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.