The series finale of “Tremé”. “Inside Llewyn Davies”. Thoughts about a new attitude towards music in (good) films.
It seems like it was only yesterday that I recommended David Simon’s excellent follow-up series to „The Wire“, the post-Katrina-New Orleans-based show „Tremé“. Now – after a sadly shorter fourth season – the show has ended with a final episode that was every bit as good as the ending of „The Wire“ while at the same time staying true to the different focus of the series, which was less about the extremes of human crime, drug abuse and violence but more about how it is like to live in one of America’s more unusual and quirky cities.
The main characters of „Tremé“ were all somehow connected to music, some more succesful, some less, and music was the theme that pervaded the whole series, even touching the characters who weren’t musicians themselves. But in contrast to the usual depiction of musicians in TV they felt real, because their developments as people never felt forced or treading the old cliché of the nobody suddenly becoming a star. In fact most of „Tremé“’s characters get by on a day to day basis, without the prospect of ever experiencing something like a real change. In fact the ending of the series (without giving too much away) has most of the characters pretty much at the same point they were at the beginning, some a little better off, some a bit less. The love stories you expected to work didn’t, and there are no false heroics or plot twists that turn out just nicely.
The deaths of main characters are handled in such a subtle and played down way that it feels real. There are no last moment changes in attitude,no kitschy redemptions. Others decide – after trying 4 seasons to somehow change their life – that they way the used to live is the way that is most true to them, and also that feels refreshingly different from the usual „This is the first day of your new life“ ballyhoo of many screenplays. The one single character who somehow has a bigger (if not bombastic) break as a musician, is shown to be slowly worn down by the commercial restraints of such a career. And the probably happiest and most sympathetic character of them all lives in what many would call a complete mess – children from several wives, constantly broke, just trying to get by as an ordinary trombone player who is always a bit less succesful than his colleagues. Often – when watching the show – I thought that what it depicted must be every mega-orthodox (!) muslim’s nightmare: extremely loose morals, people in constantly changing relationships, lots of booze and drink, and…music, music, music, from morning to evening, and then to the morning again.
But the reason why I write about „Tremé“ here is that it somehow began a new trend in the depiction of music in American films and television. The special charme of „Tremé“ was that all the musical moments in the show were played live, recorded live and usually went on uninterrupted. Yes, in a time where most people (supposedly) have the attention span of a nervous goldfish this HBO show dared to simply show musicians play a song from beginning to end, with no visual gimmickery or distraction. There were episodes of „Tremé“ in which very little happened except different people coming together to play different types of music, and some of these were the best episodes. Also the music was never selected for „hit“ potential, it always felt typical or even ordinary, some of it was good, some worse, never „jazzed-up“ in any way. The songs felt „real“ because the people performing were real musicians from New Orleans, the places in which they played authentic (and not a studio). If there ever was a show which celebrated the richness of the New Orleans music scene without shying away of its problems it was „Tremé“.
Of course sometimes the film makers had to cheat a little, because not all of the actors were real musicians, but the coaching of the instrumental movements was excellent throughout. In one crazy scene of the last series the afore-mentioned trombonist character of Antoine (Wendell Pierce) who throughout the series was „doubled“ by real life trombonist Stafford Agee off-camera, doubles yet another actor who plays a trombonist in a period drama. This shows that how something is filmed can subtly inspire scripts.
But not only „Tremé“ celebrates the new-found aesthetic to let musicians simply be musicians instead of the over-the-top cardboard depictions of themselves that we usually encounter. The new film „Inside Llewyn Davies“ by the Coen Brothers is another example of having fully-formed and authentic musical moments in a film. Actually it starts with the main actor playing nothing but a slow ballad to a relatively subdued audience, the camera mainly resting on the performer himself. There is no visual distraction, no showy camera, it is just the performer and his music. This is not the only moment in this (great) film when we hear full and complete songs played from beginning to end, and it feels like such a relief that the film makers give their audience the respect that they can „dig“ such an approach.
In addition this film is a wonderful (subtle) comedy about a musician who might just have become a star, but whose attitude towards his fellow colleagues and friends in the end make him linger in eternal obscurity. Again this is a welcome break of the usual formula, and even though the ending of the film is quite depressive we just know that the „hero“ will somehow linger on, because there is nothing else for him to do. Far gone are the days of shows like „Fame“, which now seem hollow and false in comparison.
All in all these are only two examples of a changed attitude towards the depiction of music in films, and hopefully we will get much more in the same spirit. What is yet to come is a realistic depiction of classical music (which so far was either over-the-top crazy like in Ken Russell films or trying too hard to be worthy like in „Shine“ – I prefer the former) – so perhaps the next series of David Simon should be called….
„The new show by revered series creator David Simon takes place in one of Germany’s middle-sized cities: Mannheim, a city ravaged by the Second World War, modern architecture and its proximity to the toxic factories of BASF Ludwigshafen. The story focusses on young hopeful students of classical music, who live their dream of perhaps some time making it into one of the fewer and fewer orchestras in contemporary Germany. What they don’t realize yet is that politics have decided to close down the classical music department of their university to expand a dial-in study-advice service. What follows is a complex panorama of all layers of this fascinating city, from drug lords, religious fanatics and scheming politicians to the simple yet infinitely rich lives of young students of classical music.
Next on HBO.
In this opening scene of season 1 („Tremé“ the use of live music is well documented…
In this wonderful scene Llewyn (from „Inside Llewyn Davis“) plays a (complete) song for his estranged father who proceeds to pee his pants in response.