The sex and the music is real; the characters are not

The sex and the music is real; the characters are not

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Richard Linklater’s Boyhoodwhich chronicles its star’s literal growth from grade-schooler to college student, has us thinking back on other ambitious narrative experiments.

9 Songs (2004)

Musical montages and sex scenes are two common components of romantic films. Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs experiments with the genre by recalling a relationship almost exclusively in those terms, and by employing them as realistically as possible. This means that Winterbottom sent the actors playing English bloke Matt (Kieran O’Brien) and visiting American Lisa (Margot Stilley) to actual London rock concerts; it also means the actors, at least in some cases, actually had sex with each other. (There is some drug use to accompany the sex and rock ’n’ roll, but that may have been faked).

This striking verisimilitude transforms the movie into a hybrid of rock doc and pornography, except than it’s more interesting than typical entries in either of those genres. The concert footage isn’t shot with fancy rigs capturing the performers’ every nuance, but rather from a crowd’s eye view, with plenty of jumping, glaring lights, and singing along. And unlike concert scenes in so many fictional movies, where the music serves as background color more than an overwhelming event, 9 Songs shows its characters actually paying attention to what’s happening onstage. The film also provides a snapshot of buzz bands hitting the London scene in the early ’00s; White Stripes and The Strokes are too big to appear, but there are contributions from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Von Bondies, Franz Ferdinand, and perpetual English favorites/American non-favorites Primal Scream.

The sex, to be clear, goes very far. Winterbottom shoots the couple’s earliest encounters in close-ups that sometimes border on abstraction. In one, the sun dappling through an apartment window looks nearly radioactive. Later, as their relationship stagnates, the scenes are in drabber, more stereotypically English grays. Some of the scenes are sexy while others grow monotonous or fizzle out; all of them, though, feel specific to this couple.

In between the songs and the sex, Winterbottom fades in and out of banal but endearing bits of conversation. It’s a simple but effective way to capture relationship details without offering any easy explanations. When Matt’s narration describes Lisa as “crazy,” or when Lisa says Matt would “hate” a dinner she’s going to attend, their reasoning remains ambiguous—and the movie remains as simultaneously vivid and hazy as memory.

Availability: 9 Songs is available on DVD and Blu-ray, which can be obtained from Netflix.


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