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 RL Burnside’s Let My Baby Ride on the accordion while 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 You, My 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 at 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…
Alas, the YouTube clip of Jean Arthur singing and tinkling on the ivories has been removed. Here’s the non-musical beginning of the film. The rest is highly recommended – Hawks and Cary Grant at their best, and Arthur is heart-breakingly adorable.