Something trivial (or perhaps not)
The first scene of The Theory of Everything is set in an undergraduates’ drinks party. It’s captioned “Cambridge, England, 1963”. In her book Travelling to Infinity, on which the film is based, Jane Hawking tells us that the date of the party at which she first encountered her future husband, the cosmologist Stephen Hawking, was January 1 of that year.
The music being played for these middle-class university students in their sports jackets and cocktail dresses is “Heat Wave”, by Martha and the Vandellas. Which, as it happens, was not even recorded until June 1963. It was released in the US on July 10, and in the UK a couple of months later.
Does it matter that the opening scene of a film supposedly based on a true story contains a resounding distortion? A more subjective opinion on the credibility of the scene’s soundtrack, but one likely to be shared by any British fan of black American music who was around at the time, is that in any case a record like “Heat Wave”, even had it been available, would not have been heard at an undergraduates’ cocktail party. Motown music, a year ahead of its UK breakthrough with the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go”, was still an underground taste in Britain. Someone might have had a copy of “Love Me Do” to put on the Dansette, but “Telstar” or “Bachelor Boy” would have been more likely.
As we know, however, the makers of films based on historical events like to go for “emotional truth” rather than the literal version. They must have persuaded themselves that “Heat Wave” — which does, of course, sound fabulous coming through cinema speakers — would set up the right kind of resonance in the minds of members of the audience who had no first-hand memory of the era. And that, to them, is what counts.
The same thinking was in evidence last week in the final instalment of Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds, a three-part BBC4 series presented by the art historian Dr James Fox on pivotal times in the cultural lives of three major cities: Vienna in 1908, Paris in 1928 and New York in 1951. In the New York episode, Fox had lots of good stuff to examine: abstract expressionism, method acting, bebop, beat literature, the birth of the modern advertising industry. Quite legitimately, the programme chose to focus on five emblematic figures: Jackson Pollock, Marlon Brando, Thelonious Monk, Jack Kerouac and David Ogilvy.
I could just about swallow the modern convention of putting the presenter front and centre, making him a bigger personality than anyone whose art the programme was actually examining. So, for example, we saw Fox evoking Kerouac’s world and work by driving an American car down an endless highway and feeding a big roll of paper into a typewriter. Puerile stuff — but that’s how these things have to be done, or so it seems, in order to get past the commissioning editors.
The warning lights had started flashing, however, as soon as the first piece of music was heard under the opening titles: Charles Mingus’s “Better Git It in Your Soul”. A great piece, of course, and certainly evoking the energy of New York, the city in which it was recorded. “I think it all got started in one remarkable year — 1951,” Fox told us. “This was the year in which the city’s irrepressible creative spirit exploded into life.” Except that “Better Git It in Your Soul” was recorded, as part of the sessions that produced the classic album Ah Um, in May 1959.
There was more great background music to come, all of it used to underscore the events and the atmosphere of 1951. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers playing Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin'” — recorded in 1958. Link Wray’s “Rumble” — also from 1958 (and recorded in Washington DC). Percy Faith’s “Theme from A Summer Place” — written for a 1959 film. Gil Evans’s “Where Flamingos Fly” — recorded in 1960. Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance” — recorded in 1961.
So why, one had to ask, did the programme’s makers shun the music of 1951, about which the presenter waxed so lyrical? Presumably they’d given it a degree of thought, and concluded that the sounds of Charlie Parker’s “My Little Suede Shoes”, Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare”, Joe Turner’s “Chains of Love”, or Dizzy Gillespie’s “Tin Tin Deo” — all recorded in 1951 — did not fit their conception of what today’s audience would think of as evoking the cultural phenomenon they were attempting to describe.
I’m not sure that any of this really matters except to those, like me, who fear that once everyone with a first-hand memory of everything that was important to us has gone, a kind of chaos will ensue. But that is, I suppose, how all history eventually comes to be written.
Same thing with early 1970’s music in the pirate-radio inspired The Boat That Rocked (sunk by the Marine etc Broadcasting Offences Act 1967).
‘Mephisto’ – a film that I liked – had a scene set in the late 1930s with a Getz bossa nova record playing.
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Terrific piece and absolutely right to bring it up
I do concur with your view, and somehow feel it is laziness by the production team in not using appropriate sources.
We were just discussing this very subject over lunch today with reference to the film Mr. Turner – which, unlike most of our friends and some colleagues, we found tedious and boring – apart from that, we found the elements of ‘stretched truth’ and fabrication annoying. Looking it up we discovered two interesting supporters in these two articles –
That led me to look up the biopic on Mr Hendrix (which I haven’t seen) and found similar complaints of ‘artistic licence’ with fact and fiction – a disease it seems – perhaps mirroring politics these days? –
Thanks for this Richard – such fascinating commentary really matters and long may you continue to hold programme makers and researchers to account.
Not trivial at all, Richard. Valid, pertinent and important points.
I agree with you Richard, if you are doing a piece about a specific time in history and you want the music to reflect that time, why chose music from the wrong date. I know the following quote is often credited to Keith Moon, but it may well have been someone else.
However, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”.
No not trivial but for what it is worth, I found Fox’s review of Vienna 1908 absolutely fascinating; just so much I didnt know.
The reason Fox is front, centre and star is to attract a female audience, methinks.
The Theory of Everything also has the most manipulative music score I’ve heard recently, every moment of heft underlined by whatever the piano equivalent is of a large black felt pen. The guilty man is Jóhann Jóhannsson and he’s up for an Oscar…
And there’s a similar fast & loose thing going on with the visuals of Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds, with its dredged up shots of black people and Times Square and diners from a totally vague “Post War to the Sixties” Getty search. They’ve learned nothing from Ken Burns. And if it’s not aimed at people who are interested, are these groovy falsehoods going to bring a floating audience in? Shouldn’t BBC4 have faith in its viewers?
You are dead right Richard. The danger is that this type of sloppy TV actually becomes the historical truth.
Spot on and not trivial. If these films and TV shows were books, editors would be, or should be, correcting these errors – for, like all anachronisms they are errors.
Playing loose with musical accuracy doesn’t serve emotional truth – because it’s an emotional lie. I agree with Martin Colyer – BBC4 and Sky Arts, etc. should have faith in their audience because no-one else is going to watch it anyway. I’m reminded of a small piece I read last year on Jonathan Miller. The reason he isn’t on TV anymore is because all the commissioning editors and producers – holders of a degree in Media Studies every one – keep asking him, ‘where’s the journey?’ His reply was that he had no idea. In data analysis you can either look for the facts that support the answer you want, or look at the data and see what the answer is. I fear the visual media we see these days does the former.
So, I’m not the only pedant whose enjoyment of a (very good I thought) movie is soured by such detail. Hearing the Vandellas’ Heatwave, following the caption ‘1963’, right there in my Odeon, was unsettling. Then I thought, ‘OK… late ’63… unusually hip Cambridge DJ… could have been’. But it seems this scene was set pre-Heatwave, if you’ve read the Hakwing bio. Later in the script, some of which I’m sure contains anachronisms in the context of England in the 60s/70s, I heard ‘pay phone’ (telephone box, surely), ‘tits up’ (really?), to name but two. Does it matter? Well, somewhere in a major movie budget is the ‘researcher’, but perhaps these gigs go only to youngsters. You’d think not, but I do wonder. ‘Tits up’. No doubt someone will point out it was first uttered in 1946.
It’s surely not acceptable at all when a slew of 1959-60 recordings are used in a documentary the specific premise of which is too look at a certain place at a certain time (the BBC4 programme on New York in 1951). It becomes fake history broadcasting – if the music is bogus what else, one might reasonably wonder, is also either poorly researched or wilfully massaged? In one sense (save that no living individual is embarrassed) it’s the soundtrack equivalent of that royal fly-on-the-wall series trailer from a few years back where the Queen was made to appear, through editing, to be walking away from someone in a strop. BBC4 should get a grip. People care about it because it makes these sort of documentaries and generally does so very well. Why did the copyright clearance person on this realize they were looking at a lot of 1959 dates for a show with 1951 in the title? And why did the director not think ‘This is BBC4: OF COURSE the audience will notice…’ It’s not good enough.
I couldn’t agree more. The trend of making the presenter more important than the subject is extremely irritating. Another bug bear: on a lot of music tribute programmes we have to listen to today’s personalities pontificating about music produced before they were born instead of listening to people who were around at the time. Any chance of hearing a whole number instead of 30 seconds music followed by 3 minutes of nonsense? Forget it!
Ooh-er, I’m very belatedly trying to teach myself jazz with a daily immersion via Spotify of music made mostly in the fifties. Or so I thought.
no connection whatsoever… but why no uk obits?
joe B. Mauldin, whose bass playing for the Crickets helped set the pulse of rock & roll, died Saturday, February 7th. He was 74 years old.
Raised in West Texas, Joseph Benson Mauldin, Jr. was barely 17 years old when he began playing with Buddy Holly, a local hotshot whose music mixed the twang of the Lone Star State with the sweep and swagger of rockabilly. At the time, Holly was looking to bounce back from a failed record deal with Decca, whose executives had signed the songwriter in 1956, paid for three unsuccessful recording sessions in Nashville and then dropped Holly from their roster in early 1957, threatening him with legal action if he re-recorded the songs for another label. Holly did re-record those songs, but he avoided a lawsuit by releasing them as a band, the Crickets, whose members also included drummer Jerry Allison and rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan.
With Sullivan dropping out of the band one year later, Mauldin and Allison became the Crickets’ rhythmic backbone. Together, they represented the yin and yang of Holly’s sound, with Allison’s percussion — so loud that it often bled into Holly’s vocal mic during recording sessions, forcing Allison to move his drums into the reception area of the studio — giving the music a wild, rambunctious edge, and Mauldin’s stand-up bass — which he played like a country sideman, emphasizing the root and fifth of each chord — paying tribute to the western music they’d all grown up with.
Although they were rattled by Holly’s death in 1959, the Crickets moved forward as a band, teaming up with vocalist Earl Sinks and lead guitarist Sonny Curtis (who’d performed with Holly before his rise to fame, even making the trip to Nashville in 1956 for those botched recording sessions) for 1960’s In Style with the Crickets. That album included the first recording of “I Fought the Law,” which later became a hit for another Texas-based group, the Bobby Fuller Four. Over the next five decades, the Crickets continued releasing their own albums, occasionally with the help of guest vocalists like Bobby Vee.
Mauldin briefly left the band during the Sixties. He enrolled in the U.S. Army in 1964 and, after his discharge in 1966, moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a recording engineer at Gold Star Studios. Richie Valens, who’d died alongside Holly in the 1959 plane crash that also claimed the life of J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, had recorded “La Bamba” and “Oh Donna” at Gold Star, which also served as the birthplace of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”
By the mid-Seventies, though, Mauldin had rededicated himself to the Crickets, whose members were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. He remained with the group until last weekend, when he lost a battle with cancer.
Richard Galvin, here is my ver brief tribute to Joe B. http://tinyurl.com/occowkq
thanks Will – enjoyed your ian Dury book also
Well spotted Richard, and quite right to point this out. We went to see this film and although I wasn’t certain of the chronology of ‘Heat Wave’, I thought it was unlikely to have been played at this party, far too cool for Cambridge undergrads. Enjoyed the film though, especially Felicity Jones’ portrayal of Jane.
Excellent article, Richard. Like a few others on this forum I derive a perverse enjoyment from picking up on the musical mistakes seeded into too many dramas and documentaries. Even the most skilled dramatists appear prone to silly oversights when it comes to evoking time and place with a supposedly contemporaneous soundtrack.
One who comes to mind is Paula Milne, whose 2012 decades-spanning telly piece ‘White Heat’ wasn’t without its musical inaccuracies (I remember a track from the Pretty Things’ ‘S.F.Sorrow’ erroneously popping up as a backdrop to a 1967 sequence).
This said, dramatically there might be an argument for the ’emotional’ approach, and though I’ve not seen the film in question the uplifting effect of ‘Heatwave’ crashing through the Dolby must be sensational. For documentaries, however, the musical anachronism is unforgivable, particularly where (as in the case of the ‘cities’ strand) the prevailing culture is the central topic, backbone and raison d’etre of the entire show.
artistic license is fair enough, but generally no excuse for anachronisms these days when anyone can ‘research’ at the click of a mouse….and Richard, we are grateful for you making us lesser mortals aware of such incongruities…enjoyed the film, though
Yes, it is a problem. Example: the new film set in 1946 Berlin by Christian Petzold (called “Phoenix” in France) which features Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” as a central motif. Two characters sit listening at one point to Weill’s rough demo version of the song (not released until much later). They are trying to give a false impression that the song is an old pre-war work. It’s unnecessary, as there are plenty of other great Weill songs to choose from.