Last week saw the release of Gimme the Loot, the SXSW Grand Jury Prize winner by Adam Leon, which sees two graffiti artists seek revenge after their replica of the…
When Toronto Film Scene sat down to create an entire issue devoted to the examination of the relationship between music and film, we discovered that despite having some of the most talented musicians in the world, we have hardly made any forays into the genre of the big flashy musical. In fact, we could find only two that were genuinely Canadian: Score: A Hockey Musical and Zero Patience.
At first this seemed impossible. We certainly have live theatrical shows on the same level as Broadway (sometimes even premiering them here first, because we Torontonians are fickle, fickle people ““ if it succeeds here, it’ll succeed anywhere), so why don’t we put huge production numbers with dance, music, feeling and dazzle on the big screen? Why, we asked ourselves, don’t Canadians make musicals?
It seems that, in fact, the answer is both simple and complex. The simple answer? Well, we’re just not like that. We don’t really do flash and dazzle. But the complex answer is actually much more interesting: we’re introspective, intellectual, constantly seeking what it means to be Canadian, and even though we don’t really know what that is (yet?), we can certainly tell you that big and flashy is unlikely to be it.
So how does this translate to movies? Well, since Canadians are obsessed with the distilling and defining of our identity, it seems a natural extension, then, that the road movie ““ a particularly introspective, identity-seeking genre ““ would be a prolific part of our movie making culture. It follows then, that music is the perfect partner to this, since few things catalyze feeling like the artistic representation of a mood through instrumentation and song.
Yes, that’s a very fancy way to say that Canadians like our country, like roads, like music and we like it even more when we put them all together.
And, quite frankly, we really dig our music. No, I don’t mean the guy in the corner with the vodka soda who says things like, “Every band you like, I liked five years ago.” I mean Canadians embrace culture in a holistic and complete way, and we use music in a different way than our American counterparts, especially when we make movies. In short, what I’m saying is, the road movie is the Canadian equivalent to the big Hollywood musical.
When it comes to translating this into film, we do tend to stretch the definition of the term “road movie” a little, but never so far that it’s unrecognizable. For instance, the 1970 Canadian classic Goin’ Down the Road tells the story of two friends from Nova Scotia who travel to Toronto in search of the good life. While the men are not actually “on the road” for very much of the film, it fits the genre quite well in that road movies are not about the conflict outside, but the conflict within. In most cases this is taken to literally mean the conflict between the people inside the car, but in the case of Goin’ Down the Road, director Donald Shebib keeps the conflict tight and mainly between the two (eventually three) main characters. They’re not all trapped in a car together, but they might as well be. Music is used to excellent effect in this film, from a haunting scene at the beginning in Sam the Record man, to an upbeat interlude in Allan Gardens with a group of homeless people playing some impromptu music in the park, to the title song written by Bruce Cockburn. Cockburn composed a number of songs for the film, each describing the journey these characters take in detail, each a heartfelt expression of the journey being taken. In fact, he didn’t release these tracks commercially because he felt they were so closely tied to the characters in the film that neither made much sense when separated.
While it may not fit the technical definition of the road movie, David Cronenberg’s Crash is certainly an excellent example of the values of the genre, especially in its embracing of music as an added layer of experience and understanding in the film. The film is based on a book of the same name by JG Ballard, who was quoted as saying, “Crash is a psychopathological hymn and I’m singing it.” It would seem that Cronenberg took this to heart when creating the soundtrack with Howard Shore. Mixing electronic sounds with modified acoustic instruments, the score produces a visceral musical landscape that is just as haunting as the discoveries the film’s characters make about themselves. While, again, not being “on the road” per se, the characters in this film are certainly seeking to find something and journeying in their own way, many of them feeling trapped with their fellow passengers.
The filmmaker who has used the road movie device with the most success ““ and adherence to the standard tropes of the genre ““ is Bruce McDonald. His films Roadkill and Highway 61 both use the road movie device to discover things about the characters we may not have otherwise learned. Perhaps this refinement of the road movie process is what made Hard Core Logo his most successful entry into this category. The story of an aging punk band that gets together for one last tour that includes 5 dates in cities across Western Canada, the film employs music in a different way. In traditional road movies, the music tends to underscore the emotional journey taken by the characters, while in Hard Core Logo the music seems to do the opposite. The onstage music performed by the band is angry and, well, punk, but it seems the only place they are truly at ease. The emotions they experience off stage are hidden and understated, while on stage they can be free to express as much of their anger with one another as they need to, since they could not possibly handle the intimacy that true conflict requires.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the most traditional of all road movies, One Week. Possibly the most “Canadian” movie ever made, the film tells the story of a man who, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, gets on a motorcycle and sets off to see the country. There’s lots of Tim Horton’s. There’s a 100% Canadian soundtrack that includes Melissa McLelland, Sam Roberts, Great Lake Swimmers, Emm Gryner, Patrick Watson, Joel Plaskett and Luke Doucet, just to name some. There’s even Gord Downie. And most of all, there’s lots and lots of road. It’s kind of in your face, but Canadians rallied around this movie. Why? Well, because it didn’t try to answer any burning questions about our identity and liking it didn’t make us feel patriotic (we really hate that, you know). Instead it had the three things we love most: our land, our roads, and our music.
So there you have it. We don’t sing. We don’t dance. We drive. And we let our music accompany us as we learn about ourselves, as well as our country.
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