It wasn’t really a surprise that so many British film critics greeted Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air with such a grudging response on its release last month (among the honourable exceptions, inevitably, was the Observer‘s Philip French). The film’s French title, Apres mai, is a reference to the disturbances of May 1968, and on this side of the Channel there is always a tendency to sneer at the youthful idealism that lay behind les evenements. Some form of cultural and/or generational jealousy at work there, I imagine.
Please take it from me that this is no two-star film, as some seemed to think. It may not be a five-star classic, either, but the director succeeds completely in achieving his aim of portraying the uncertainties of a group of young French people who were leaving school and starting a college education two or three years after the historic events in question, hoping to emulate their predecessors but discovering that the world had changed — and not in the way that such soixante-huitards as Daniel Cohn-Bendit or Jean-Jacques Lebel might have hoped.
As far as this blog is concerned, however, the point is that Assayas makes the soundtrack an integral part of his film, and he gets that right, too. For his party and bedsitter scenes (see the still above) he uses the kind of music that would have been heard at UFO or the Round House in that era: the early Soft Machine, Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band, Dr Strangely Strange, Amazing Blondel, Captain Beefheart (“Abba Zabba” from Safe as Milk) and Tangerine Dream. There is a very amusing scene in which the young protagonist flicks through his album collection: Blind Faith, Electric Ladyland etc. The Soft Machine’s “Why Are We Sleeping” makes a particularly powerful contribution to the evolving drama, and Kevin Ayers’ “Decadence” forms a resonant coda. (The song from which the film’s English title is borrowed, Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air”, doesn’t feature.)
I’m afraid, however, that in terms of sheer enduring quality one piece of music blows the rest of the soundtrack into the weeds, and it comes from almost a decade earlier: the freshness, clarity and authority of Booker T and the MGs’ “Green Onions” make this simple riff-based 12-bar-blues sound as though it was recorded last week rather than in 1962. If you were being cynical, or perhaps a British movie critic, you might argue that the post-psychedelic “progressive” music of the late Sixties and early Seventies mirrored the fumbling evanescence of the political ideas and movements to which it supplied the accompaniment. But I’m not the one to trample on all that idealism, social or musical. See the film, anyway; thanks to those discouraging reviews, it probably won’t be around much longer.