Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

'... There's No Music Playing, and It's Not Snowing': Songs and Self-Reflexivity in Curtisland

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

'... There's No Music Playing, and It's Not Snowing': Songs and Self-Reflexivity in Curtisland

Article excerpt

Solid Gold Shit, Maestro

In a mixed bunch of reviews (with a Tomatometer reading of 63% on www.rottentomatoes.com), the one thing almost all critics agreed on about Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003) was that

Bill Nighy, playing a superannuated rocker hoping to get a Christmas number one with his cynically repackaged version of Love Is All Around [...] is barnstormingly brilliant: hilarious in every scene with a cracker of a laugh in every line.

(Bradshaw 2003)

Hardly a review forgot to mention that Nighy's character Billy Mack 'is involved in recording a cynical Christmas version of one of his old hits', and that '[t]he hit was crappy, the Christmas version is crap squared, and he is only too happy to admit it' (Ebert 2003).

The reviews missed a trick, though, or rather a step, from the 'cynically repackaged version of Love Is All Around' to the cynical packaging of the film itself. Time Out came closest: 'Bill Nighy has a ball as an old rocker with a Christmas comeback single - a record no more crass or pre-packaged than this shameless yuletide schmaltz' (Anon. 2006). But the relationship between the crassness of the record and the yuletide schmaltz of the film can be described more precisely, and the analysis leads to two claims around which my argument is centred:

* that the musical trick employed is just the most obvious example of a strategy typical for other romcoms by production company Working Title, a strategy of self-reflexively exploiting the ambiguity of both using and ridiculing pre-existing pop songs, and of layering their use within and without the diegesis;

* that the shamelessness of the film can be seen to be part of its position in the history of the romantic comedy, a position that fits smoothly into the history of a genre in which self-reflexivity of different kinds has long played a major role.

That reviewers failed to pick up on the trick is surprising, since the film arranges it elaborately in its eight-minute opening sequence - which is so long not just because it takes time to introduce the different protagonists of the film's multiple story strands (sometimes compared to Robert Altman's Short Cuts; sometimes, less complimentarily, to Terence Rattigan's The VIPs; see French 2003), but also because that introduction surrounds the film with three frames that define its narrative stance.

The first frame consists of Hugh Grant's cheesy voiceover, which, over images from the arrivals gate at Heathrow, gives out the message that 'love, actually, is all around us'. It is not clear at this point if the voice belongs to a character within the film's storyworld (though that seems likely, since Grant played major roles in three previous Working Title romcoms scripted or produced by Richard Curtis), and it is only later that we can identify the voice with the film's fictional Prime Minister, and that we can relate the opening images to the end of the story and understand the initial voiceover as part of a narrative loop. Ambiguity retrospectively enters the frame when we realise the loop: the wise voiceover words are those of a politician, and their cheesiness may not just be fitting for a bit of 'shameless yuletide schmaltz', but also chimes with the echoes of Tony Blair crucial for the film's construction of the character. Ostensibly, the film absolves its fictional PM from the taint of his profession: through his honest love for Downing Street tea lady Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) and through the courageous speech in which he terminates the 'special relationship' with the USA, right in the face of Billy Bob Thornton's suave bully of a US president and his conviction that the UK will do his bidding however he behaves (which includes making a pass at Natalie).

But doubts remain. Even, and indeed especially, the Prime Minister's moments of honesty turn out to be consummate triumphs of PR: the spontaneous volte-face in the country's political affiliation brings tears to the eyes even of hardened politicos, while the kiss with Natalie inadvertently takes place in full view of an audience of hundreds at a school Christmas concert. …

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