Six Feet Under is important to me. It was the first “prestige” television show I ever watched in its entirety (I’m not counting Twin Peaks or The Larry Sanders Show before it—the era that kicks in with The Sopranos, I mean). When I finally did catch up with The Sopranos and Mad Men long after the fact—and when I watched The Leftovers, House of Cards, and four or five others during their actual run (some of which I still have to finish, and one, Mr. Robot, that I abandoned partway through the second season)—Six Feet Under was my frame of reference. The list of shows I haven’t even begun is long; as it continues to grow exponentially, I’m quite sure I’ll never catch up, even with retirement looming. But no matter how many I do eventually get to, I expect I’ll always look upon Six Feet Under as important.
Being kind of in limbo with a couple of those in-progress shows at the moment, I started a rewatch earlier this week. I’m a few episodes into Season Two; it only ran for five, so I’ll probably finish within a couple of weeks. I’ll come back here and write about its use of music when I do—I remember it becoming increasingly important not too long after where I am now. The episode I finished yesterday, “Driving Mr. Mossback,” is really the first time anything (outside of the always excellent score, which regularly summons a strong emotional response from me) felt significant thus far. Nate and Claire have a conversation about Sleater-Kinney and grunge, Yo La Tengo’s “Our Way to Fall” plays as Nate and Claire arrive at Lisa’s—perfectly capturing the domestic tranquility represented by Lisa, who if Lili Taylor weren’t such an engaging actress would amount to little more than an Earth-Mother parody—and something called “Drive” by somebody named Joe 90 (no recollection at all) finishes the episode as Nate and Claire head back to L.A., Mr. Mossback in tow. This is 2002, still well before Mad Men; it’s like the creators are catching a glimpse for the first time of how limitless the possibilities are (“We can use…any song we want to, pretty much”).
There is one—literally one, right out of the blue—memorable bit of pop music in Season One: in the episode where Nate discovers that his dead father, Nathaniel, kept a private room in back of an Indian restaurant, payment for services rendered, he has a vision of the secret life his father led in there, backed up on the soundtrack by the Amboy Dukes’ “Journey to the Center of Your Mind.” It’s not quite accurate to say the song comes out of blue—it’s used diegetically, appearing when Nate, in close-up, takes one of his father’s old albums out and puts it on the turntable. As “Journey” plays, we get a collage of Nathaniel engaging in all sorts of debauchery—dope, biker parties, hookers—ending with him pointing a rifle out the window, Charles Whitman-style, and unloading on whatever’s out there below. (Presumably firing blanks, or into empty space—we come to learn over the course of Six Feet Under that Nathaniel Sr. had a wickedly mischievous sense of humour, but psychotic he wasn’t.) He also dances, both gracefully and with great abandon. This is a man Nate did not know.
Scenes of people playing records in a movie (or TV show) go way back—I can think of at least a couple from the mid-‘60s, but I’m guessing a little research would indicate that such scenes are as old as records themselves. It’s a tradition I’m starting to mentally catalogue as I encounter more and more examples—I posted about a great one here very recently from 20th Century Women. Steven Rubio, who was part (along with Jeff Pike) of a favorite-movie countdown I did on Facebook a few years ago, has written about this too, specifically about how he usually hates such scenes, in large part because the filmmakers tend to fluff up the details. Here’s Steven on the “She Smiled Sweetly”/“Ruby Tuesday” scene from The Royal Tenenbaums:
But the whole business of her playing vinyl on an old record player…and setting the needle down so that she is picking the song…fetishizes vinyl and record players and draws attention to the act of playing as much as it does to the song itself…It’s all precious artifice, and when “Ruby Tuesday” comes on, it’s fake artifice, because that’s not the next song on the album, which is being obsessive but I think the scene invites it.
(The first two ellipses there are Steven’s, the last mine.)
The Amboy Dukes scene probably fluffs up the details too, although I can’t say for sure. We see Nate place the tonearm on the first song of whichever side he’s playing; “Journey” was indeed the first song on side two of the Amboy Dukes’ second album, but we also get a clear shot of the back cover Nate holds in his hands, and it’s clearly not the same album (I checked). It’s possible Nathaniel kept a garage-type compilation with “Journey” in his record collection (Lenny Kaye included the Amboy Dukes on the most famous of these, the original Nuggets, but he went with “Baby Please Don’t Go,” not “Journey”), but I don’t know—it seems more likely that no one gave a second thought to either the record or the cover and just used whatever was close at hand. Once you start being mindful of this stuff, it does distract.
A few other playing-records-in-movies scenes besides the three already mentioned that stand out for one reason or another. Just a handful for now—I’ll keep the list open-ended and add to it whenever I come across something interesting.
“Hello It’s Me”/“Alone Again (Naturally)”/“Run to Me”/“So Far Away,” The Virgin Suicides: It feels like I’ve written about this scene about a thousand times elsewhere and don’t need to say anything more, except that shots of the actual records are fleeting and few, and it’s hard to check for accuracy.
“My Generation,” Quadrophenia: I mentioned this is that 20th Century Women post. Jimmy and his friends are at a party where everyone—including Steph, the girl he’s infatuated with—are dancing to the Cascades’ ultra-wholesome “Rhythm of the Rain” (one of those records that typifies the highly selective theory that rock and roll disappeared between Elvis’s induction and the Beatles). Jimmy sneaks up to the turntable and throws on the Who, causing the room to explode and Steph to vacate. One of those annoying little details: we can see a two-fer of A Quick One/Sell Out propped up against the wall, which is a) the American version, not the British, and b) a reissue that came out in 1973, nine years after the year in which the film is set.
“America” and “Sparks,” Almost Famous: Two turntable scenes in a two-minute span. Just before Zooey Deschanel leaves home, she plays Simon & Garfunkel on the family’s big living-room console stereo (my own family had one just like it—everyone’s family did). “One day, you’ll be cool” she promises her younger brother, who retreats to his room and pulls out the surprise she left behind under his bed: a carrying case filled with albums he begins to flip through, including (in order) Pet Sounds, Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass), Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, Led Zeppelin II, Axis: Bold as Love, Wheels of Fire, Blue, Blonde on Blonde, and Tommy, running his fingers over the covers like they’re precious Egyptian artifacts. Prompted by a little note from his sister, he plays “Sparks” from Tommy. The album has an old Decca label, so that much seems accurate, but tonearm placement is very suspect: “Sparks” is the fifth of six songs on side one, and William/Cameron Crowe drops the needle not even halfway through the side.
“Tomorrow Never Knows,” Mad Men: Everything checks out when Don Draper famously plays Revolver’s last track: old Capitol label, tonearm at the end of the side. No surprise, I guess, for a show so fastidious about period details. Don even appears to indifferently place his fingers on the vinyl surface, which in this context—unlike when Daniel Stern did it in Diner, where he was supposed to be a maniacal collector—makes perfect sense.
“Devil Got My Woman,” Ghost World: In an echo of Robert Crumb playing his old 78 of Geeshie Wiley in Crumb, Enid listens, for the first time, to the Skip James record she jokingly bought from Crumb surrogate Seymour at a flea market. (Nice touch: the album is warped.) She finds herself mesmerized by something she intuitively understands and, implied by a dissolve and a change of clothes, sits there playing the song over and over again. Greil Marcus on the matching scene in Crumb:
“…R., explaining how in old American music he hears the purest, deepest struggle of human beings to confront the truth that ‘not to be born prevails over all meaning uttered in words’ (Sophocles, not Crumb), puts on a treasured 78, lies back on a daybed, and lets a peace beyond dreams float across his face.”
“Dry the Rain,” High Fidelity: There must be playing-records scenes all over this film; the one I remember is John Cusack playing the Beta Band and promising a co-worker he’ll sell five copies of their Three E.P.’s immediately. (I’d never heard the Beta Band when I first saw this—maybe hadn’t even heard of them—but I developed an infatuation with their “Dr. Baker” from the same record soon after.) It’s the best scene I’ve ever encountered at capturing what it’s like to work in a record store when the store’s really busy and whatever’s playing over the sound system means everything in the world. (Actually the only one, but still.)
Back with more on Six Feet Under when I finish.