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 during the first episode of the new (third) season grabbed my attention. Most of us have learned to accept 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. The moment that surprised me was distinct from the usual soundtrack 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 trumpet, and then pans over the drummer playing in sync with a heavy drum beat, with all the wrong instruments. It strikes me that this fun device is so obviously out of place, yet smoothly executed. It’s too ridiculous to even imagine if the crowd had appeared in t-shirts and started head banging. What gives music such license to be 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 historically accurate 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, there is a place for historical straightforwardness in 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. (For flexibility on all fronts, watch It Follows to see an ambiguous time period masterfully evaded.)
I think the simplest answer to this curious phenomenon is a clear separation of a soundtrack and plot, since we rarely acknowledge ambient sounds or music as integral parts of real-life narratives. To most people, real life doesn’t have a soundtrack. The most conspicuous visual perspectives added on-screen that come to mind are artificial sun glares, or filters mimicking any variety of drug trips – and even these are used so sparingly that they become necessary for 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 suspended belief. 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 Beethoven’s 9th or the desire to form a mosh pit infinitely more connected to the human condition than a whalebone hoop skirt.