Some of the most poignant and pivotal dramatic moments in this year’s crop of Oscar contenders have been brought to life not through pithy dialogue or climactic speeches, but through song. Rather than over-the-top musical numbers a la “Moulin Rouge” or “Chicago,” we’ve seen several notable, heart-wrenching singular performances that reveal key qualities of the films’ major characters in ways that dialogue can’t conjure.
In “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” a creepy cult leader played by John Hawkes seduces his most recent convert (Elizabeth Olsen) by serenading her with the obscure ’60s folk tune “Marcy’s Song.” In “Moneyball,” Kerris Dorsey’s character performs the indie-pop ditty “The Show” by Australian songstress Lenka, revealing a hidden talent to her father, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), and prompting a crucial personal revelation at the close of the film.
In addition, Michelle Williams bookends “My Week With Marilyn” with two musical numbers, reminding the audience of Monroe’s storied seductive singing style and proving that Williams is much more than a Marilyn impersonator. And in “Shame,” Carey Mulligan’s damaged, vulnerable Sissy croons “New York, New York” at a nightclub, eliciting tears from her emotionally hardened sex-addict brother Brandon (Michael Fassbender).
Steve McQueen, the writer-director of “Shame,” decided to take the Kander and Ebb classic — best-known as a showstopper from the likes of Liza Minnelli and Frank Sinatra — and turn it on its head by having Mulligan, who plays a nightclub performer, deliver an emotive, stripped-down version of the Big Apple anthem.
“What was interesting for me about the song and the lyrics is it’s not a triumphant song at all — it’s much more of a blues song — and how Sissy could communicate to Brandon,” McQueen says. “It was the only time when he was forced to listen. He brought his boss to the nightclub so he couldn’t get up and leave so he’s cornered, and he opens up to this song she performs.”
McQueen adds that this is the sole instance when the softer side of this desensitized character is exposed. “It’s the only time the drawbridge is let down into his heart,” he says. “Of course immediately afterwards the drawbridge is hastily pulled up, but it’s the only time he is revealed.”
Hawkes’ haunting musical turn in “Martha” also reveals a hidden side of his complex cult-leader Patrick, and wins over Olsen’s vulnerable title character. “It goes back to my love of watching people perform,” says first-time director-writer Sean Durkin. “I feel like that’s such an amazing way to see someone give themselves in some way. I needed to show that he was going to win her over and she was falling for him … and that song, and him playing it for her, even though the lyrics are quite harsh, feels like a love song in a way.”
Hawkes, who performs in bands when he’s not acting, delivers the evocative tune by folk singer Jackson Frank with charismatic intensity, making his seduction of Olsen’s character all the more plausible.
While Hawkes’ performance betrays a sinister nature, Dorsey’s rendition of “The Show” at the beginning and end of “Moneyball” illustrates her 13-year-old character’s innocence and insecurity. It also prompts her father’s pivotal personal revelation at the close of the film.
“It works on a number of levels,” says the film’s director Bennett Miller. “In the first case it shows where Billy Beane’s heart is. There is this very tender fragile soul in his life that he cares about … and it’s meant to be a revelation to him. It’s a moment when he realizes on a new level who his daughter is.
“At the end of the movie when it’s reprieved, the lyrics themselves are strangely appropriate to Brad Pitt’s character’s own circumstances … and the meaning of the film is meant to crystallize in that moment.
“You realize what the movie’s been adding up to, which is a decision about values and value judgments. In her voice you learn that Beane decided to turn down the $12.5 million offer with a historic team with a real chance of winning. But he hears his daughter’s voice and makes a final judgment to stay on the West Coast where his heart is and where she’s at and where this crappy team is that he loves.”
Whereas the aforementioned films’ musical performances were interwoven into the plots, “Marilyn” director Simon Curtis chose for his main character’s big musical performances to stand apart, outside the picture’s narrative thrust.
“The first one is sort of a dazzling theatrical opener to say, ‘Here’s Marilyn!,’ he says. “Then at the end, outside the (story’s) timeline, ‘Old Black Magic’ resonates well. It allows you to contemplate Marilyn and the journey she’s been on … it gives us an emotional conclusion to the film. It’s also lovely to see Michelle (Williams) doing so brilliantly (what) Marilyn (did) so brilliantly.”
Lyrics bring pix to life | Stars tune up plots | John goes Gaga over inanimate romance
From rising stars to Oscar winners, seven composers talk about the method to their musicality:
Henry Jackman | Alberto Iglesias | Dario Marianelli | Michael Giacchino | Abel Korzeniowski | Conrad Pope | Thomas Newman