The Perfect Cocktail: Words, Music & Images
I play music while I work, to the point where I suspect I can’t work without it. First, its cadences seem to help the rhythm of language. Second, it masks my tinnitus. Lyrics tend to interfere, and I’ve often found them an annoyance. So, it seems, do other people; the lyricists of ‘La La Land’ were riding high before putting their names to ‘The Greatest Showman’, Hugh Jackson’s seven-year passion project and total stinker. Words and music – the eternal question is, to which do we most respond?
IMHO, in the classical world opera must be about the music, because most operas are lyrically appalling. Fine lyricists, and here you could roam from Bob Dylan (whom I personally don’t appreciate) to The Divine Comedy, are better when the music augments your understanding of the words. But it’s surprising how many people hear the wrong words or no words at all. Abba didn’t sing ‘Dancing queen, feel the beat from the tangerine’, but it wouldn’t matter if they did.
In the theatre, this truism reverses so that lyrics can be more intricate and appreciated. Dismissed and all but forgotten now, Gilbert & Sullivan rewrote the rules. Offenbach’s melodies held dominance over his lyrics, so WS Gilbert was, as far as I know, the first person to make the lyrics equal and sometimes surpass the music, tipping language into the esoteric. When the Major-General in ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ sings, he hits this patch of trickery;
In fact, when I know what is meant by “mamelon” and “ravelin”,
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by “commissariat”,
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery–
In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy,
You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.*
*Rode a horse.
It’s almost impossible for anyone familiar with this opera not to hear the music as you read the words. Stephen Sondheim (a better lyricist than tunesmith) cannot resist being a linguistic purist, which prevents him from opening up emotionally. In the handful of songs where he lets fly, the effects are devastating. Both Rogers & Hammerstein and Kander & Ebb combined words and music in a heartfelt natural manner, but there’s a place for the brittle urbanity of Cole Porter, here with ‘Down in the Depths’.
While the crowds in all the nightclubs punish the parquet,
And the bars are packed with couples calling for more,
I’m deserted and depressed
In my regal-eagle nest,
Down in the depths
Of the ninetieth floor.
When the only one you wanted wants another,
What’s the use of swank and cash in the bank galore?
Why, even the janitor’s wife
Has a perfectly good love life,
And here I am, facing tomorrow,
Alone in my sorrow,
Down in the depths
Of the ninetieth floor
Porter also promotes the words over the music, but occasionally, as in ‘You’re The Top’, both work fluently together. An experiment in more recent music was conducted by the old lounge singer Paul Anka, who rerecorded songs by bands like The Killers and Oasis, performing them as if he was back in Vegas. Suddenly you hear the lyrics for the first time, and realise there are a great many fine, timeless songs being written today.
I could write a book on this subject, especially the synthesis of music and image that makes for perfect cinematic moments. There’s an outrageous section early on in Edgar Wright’s fabulously nerdy ‘Baby Driver’, a story diegetically informed by it soundtrack, when you realise that everything you’re seeing is lyrically on the audio. This is compounded later by the same trick in reverse, as the effects track synchs with the breakbeats of the score, and you realise that gunfire is being used to create a kind of temp track for jukebox hits. Clearly Wright savours the combination of words, music and images.
In the notorious but charmingly mad comedy ‘Hudson Hawk’, Bruce Willis times his heists according to the length of lounge songs, singing ‘Swinging On A Star’ while he commits a robbery. Cinema (but rarely television) hinges on the cocktail of visual and audio – it’s one reason why so few British films are cinematic. We still have to look back to David Lean to find a British director who really understands this.
All suggestions for perfect moments when music and image combine welcome!