This is Listen to Britain, Humphrey Jennings’s short documentary combining popular British music with images of homefront Britain in the midst of World War II. (I’m linking via YouTube, but there is a version in much better visual and especially audio quality on the Criterion Channel for subscribers.)
I don’t typically spend a lot of time on short films, and Listen to Britain is the exception that proves the rule. I’ve seen some features which are as moving and wondrous as this short doc is, and I’ve never seen another short film, with the possible exception of Meshes of the Afternoon, which insinuates itself so perfectly within the mind of the viewer. Who could have imagined that “Roll Out the Barrel” could take on a meaning that’s almost mystical with social feeling?
There’s a great deal to react to in Listen to Britain, especially now that the film is eighty years old, but the most obvious points of departure are as follows:
- Listen to Britain as an archival document of popular history
- Listen to Britain as a cinematic interpretation of an average Briton
- Listen to Britain as a series of performances which inform our understanding of Great Britain at its specific historical moment.
There are far more worthy musical minds who are considering America’s popular history through its musical heritage. There are far more brilliant cinematic minds who are considering the depiction of Joe College, Joe Cool, Joe Schmo, and Joe the Plumber in American films. Thus, I’m working off of the third idea. What are the musical, specifically sung, performances in America’s movies which show us something about the values of that moment? What can studios stomach? What must audiences crave? What do filmmakers emphasize?
There’s only one hard and fast rule for qualification, and that’s that the song, with lyrics, must be performed in the context of the film. It can be any genre, involve any number of people, be original to the film or borrowed from some other context. It can be diegetic or non-diegetic, live action or animated, sung well or sung badly. But we must see a character or characters in the film perform the song. This disqualifies a number of songs which one generally finds on lists of the best songs in American movies: needledrops like “Layla” and “Needle in the Hay,” audio-only credits songs like “Lose Yourself,” and songs which back dance numbers like “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.”
I’ll use this page to link back to each post about the songs, which I’ll be approaching chronologically. The 1920s and 1930s will get smushed together, as will the 2010s and 2020s, but all other decades between those points will get their own decade. Enjoy!