Music and Lyrics and Success

March 3, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

“All British films are about the class system,” said Melissa in her perfect British accent. This was a long time ago when we were in graduate school, and we’d just seen some classic British film, maybe This Sporting Life, and I’d offered some brilliant bit of analysis like, “It was sort of about the class system.”

She didn’t say, “Duhhh.” We didn’t have “duh” back then, and she wouldn’t have said it anyway; she was too nice. But that would have been the appropriate response. Instead, she made that statement about all British films being about the class system. She said it as if she were reminding me of something so obvious that any child would have known it.

“No they’re not,” I said defensively, continuing my moment of brilliance. “What about . . . .” But I was stumped. I had seen a few British films, but as I went through them in my mind, I could see that just as she had said, they were all about the class system. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the class system was such a pervasive presence in British life that it inevitably played an important part in any movie.

Now I’m wondering if all American films are about success.

I saw Music and Lyrics yesterday, the new film with Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant. It’s billed as a romantic comedy, but the romance seemed, to me at least, secondary and not intrinsic to the story. Yes, it’s nice that Hugh and Drew finally wind up together, but that’s not really what the story is about. Typically, in a comedy about the romantic relationship, the plot throws all sorts of conflicts and obstacles at the couple — rivals, misunderstandings, deceptions, diversions, etc. — obstacles which they eventually overcome.

But in Music and Lyrics, the struggle is not for the lovers to finally come together but for each of them to overcome obstacles to writing a hit song. Their stories are less about love and more about success. Drew has the talent to write, but devastated by the publishing success of a former lover, she’s reluctant to write anything, especially song lyrics. When she does write the winning song, she’s unwilling to allow Cora, the airhead Britney Spears-type rock star, to give it her hit treatment rather than do it the way Drew intended it to be sung. (Of course, this being a Hollywood comedy, she has it both ways: Cora sings the song the way Drew wanted it, and it becomes a hit.)

Hugh is a 1980s has-been, coasting along on his faded fame, writing songs that pander to an imagined audience rather than trying to do serious musical work. Will Drew finish the lyric, will Hugh write worthwhile music? That’s what the story is about.

The happy ending is not that they wind up together (though of course they do). Instead, the high point is that they finish the song and have it performed by Cora before twenty thousand screaming fans at Madison Square Garden. And even the success of their romance at the end seems to depend on their implied career success as a songwriting team.

How different this all is from the British romantic comedies that Hugh Grant has been in — Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill come to mind. These may have Americans as love interests (Andie McDowell and Julia Roberts, respectively), but the films are absolutely unconcerned with career success.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Music and Lyrics. It’s pleasant, with good-looking people in good-looking places, and the Hugh Grant character lives in a building one block from my own, which can be seen in some of the shots. The film has several funny lines and wonderful send-ups of 1980s and 2000s rock music and videos. Go see for yourself.

As for Melissa (see the first sentence of this post), she went back to London, became a documentary filmmaker, and made several excellent ethnographic films — none of them, so far as I know, about the class system.

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