Discursive, digressive, inconsistent, incoherent. Just a few words that come to mind when listening to the soundtracks from Xavier Dolan’s first five features. Track by track, he jumps from French-Italian cult diva Dalida’s maudlin ballads to House of Paris’ floor filler ‘Jump Around’ and back again via Rufus Wainwright and Moderat. But in the context of his films, it all makes perfect sense.
His coming-of-age films explore the barriers to communication; what is unspoken is often more meaningful than what is said. Dolan is young (he took his first steps on the Cannes red carpet at the tender age of 19), and he understands the brooding adolescent reticence that this generation, his generation, which grew up plugged into their iPods and traded mixtapes like they were currency, possesses. Respect his curation; just don’t trust him with the aux cord.
Along with directing six features in almost as many years, Dolan was also behind the music video to Adele’s ‘Hello’ – a video that broke records, clocking more than 27 million views on YouTube in less than 24 hours. He made history by shooting the video in IMAX (normally reserved for blockbusters), a decision that is surely testament to Adele’s vocal strength.
Its cinematographic precedent was set in 2014 by one of the most life-changing scenes in film history ever: Mommy’s expansion from 1:1 to 1:85:1 by means of Noel Gallagher. A montage of mother and child’s small achievements is rounded off with Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) skating through suburbia listening to Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’ through giant white headphones.
Dolan’s combination of pop and clever camerawork translates into an incredible, overwhelming moment of catharsis that releases the audience (and reckless misfit) from the narrow box they’ve occupied for the majority of the film. Just as Adele’s swelling belter unfixes the parameters of the conventional music video, the illustration of Steve’s broadening horizons threatens the 1:1 ratio of the conventional album cover.
The CD-ROM is a significant motif in Mommy. Steve’s relationship with his mother Diane (Anne Dorval) is choreographed in time to the “DIE + STEVE MIX 4EVER”. The mix, compiled by Steve’s dead father, eases the household’s new assemblage of characters out of their nervousness into harmony with every one of Céline Dion’s key changes. Dolan also uses popular music as a prop throughout his earlier work. He often shoots from the inside of cars, blurring the distinction between diegetic noise (the car stereo) and non-diegetic sound (the score).
A key scene in Dolan’s 2012 Laurence Anyways has Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and Fred (Suzanne Clément) hotbox a car as they listen to Kim Carnes’ ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ (popularised by the 2008 Clairol Nice’n Easy “Be a shade braver” hair-dye advert), a track that is brought in and out of the diegetic background and the non-diegetic foreground. At this point in the film, Laurence is still a man but perhaps his song choice gives us a clue of his forthcoming decision to transition to a woman. Perhaps Dolan was making an oblique reference to the Clairol ad.
The use of queer and queered music will resonate with recent cinema audiences too. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight consolidates the identity of its protagonist with the use of chopped and screwed music – a style of Southern hip-hop where the tempo is slowed and the pitch lowered. In Chapter One the violin plays in D major; in Chapter Two, B major; and in Chapter Three, the piece ‘Black’s Theme’ is re-orchestrated in a different key, before the chopped and screwed technique is applied – as composer Nicholas Britell explains in this podcast.
In Dolan’s bold debut I Killed My Mother, Hubert (played by Dolan himself) listens to a downbeat Crystal Castles track – some pretty unlikely club music – while he makes out with the equally intoxicated, equally floppy-haired Éric (Niels Schneider). While it is not exactly the chopped and screwed hip-hop of Moonlight, the track selection provides the same slow-motion musical interludes that are so effective in Moonlight. The Crystal Castles club scene is completely immersive; the interplay of audiovisual effects channels the hedonism and melancholy of adolescence.
While critics tend to think of musical accompaniments as either working entirely with or directly against the images they accompany, Dolan’s are far more nuanced; they tend to request a certain sympathy from his audience, be it through the queer narratives they enrich or the interior worlds they open up. Although he is no longer as ubiquitous an onscreen presence as he was in his early films, if you listen to his soundtracks he is simply everywhere.