Film in Oxford: Music and Artificiality in ‘Birdman’

Riggan Thomson is a washed-up actor, best – in fact, only – known as the titular character in the blockbuster Birdman trilogy. Frustrated by his floundering career and willing to escape his populist past, Thomson decides to drop film and move to the theatre, directing and starring in his own Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Such is the setting for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2014 film Birdman, set almost entirely backstage on the Broadway production, capturing the farcically calamitous previews, and climaxing on the production’s opening night. It uses its setting as a framework within which to explore a remarkable number of themes, principally the nature of celebrity, the opposition between low and high culture, and the blurring of reality with fantasy. The latter is the catalyst for some of Birdman’s most intriguing idiosyncrasies, emphasising the artificiality underlying film, the theatre, and the act of acting, whether onstage or off. While this post focuses on the film’s music, one could just as easily investigate these matters in relation to the metafictional elements of the screenplay, or the fluid, quasi-documentarian approach of the camerawork.

Birdman. Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures


The first aspect of the film to stand out is its original, percussion-only score (by Antonio Sánchez). The opening credits appear letter by letter, each corresponding to a specific drum hit, forming a kind of typo-choreography. The titles’ drum-kit fills return to the film’s forefront again and again during particularly hectic scenes, and are cast in a new light when Thomson passes a drummer performing them on the street outside the theatre. Is this music bleeding in from outside, rising to audibility only to match Thomson’s sense of claustrophobia and impending catastrophe? One can theorise, but there is certainly no clear-cut solution. At a pivotal scene late in the film, Thomson passes the same drummer inexplicably performing backstage, and does not feel it worthy of comment.

The Broadway stage proves a particularly fertile ground for Iñárritu’s exploration of the distinction between diegetic music (heard by the characters) and non-diegetic music (heard only by the film’s audience). As Thomson steps upstage in one rehearsal to deliver a heartfelt monologue, his speech is underpinned by the melancholic opening tones of Mahler’s Ninth. Iñárritu is here slyly demonstrating music’s power to demand attention, and to filter audience interpretations through a gauze that serves the director’s intentions. Beyond this, though, he is also toying with the different layers of reality present. In the play, the music is intended to be non-diegetic, heard only by the audience. In the film, it is diegetic, heard by Thomson as he performs. On the stage, Iñárritu seems to be saying, an actor is unavoidably guided by the music he hears. Similarly, when Thomson rehearses the scene again later, the camera watches two other characters kiss elsewhere; the music informs this pair’s actions as much as it influences the audience’s reaction to them.

The most evident play on this diegetic/non-diegetic divide is when Thomson glides around the Broadway streets, Rachmaninov’s Second accompanying his trip. As would be expected from a standard Hollywood blockbuster, the music has no evident source; it swells and soars only to elevate its protagonist to (super)hero status. In this sense, it is the non-diegetic ideal. But when Riggan lands, he cuts the symphony short with the command, ‘Music off,’ acknowledging not only that he heard the music but also that he had control over it. Iñárritu is, then, calling attention once more to the unsatisfactory nature of the diegetic/non-diegetic opposition.

Riggan is seen performing many superhuman feats over the course of the film, from levitation to telekinesis. A popular explanation, and also the most straightforward, is that at such stmoments we are inside Riggan’s head, inhabiting a land of fantasy. The idea that the audience is seeing and hearing from Riggan’s perspective is especially illuminating when applied to the opening text of Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ from Ruckert Lieder, also heard in Birdman, and noticeably in first person: ‘I am lost to the world / With which I used to waste so much time / It has heard nothing from me for so long / That it may very well believe that I am dead.’ The parallels to Riggan’s outlook on life and his career here are undeniable, to the extent that the text could even be taken as the core around which the film builds. By problematising conventions of diegesis, foregrounding its unusual score, and placing pre-existing music in a central hermeneutical role, Birdman tackles the function of music in film and theatre to an extent rarely seen – or rather, heard – in mainstream cinema.

Flying high on the back of its nine Academy Award nominations, Birdman will be shown at the Ultimate Picture Palace from Friday 30th January to Wednesday 11th February.

J. Wadsworth

For more information and to book tickets, please visit the Ultimate Picture Palace website.

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