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.