Music is sexier than movies, and I imagine few would jump to disagree. Movies follow people as they bumble and chat and fight, and the good ones will make you feel for those people and understand the context and causes of their unrest. Good music, on the other hand, rides a melody or groove or just a feeling from start to finish, sometimes telling a story through lyrics but more than anything expressing joy or longing — in a word, energy — toward some thing, which even if afforded a name (for Bob Dylan, Johanna, for Mac DeMarco, Viceroy cigarettes) can always, for the listener, stand in for something or someone else.
This is my roundabout way of saying I saw Fifty Shades of Grey. The movie frontloads most of its heat, with bitten lips, steely eyes and rattled breaths overwhelming the first 20 odd minutes. It’s the kind of experience you’re implicitly paying for, and the kind of gaze-fueled desire that movies, whether they aspire to high art or schlock, do best. But when it’s time for the cuffs and cat o’ nine tails to come out, the film cools, stringing together flicks and shudders into montages only a notch hotter than the wind currently barreling over Cayuga Lake. Fifty Shades of Grey lacks music.
Adapting an erotic bestseller for an audience wide enough to deliver a $94 million opening weekend presents few opportunities for music anyway. The sex scenes are the selling point, so they demand center stage, and not just the sex but the gear, too — leather and ropes and slings, arranged before walls of red deep within Christian’s antiseptic Seattle penthouse. The 13th time Christian pesters Anastasia to sign her submissive’s contract, I swear the leather evolved to become the most sentient creature in the room. With too many studio notes to film a love scene as elliptical as Don’t Look Now or Out of Sight’s, and with too much money to just make pornography, director Sam Taylor-Johnson settles on an aesthetic somewhere between bad camp and HGTV.
The almost yearlong lead-up to Fifty Shades roped in the collusion of a real artist, that of course, being Beyoncé. Accompanying last summer’s debut trailer, her remix of “Crazy in Love” swaps fast for slow, horns for strings and her pop-perfect voice for a feistier tenor scratched up through a filter similar to Julian Casablancas’. In duration and texture, Beyoncé’s new “Crazy in Love” is a better Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation than the feature film, conveying and sustaining a dangerous intimacy for as long as an entertainment medium can. For all the conservative pushback on the sexualization of popular music, sex is something music not only sells but understands, and Beyoncé deserves all the praise for long fashioning the eroticism of her voice and image into messages of empowerment and pride.
There is a lot of strong, lovely music making waves right now, Björk’s Vulnicura being one of the most notable. It aims to fill the heart just as it breaks it, with Björk’s infinitely malleable voice oscillating between defeat and hope as it is besieged by violins, synthesizers and drum machines. Björk is a capital-A Artist, the first popular musician to receive a full-scale career retrospective at the MoMA (due in March), and the indeterminacy of her music lends itself to unfiltered, bewildering expression, which makes her success all the more remarkable. Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear, released last week, takes a more deceptive approach to the love album, tempering fuzzy feelings with liberal irony and self-loathing. In “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” after telling his love she is “something else I can’t explain,” Father John Misty adds, “You take my last name,” in effect mocking his gendered obligation of ownership via marriage. The song sounds blissfully radiant, with a mariachi band blasting over the bridge, but Father John Misty can never seem to give himself a break. There’s a poetic density, and not to mention a stand-up’s hilarity, to his lyrics and his particular pairing of word to melody produces an album open to interpretation even as it serves many pleasures.
You can say movies are too burdened by images, and thus some kind of aesthetic obligation to the real world, to capture and critique one man or woman’s personal expression. And so, love and film is not the most natural pairing, even if it is regularly attempted and often enjoyable, if only in spite of its sincere intentions. The sexiest films need the help of music, whether literally on the soundtrack or spiritually through the movement of camera and assembly of images, to power through the awkwardness and achieve a transcendent effect. Classic Hollywood excelled at this better than the studios today, while the French, naturally, are masters to this day.
There is a moment in 35 Shots of Rum, a Claire Denis film from 2008, when the action comes to a full stop and the four main characters find themselves fortified in a bar on a nasty, rainy night. Their taxi broke down, and they missed their show, and not one of them knows what to do, until music starts to play: “Nightshift,” by The Commodores. It’s a slinky, funky song, bringing the characters, one by one, to their feet and to previously untapped life. The dance ends on a note of discomfort, as a young man carries his affection for a girl too far, but there is no disputing there was life on screen for that brief glimpse of time, a connection between clothed bodies more felt than seen.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.