The Inside Story: Diegetic music in teen movie franchises

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Diegetic sound: Sound whose source is visible on the screen or whose source is implied to be present by the action of the film, such as voices of characters, sounds made by objects in the story, and music represented as coming from instruments in the story space…

Diegetic music in movies is not a recent invention. Think of Sam in Casablanca or any of the great studio musicals, like Singin’ in the Rain or Carousel. In fact, the history of cinema has gradually squeezed out diegetic music: think of the live orchestral accompaniments to silent films, where the audience could see, and interact with, the musicians. In recent years, the technique has become more esoteric and synonymous with filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino – think of any time a jukebox has ever played in a movie – and Wes Anderson, with Seu Jorge’s Portuguese David Bowie songs in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jarvis Cocker’s performance in Fantastic Mr Fox (we’ll be returning to Cocker shortly). Even this year’s Best Picture Oscar, Birdman, made extensive use of the technique. But whilst diegetic music makes sense in the world of art-house and auteur filmmaking, there’s something more unusual about seeing it employed in a teen fantasy franchise.

The Harry Potter film franchise makes particularly interesting use of diegetic music. David Heyman and the team behind the movies were often praised for their bold artistic choices – think of Alfonso Cuaron’s direction of the 3rd movie, Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography in the 6th, or Stuart Craig’s production design throughout – and their use of musical techniques is no different. Generally, diegetic music is clearly distinguishable from non-diegetic music, but Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a rare contradictory example. In the first movie in the series, Hagrid is seen playing a flute, and the tune he is playing is none other than John Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme”, the dominant leitmotif in the Harry Potter series.

It’s a fleeting moment that few viewers will even pick up on, but it actually presents a difficulty for the audience’s perception of the non-diegetic music (which is to say, the soundtrack that we all know and love). Are we to assume that John Williams’ score is tapping into (fictional) wizarding folk music? Or, perhaps, John Williams’ composition already exists within the wizarding world, and thus John Williams is, essentially, a member of the Harry Potter cast?

This early instance of diegetic music would be more troubling if the series didn’t return to the technique several times, albeit in markedly different ways. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, along with Jonny Greenwood and Phil Selway from Radiohead (and a handful of other British musicians), took on the role of The Weird Sisters, and recorded three songs for the soundtrack: “This Is the Night”, “Do the Hippogriff” and “Magic Works”.

Not to unnecessarily disparage Cocker and co’s writing, but though they provide a fittingly poppy audio landscape for the Yule Ball, the lyrics make little sense in the magic world. “Magic Works”, for instance, is predicated on convincing people that magic is real, which seems something of a truism in the magical world. But even JK Rowling is sometimes guilty of this (see Celestina Warbeck and “Oh, my poor heart, where has it gone? It’s left me for a spell…”).

Songwriting aside, what’s more relevant is that we are, once again, being exposed to music that exists, and is performed, within the fictional parameters of the wizarding world, as well as the soundtrack. In light of Cocker’s composition for the Harry Potter movies, it seems less outlandish to suggest that John Williams’ composition also exists within the wizarding world.

But Harry Potter isn’t the only franchise to present these complications. In Mockingjay: Part One, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen performs “The Hanging Tree” as part of the propaganda campaign organised by the rebels. In the ‘real world’ that song charted in the UK and US, as a James Newton Howard ft J-Law production. Funny as it was to hear the Space Jam composer being played on Radio 1, it actually made sense within the context of The Hunger Games: “The Hanging Tree” is a populist anthem, and, given that Mockingjay: Part One is a satire of political propaganda, it makes perfect sense that the song would be expanded to a larger, orchestral piece.

We know that Jennifer Lawrence’s vocals are diegetic, but what if Newton Howard’s accompaniment is also diegetic? What if Newton Howard, like Williams, is not simply writing the score for the movie, but also portraying a character who’s part of the propaganda team of the rebellion? When the music is used to score the storming of the dam, it is immediately following a diegetic sequence where the music is scoring a, similarly rousing, sequence in a film being broadcast to the districts. Doesn’t it follow logically, therefore, that this part of Newton Howard’s score should exist within the film world?

You might think that I’m just posing questions that don’t make any practical difference to our understanding of the films, but the sound world that they exist in is a crucial part of the craftsmanship behind the films. Increasingly, teen fantasy franchises go for attention grabbing jukebox soundtracks that can’t be smoothly integrated into the narrative (well, not unless you’re Will Smith in Men in Black, which, thanks to its classic music video, is almost diegetic).

In the penultimate Harry Potter movie there are two examples of diegetic music that illustrate its importance. Firstly, Hermione attempts to teach Ron Beethoven’s “Für Elise” and, in doing so, she opens wide a long history of Muggle music, that runs from Beethoven to, perhaps, John Williams. Later, Harry and Hermione dance to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “O Children”, from his 2004 album The Lyre of Orpheus, when it comes on the Wizarding Wireless Network. Matt Biffa, the music supervisor for the film, observed in an interview that they wanted to avoid ‘songs that would pull you out of the wizard world and into ours’. Whilst that explains the choice of a relatively obscure album track, it leaves some unanswered questions in the context of the Harry Potter universe. Is the WWN aware of Cave, as a Muggle performer? Or is Cave, like Cocker, portraying an artist in the wizarding world?

These questions in Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are unanswered, but they pose questions that most franchises wouldn’t bother with. We know that neither Ellie Goulding nor The Weeknd were present in Fifty Shades of Grey, so the musical world becomes divorced from the action in a manner that diegesis prevents. Diegetic music is fundamentally different from Ariana Grande’s contribution to The Mortal Instruments, Paramore’s to Twilight, or Zedd’s to Divergent. Think of Billy Boyd’s song in The Return of the King compared to Ed Sheeran’s recording for The Hobbit. One taps into a folkloric history where the filmmakers are unafraid to acknowledge that music exists within their fictional world, whilst the other is a six-figure paycheck for a mysteriously popular singer your Mum likes.

Both diegetic and non-diegetic music have their place in filmmaking, but fantasy literature is so fundamentally engaged with mythology and tradition, not to mention world-building, that using diegetic music can add complex layers to the story.

I await John Williams’ response to my claim that he’s a wizard.

You can follow Nick on Twitter @nickfthilton

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