On the Chronological Irrelevance of Music in Period Dramas

Today I celebrated the return of Peaky Blinders  by texting my friends, “PEAKY BLINDERS,” but I don’t think that’ll cut it as a whole blog post. So instead I’ve contemplated the edgy and engaging soundtrack and realized how intriguing I find the implications of musical anachronism.

One scene in particular  in the first episode of the new (third)  season grabbed my attention. I’m fairly used to hearing modern music as a modern backdrop to a not-so-modern plot. In this case, the story is barely-modern, taking place in the early 1920s, yet featuring a significant amount of music by PJ Harvey. This moment surprised me in breaking a kind of musical fourth wall: gang member Tommy Shelby approaches the swing band and demands, “Ragtime,” spurring a soundtrack shift into a roaring, upbeat surge of electric guitar.  Further encouraging the illusion that the band really was playing the out-of-place rock music, the camera cuts to a dramatic angle of the trumpet, and then pans over the drummer playing (with brushes, it looks like) a heavy drum beat, perfectly in sync. It strikes me that this fun device is so obviously historically impossible, yet smoothly executed. If the crowd had appeared in rock tees and started head banging, it would have been a very cringe-worthy moment. Why is music equally conspicuous when used anachronistically, but visual elements, namely costume and setting are so much more jarring? 

Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is a another great example of this. Lauded for its accurate and beautiful costume design and exquisitely detailed sets, it gains a huge chunk of its vibrant story telling just through a playful punk soundtrack.

Had any of the visual storytelling changed, it would have been considered a “modern retelling” akin to Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo and Juliet. If costume changes recognizably, technological advances must change with it, one thing leads to another, and suddenly you’re in a logical time period all over again, just, a different one.  Of course, this type of historical straightforwardness is  utilized heavily  through some soundtracks, in movies like Forrest Gump and Across the Universe. However, it seems as  a general rule, that visual elements have an incredibly narrow margin of error, if not no chance at all  to be disassociated with historical events, while music is afforded a dramatic, even infinite flexibility. (Offering a counter argument to this statement is  It Follows, which is strangely without a clear time period, but only in the subtlest of ways.)

I think the simplest  answer to this curious phenomenon is the clear separation of a soundtrack and plot, since we never truly experience a soundtrack in real life. The closest visual analogy I can think of are strange filters meant to mimic the glare of a bright light in the sun, or any variety of drug trips, and even these are used so sparingly that they become necessary to understanding the scene, whereas soundtracks are more likely to slip under the radar. However, and I have no direct answer to this, I think there’s a lot more to it than the straightforward limits of real-life contextualization.  I think there’s a certain willingness in the human psyche to view music as transcendent of historical trends and dependencies: the final chorus of Ode to Joy or the desire to form a mosh pit infinitely more connected to the human condition than a whalebone hoop skirt.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Robert Kirzinger says:

    This is super.
    I was struck by this in “Peaky Blinders,” as well–partly because of the specifics of the music they tapped (Nick Cave, e.g.), but also because I’ve noticed it elsewhere. One rather delightful case is the use of modern rock songs within the context of “A Knight’s Tale,” the inexplicably charming Heath Ledger movie featuring a future Vision as Chaucer (parse that). The crowd being catalyzed to sing “We Will Rock You” is obviously absurdist but nonetheless effective. I think you’re right, though, that for the most part music is abstracted from the flow of the narrative, except in the diegetic case that you mention: such instances DO jar us, they DO require a shift in our reading of the scene. You and I might find PJ Harvey wonderful in that context (surreal, but lovely); others may be more disturbed.
    A like phenomenon is the transparent use of modern turns of phrase/modes of speaking anachronistically in period pieces; this struck me often in “That 70’s Show” and strikes me again in “Houdini and Doyle.” Sometimes it’s transparent but sometimes notably, loudly deliberate. But it happens all the time, especially in movies and especially in those meant for kids, as though the writers are afraid a little strange is going to be offputting. (Hence, incidentally, the condescending “translation” of harmless English words like “lorry” in the Harry Potter books published in the U.S.)
    Is there a correlation (technically, perceptually, aesthetically) between your observations and the restaging of Shakespeare or Wagner in modern dress and scenarios? In the case of opera, we’re dealing with music and language pinned to their time but a setting outside of it. Medieval/legendary Wotan in an 1890s frock coat and fedora is the mildest of these transformations. “King Lear” in Japanese avoids the anachronistic dissonance of language; it’s all of a piece. Richard Loncraine’s “Richard III,” on the other hand–or Luhrmann’s “Romeo”–both require a mental adjustment to mesh the archaic language with the setting.
    Another thing that’s struck me is the use of music of anachronistic period or geographically dissonant music for a given period drama–as though arbitrarily chosen English music of the early 17th century were appropriate for a French (say) drama taking place in the 14th. It’s merely old-sounding. (I have no particular example at hand.) If it’s a deliberate decision such as the ones you cite, great; make sure it works for the context. If it’s just ignorance and laziness it’s galling. It’s really not hard to get it right.

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    1. Thank you! These are all great points and interesting tangents I almost went on, but this post was only intended to be half the length I ended up with! I wondered especially about the use of language, and have looked up the veracity of the script of Peaky Blinders in the past. Can’t remember the exact results, but they were tough to find details on.
      A big thing I asked myself about while thinking about this was how much I know in each category. I tend to give the benefit of the doubt when I find dissonance that could point to ignorance and laziness, because I’m always afraid to be presumptuous and miss something clever. It’s mostly a paranoid thing.

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  2. Robert Kirzinger says:

    Dissonance by itself is a neutral thing; if it’s intentional and works, then great. If it’s lazy and ineffectual, that’s a pony of a variant hue.

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