Movie musicals demand a certain suspension of disbelief. We accept that characters will break out of everyday behaviour to sing a song, perhaps even accompanied by full orchestra. I’ve noticed, however, that there are also many dramatic films in which a character disrupts the convention of spoken prose and instead, sings.
These diegetic musical excursions can be surprising or even shocking in the moment, but they clearly serve a dramatic purpose and in the best examples of this phenomenon they seem to arise from a need to express something beyond the limits of mere speech. Music is called upon to sanctify the moment, or to lift it beyond the possible or even believable. The ordinary is made extraordinary and the result is usually that of pivotal or climactic drama.
I am especially interested in cases where female characters are compelled to sing; in the examples I’ve noticed so far they turn to song because they have been silenced in some way or need to make their inner transformation outwardly manifest. Characters sing to themselves or perhaps as a kind of direct communiqué to the audience in some cases, such as in Tom Tykver’s Lola Rennt (Run, Lola, Run) . In her song “Wish,” Lola ( Franka Potente) details the desires of her heart and mind while her physical body is propelled mechanically and continually. In Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers Mallory (Juliette Lewis) sings several times but most notably to herself (and thus, to us) when she is alone in her prison cell. When she explains through song that she was “born bad,” her otherwise psychopathic and cold-blooded character is momentarily exposed as vulnerable and self-aware.
In some scenes, song enables a female character to achieve a kind of catharsis. Raimunda’s (Penelope Cruz) pivotal musical moment in Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver is one of actual performance as opposed to heightened dialogue— she is backed by an on-screen band. She sings in the presence of her preteen daughter who has never heard her sing (a fact which indicates the kind of stricture under which she has lived, and hinting at why a song might be difficult but important). Her choice of song is significant, too, for she performs a renowned Argentine tango called “Volver” (Return), but in the style of flamenco, a soulful, personal Spanish gypsy genre that leaves much more room for self-expression, thus bursting through both personal and musical convention. In Doris Dörie’s Bin Ich Schon, the young girl Linda (also played by Franka Potente) has been under a long self-imposed silence, but suddenly bursts into solo song at a Spanish religious festival which encourages personal confessions. In a improvised, unaccompanied prayer of sorts she tells us of her uncertainty and asks for courage to “love through the pain.” She too circumvents conventions, not only her own previous behaviour in the film but also of genre, for she sings her ‘Saeta’ (‘arrow’, as these devotional songs are called) in German, not Spanish.
Of course male characters break the 4th wall in various ways by singing, too, and there are also more complex examples of diegetic and non-diegetic music converging. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia songwriter Aimee Mann provides much of the soundtrack to the film, but in one scene her background music becomes the foreground: she appears to sing the thoughts of several characters with the song “Wise Up,” a directorial trick that becomes evident as we see a montage in which each of them joins in the song.
Beethoven felt the need to use voices to advance instrumental expression in his 9th Symphony in a way that felt so inevitable that Wagner called “the arrival of Man’s voice and tongue a positive necessity.” Evidently the opposite is also true, and filmmakers believe that music is required in pivotal moments to say what the words alone cannot. I have just begun to catalog these singing heroines in dramatic film and consider their significance.
Lola Rennt, “Wish”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppeZQ8inevE
Natural Born Killers, “Born Bad”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RpPRRUDIO98
Volver, “Volver” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDDx0Y7T4g8
Bin Ich Schon , Linda’s Saeta: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HkKIqXmnUA