"Say Goodbye to Hollywood": Popular Music and Mythic Deconstruction in Shampoo

By Tayyar, Paul | Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

"Say Goodbye to Hollywood": Popular Music and Mythic Deconstruction in Shampoo


Tayyar, Paul, Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood


Nothing is more natural than allowing memory to replace truth with nostalgia; our first historian, Herodotus, laid the blueprint for his descendents when he loaded his Histories with second-hand myths in lieu of dates and facts. His desire was certainly understandable. Why tell things as they were, when how they might have been is so much more entertaining? The above line could well be the catch-phrase for many Hollywood filmmakers who have time and again given us historical epics, period pieces, and "faithful" re-creations that more often than not adhere to a simple objective: give 'em what they want. The "they" in this case is the audience, who (it is often rightly assumed) could not care less about the world as it was, as long as they are being entertained. This modus operandi is how we end up with films like Gladiator, in which the women of classical antiquity seem to have had rather liberal access to liposuction, breast enlargements, and bikini-waxes.

This romanticizing of the past in films is not simply confined to the visual image. Caryl Flinn, in her book Strains of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia, and

Hollywood Film Music, sees this systematic white-washing occurring with frequency in the scoring of films as well; the attendant music exists to create an aural soundscape in which the viewer is taken back into a mythic world whose realities bear little resemblance to the actual realities the given time period possessed:

Film music has been handed down to us as something ethereal, timeless, and deeply ahistorical. It is easy to see how a utopian understanding of it can emerge - and indeed has emerged - from this ensuing set of assumptions. The ensuing conception of utopia, moreover, is utopian in the strictest sense of the word, a "no-place," an impossible, unrepresentable, and idealized condition with little in common with the facts of actual social and historical significance. (91)

If this is the case (and I believe it is), then no decade's image has been more carefully re-scored than the 1960s, as many Hollywood films have created a reductive reality, in which the very real socio-political carnage that occurred is often romanticized (or completely re-configured) by the music that soundtracks these images. Such films as Forrest Gump, The Big Chill, Shag, and There Goes My Baby present the sex, drugs, and social protest of the decade in a simplistic way rather than examining the contradictions and nuances of the era.

There is no denying that the 1960s was a decade largely defined by loosening sexual mores, staggering civil rights advances, and groundbreaking rock and roll; there is also no denying the 1960s was a decade defined by a devastating war in Vietnam, bloody race riots in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Chicago, and the assassinations of several important political icons. How then, can a film tell a story set in the 1960s without simplifying, trivializing, or romanticizing the time period? In the case of Shampoo (1975) - directed by Hal Ashby, written by Warren Beatty and Robert Towne - which takes place in the twenty-fours before Richard Nixon is elected President in 1968 - the film chooses to present the multi-faceted truths that accompanied the decade in a most interesting way: through the soundtrack. In doing so, the film takes an unerring look at the decade as it was (at least as it was in the Beverly Hills of 1968). In the process, Flinn's discussion of musical utopias is presented with a dark antithesis: aural dystopia.

Shampoo's ambitious intentions begin as the credits rise: a dark screen and the opening verse to the Beach Boys' wistful ode to 1960s youth and exuberance, "Wouldn't It Be Nice," firmly establish the film's project. Challenged to maintain our aural equilibrium, we are presented with competing soundscapes: besides the song, the sounds of a man and a woman - whom we will soon realize are the film's protagonist, George Roundy (Warren Beatty) and Felicia (Lee Grant) in the middle of a rather halting, struggling form of sexual intercourse. …

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