might expect public service announcements in the background: Would passengers for flight ABC1234 for Dahomey please report to gate D8. What you would not expect is their dialogue to be intercut with a song. Where is the singer? In that fast food outlet over there? Lurking out of sight at the Delta Airlines desk?

As the parting plays out you realise that the singer isn’t there at all. So how come you’re hearing her? If this touching scene is really happening, as you would like to believe, then she would not be there at all.

Of course there will occasions when a given scene will justify music, or even demand it. A private eye in a car plays the radio, two characters sip lattes in a café where music (Wallpaper Volume 3) is playing in the background, three old friends sweat it out at a comeback gig of the Grateful Dead.

But increasingly, the custom is to zap the viewer with music in the absence of any such justification. Since we already know this cannot add credibility, we have to ask if it contributes something else, for example, adding meaning or significance to the action.

So . . .

Have we noticed how often people begin statements with the word ‘so’? In the past (a time zone I cheerfully inhabit) ‘so’ used to signify a consequence. I punched him on the nose SO he punched me back. These days, though, the word is deployed in much the same way that the Angles and Saxons used the word Hwaet! But I realise I’m going back a bit here.

So there is a television show called Hanna, three seasons in all.

Are songs used in the delivery of these episodes? They certainly are. According to the website Tunefind, if you watched all 22 episodes you’d be hit by a grand total of 150 songs. One hundred and fifty! And I have to reveal that this viewer has been hit by all of them and he didn’t like it one bit. So much so that he had the mute button handy whenever a song started and was therefore obliged to follow the dialogue through subtitles.

When it comes to Hanna and many other series, I find that songs compete with dialogue for our attention.  I have no idea why programmes are made in this way. In the old days, when CD albums were the thing, films were often made with enough songs to make up an album as a part of an associated merchandising campaign. I’m not sure if it works in quite this way now, when individual songs can be streamed or downloaded. Maybe it does.

Another niggle. I have often noticed that the makers of TV series/film have an unwelcome desire to play an individual song in its entirety. This, of course, stops the action dead in its tracks. So they attempt to cover the problem by a sequence of visuals; the femme fatale in her shower thinking her thoughts, the assassin preparing his or her weapon, complete with silencer.

Sometimes, despite all of the above, a film is made which does very well with songs. An example of this would be O Brother, Where Art Thou? Yes, for reasons which will obvious to anyone who has read this far, I too am a man of constant sorrow.