Popular Music in Period Pieces

Popular Music in Period Pieces

A few years ago when the Leonardo DiCaprio version of The Great Gatsby came out, critics and fans were split over the sound track. What were Jay-Z and Fergie doing in a movie set in 1920s America? It’s a complaint I heard years before from my mother about another Baz Luhrmann movie, Moulin Rouge. The music in some period movies is just completely, purposefully, inaccurate. And I love it.

Iron-Jawed Angels

I recently re-watched a favorite biopic, Iron Jawed Angels, an HBO original about Alice Paul. The movie is pretty historically accurate, with the exception of a made-up love interest played by Patrick Dempsey. It’s a great look at the events of the five years leading into the passage of the 19th Amendment. It follows Alice Paul, the hero suffragette who kind of gets forgotten by the average American. (She had a tube shoved up her nose and food poured down it for my right to vote. It’s a shame more people don’t know of her.)

(It’s only $5.99 on Amazon right now!)

IJA uses popular and contemporary music from 2004, including such artists as Lauren Hill and Sarah McLachlan. I had a foreign exchange student ask me why the music was from the wrong time (the movie spans roughly 1914-1920). Most of the others students, if they noticed, didn’t say anything. But it made me think about this device.

A Matter of Perspective

When we listen to the recorded music of these times, we’re not impressed. The recordings are awful, and it sounds like the music of our great-grandparents. Yet, to the people of those times, it was rebellious and cutting-edge. There was excitement in the air at a swing club, and jazz broke all the rules!

Using the cutting-edge popular music recalls in the audience that rebellious, modern feeling that I can only guess Alice Paul felt as angry crowds were assaulting her for protesting a war-time president. Likewise, the fictional Gatsby lived in a world of drinking and dancing. His parties were wild and fun (and scandalous!) Would modern audiences feel that with accurately recorded music of the period? Remember, it was new and modern to them; it is old and conservative to us.

Some Things Never Change

In addition to setting tone, this device can also bring historical issues into a modern context.

ab729c588ade62a00062a049bde1d1d3Gatsby deals with opportunistic, selfish people in a time of excess and disillusionment with the American dream. How is that not relevant today with the slow economic recovery and every song being about raising a glass to party party party?

Iron Jawed Angels shows the same kind of aggressive misogyny that reared its ugly head during Gamer Gate last year while also showing women slogging through a political process that seems to be more about appearances than progress.

Modern music in these movies can be a reminder that these are still our issues today, just wearing a different style of dress.

An Expiration Date

Of course, there is a downside to this approach. Modern music can do wonders for the tone of a period film, but it also puts a date stamp on the movie. Like with popular culture jokes in a comedy, using hits from the current year in music gives that tone a time-limit.

timerIron Jawed Angels starts with a guitar chord that sounds an awful lot like opening of Vertical Horizon’s “Everything You Want” from 1999, and when I hear it, I can’t help but smirk at the memory of twelve-year-old me trying to listen to the same music as all of my peers. Jay-Z may seem hip and rebellious now in the Gatsby remake, but in 20 years my kids are going to think it’s old people music.

So while popular music in period movies works great for the first decade (maybe that long), in more time it’s going to be ineffective at its original purpose and wrong. After all, we wouldn’t accept it as a device if a movie used music from the thirties to depict the forties: we’d call it a careless mistake. If people are watching 21st Century movies in three hundred years (just like we’re listening to classical music and reading Shakespeare), will they think of this device as a mistake, 80 years off the mark?

So, what do you think? Do you like when period movies use contemporary music for tone, or do you hate it? Chime in! Comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.