HOLY MOTORS & MY TOP TEN MUSICAL ENTR’ACTES

Midway through Holy Motors, the peripatetic adventures of “Monsieur Oscar” are put on pause, and the word ENTRACTE flashes up on screen. There follows a musical interlude in which Denis Lavant plays R.L. Burnside’s Let My Baby Ride on the accordionwhile striding purposefully around the church of Saint-Merri in Paris, joined au fur et à mesure by other musicians. “Monsieur Oscar” is played by Lavant, and since this character assumes many different personae in the course of the film, it’s a moot point as to whether the accordion player is merely another of his multiple personalities. But the actor seems, at least, to have taken a break from his acting.

In any case, the results are exhilarating, and when it’s over, both he and we return to “Monsieur Oscar”, and his chauffeur-driven limousine, with our vim renewed, ready for the episodic narrative to roll forward once again. (There are at least two other episodes in the film that might have been classed as musical interludes, though in my opinion they both form part of the narrative.)

Carax and Lavant have past form in the field of the musical break; the breathtaking scene in which Lavant staggers-runs-dances maniacally down the street – some of it while smoking a cigarette! – to David Bowie’s Modern Love in Mauvais sang (1986) has long been a cinephile YouTube favourite. Les amants du Pont Neuf (1991) is packed with music-and-movement, culminating in the extraordinary sequence in which Lavant’s co-star Juliette Binoche water-skis one-eyed down the River Seine to Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 3, with fireworks going off.

Lavant demonstrates at the end of Claire Denis’ Beau travail that he doesn’t need Carax to let rip, as he shows off his moves (once again smoking in more than one sense of the word) to Corona’s The Rhythm of the Night. Carax and Denis, of course, are following in the tradition of the faux-extemporaneous musical break as set out, most famously, by Jean-Luc Godard in the “Madison” scene from Bande à parte, a sequence that has inspired a whole bunch of film-makers, including Hal Hartley and Quentin Tarantino. By “faux-extemporaneous”, I mean that it looks more spontaneous than it really is, though in Lavant’s case, quite frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he made it up as he went along; he looks like a spontaneous kind of guy.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “interlude” as “a pause between the acts of a play”, “a piece of music played between other pieces or between the verses of a hymn” and “a piece of music played between other pieces or between the verses of a hymn”. Shakespeare was forever inserting “where the bee sucks hey nonny nonny”-type entractes, but ever since talkies began, singing and/or dancing interludes have been part of the grand tradition of the movies as well. There are any number of Hollywood musicals with a full complement of musical numbers, but the interludes that concern me here are the singing or dancing breaks occurring in non-musical films.

Often they take place quite naturally in nightclubs (Gilda) or saloons (Destry Rides Again). In some cases they advance the story, in others they’re a  break from it, in some they even provide the recurring musical motif for the rest of the film (Casablanca). Sometimes the film’s main characters cluster around a piano for a good old sing-song, the calm before the storm, before saddling up for the final showdown.

I don’t think the art of this sort of musical break in the middle of a film is dead, necessarily, but its nature has changed. I think it must have been Top Gun (1986) that launched the trend for the pop music serenade (Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards and company belting out You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling to Kelly McGillis in the bar) which has since spread to rom-coms (Say Anything, 10 Things I Hate About YouMy Best Friend’s Wedding etc) but the musical interludes are more often montages these days, which is lazy. You’re not likely to find todays’ action heroes taking a breather around the piano, which is a shame. We can only hope Holy Motors is in the vanguard of fashion, and that entractes will become fashionable once again.

Here then, in chronological order, is my Top Ten Music-and-Movement Interludes in Non Musical Films. If I’ve left out your favourites, please feel free to mention them at the end.

ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939) Cary Grant and his crew risk their cojones flying rickety mail planes over the Andes. So naturally they have to let off steam in the bar with stranded showgirl Jean Arthur. Director Howard Hawks was a specialist in the musical entracte, which is why my second choice is another Hawks film…

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RIO BRAVO (1959) John Wayne assembles an oddball bunch of allies, but before they tackle the bad guys, it’s time for a song… Also, when you have Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in your cast, you’d be a fool not to take advantage of it.

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BANDE À PART (1964) Anna Karina, Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur do the “Madison” to Michel Legrand’s music in a bar in Jean-Luc Godard’s homage to and deconstruction of the Hollywood B-movie.

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MODESTY BLAISE (1966) Joseph Losey’s secret agent spoof featuring Peter O’Donnell’s strip-cartoon heroine has amassed something of a following over the years, though most critics gave it the thumbs-down on its release. One of the things they particularly hated was this musical interlude in which the action grinds to a halt while Modesty (Monica Vitti) and her Cockney sidekick Willie Garvin (Terence Stamp) sing a song and eat ice-cream.

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AIRPLANE! (1980) Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker’s parody of Zero Hour and the Airport films launched a trend for anything-goes genre spoofs that has continued in a much diminished form to this day. This scene, a direct parody of Helen Reddy singing to Linda Blair in Airport 1975, is a perfect send-up of the musical interlude.

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PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985) Little wonder Tim Burton ended up directing a musical (Sweeney Todd) since he had already showed an aptitude for music-and-movement moments such as this one from his debut feature: Paul Reubens (temporarily) winning over a barful of Hell’s Angels by dancing to Tequila. (See also the Banana Boat Song in the possessed dinner-guest set-piece from Beetle Juice.)

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THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986) A regular feature of Tom Cruise’s early performances was a musical party piece, whether dancing around in his underpants to Bob Seger in Risky Business, or mixing drinks to Addicted to Love in Cocktail (1988). His finest hour, though was in this belated sequel to The Hustler, in which his pool-table strutting to Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London tells you all you need to know about his character. His director, Martin Scorsese, has a tendency to overuse music in his films, if anything, but here he gets it dead right.

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MAUVAIS SANG (1986) Denis Lavant doing his no-holds-barred dancing for Léos Carax, a quarter century before Holy Motors, in a science fiction heist-cum-love story heavily influenced by Godard and the Nouvelle Vague.

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BEAU TRAVAIL (1999) No apologies for linking to Denis Lavant yet again. In Claire Denis’ extremely free adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, he plays a sergeant-major in the Foreign Legion whose unreasonable resentment of a good-looking new recruit proves his undoing. Just watch him go during the end credits.

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NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (2004) That rare thing these days – a true cult movie in that it gained a loyal following through word of mouth rather than via a big publicity budget, Jared Hess’s debut is part teen movie, part celebration of smalltown eccentricity that culminates in ultra-geeky Jon Heder’s dance routine. We know he’s been practising, but the results, to Jamiroquai’s Canned Heat, are not at all what we’ve been expecting…

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12 Reasons to See Holy Motors

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Eight Films Containing Dream Sequences More Interesting Than the Ones in Inception

Ten Actresses on Whom I Have Girlcrushes

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15 thoughts on “HOLY MOTORS & MY TOP TEN MUSICAL ENTR’ACTES

  1. No Corinne Marchand (w/ M Legrand again) singing Sans Toi in Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7? Nor even the obvious Moon River? Those at least are my two faves (and I think the films in those cases are v. nice counterparts generally).

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  6. Terence Davie deserves a mention. His films are full of song, I particularly like this musical moment from the Deep Blue Sea:

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    • Renoir is one of the many embarrassing gaps in my viewing. I haven’t seen Le Crime de M Lange – soemthing I clearly need to remedy. I shall keep an eye open for it at the Cinematek.

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