There is a sequence about two-thirds of the way through Jim (“My Left Foot”) Sheridan’s fine new movie, “In America” that will likely remain in my memory for a long time. The film is about a young Irish couple who move to Hell’s Kitchen in New York with their two young daughters (ages ten, and six, I’d guess). They have very little money, and they live in a dilapidated building on Manhattan’s West Side populated with junkies and derilicts. Essentially, the story is about their struggle to get over the accidental death of their young son.
Samantha Morton, who was brilliant as Sean Penn’s silent foil in “Sweet and Lowdown” stars, but all of the actors are terrific. Anyhow, the sequence that stood out for me was when the ten-year old sings the Eagles’ tune “Desperado” on stage at her school’s recital. The choice of the song came as a surprise, especially coming from a young Irish girl. The director shows a montage of images as she sings, and her voice is soft and light, but not exactly innocent (the character has seen too much for that). The sequence is a reminder of just how emotionally powerful pop music can be when used with sensitivity and care.
Some filmmakers, like Stanley Kubrick and recently Q. Tarrantino, are famous for their selection of source music. But these two are overtly clever and ironic in their approach; the songs may stick with you, but often they have a look-at-me-Ma quality to them as well. Martin Scorsese too is revered for his attention to music, and in his early films, like “Mean Streets” and even “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” the songs don’t simply serve as a commentary on the character’s lives, they feel like independent characters themselves.
Perhaps nobody built a reputation for their use of pop music more than the British playwright Dennis Potter did. His two masterworks–both six-part mini-series made for TV–”Pennies From Heaven,” and “The Singing Detective” were fantastic examples of this. When asked, “Why do popular songs have so much power in your work?” Potter replied:
Because I don’t make the mistake that high-culture mongers do of assuming that because people like cheap art, their feelings are cheap, too. When people say, “Oh listen, they’re playing our song,” they don’t mean “Our song, this little cheap, tinkling, syncopated piece of rubbish, is what we felt when we met.” What they’re saying is, “That song reminds us of that tremendous feeling we had when we met.”
Jim Sheridan understand this, and allows the deep emotions that can be associated with a trivial pop song to pour over the audience. I’ve never cared much for The Eagles, but I sure won’t be able to hear “Desperado” without thinking of that little girl again. (I feel the same way about Leonard Cohen’s self-titled record and Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” too.)
I think “In America” is well worth your ten bucks, and if you want a real treat, I would also strongly suggest that you rent Potter’s “The Singing Detective”–which was recently released on DVD–as well. With a couple of months of winter left, it’s an ideal way to pass the time.