(2016, Andrea Arnold)
[4.5 out of 5 stars]
[Image courtesy of © Universal Pictures]
"The tonal structures we call "music" bear a close logical similarity to the form of human feeling - forms of growth and of attenuation, flowing and stowing, conflict and resolution, speed, arrest, terrific excitement, calm or subtle activation and dreamy lapses...the greatness and brevity and eternal passing of everything vitally felt. Such is the pattern, or logical form, of sentience; and the pattern of music is that same form worked out in pure, measured sound and silence. Music is a tonal analogue of emotive life."
Suzanne Langer, (1953, p27)
This films follows a young girl by the name of Star (played by the arresting Sasha Lane) who comes from a poor background - the opening scenes shows her finding a thawed raw chicken in a dumpster and taking it home - and finds refuge as she stumbles upon a ragtag group of young, poor, rejected people who travel in a van across America selling magazine subscriptions. Music plays a crucial role in the film. From what I remember, there wasn't a score, instead, a soundtrack of contemporary music ranging from hip hop to country music. From Suzanne Langer's description above, music is the best form we have of reflecting the patterns and whims of human emotions. What Andrea Arnold managed to produce with AMERICAN HONEY is a cinematic symphony. One consisting of images and sounds that resemble the form of human emotion.
Song choices underline certain emotional beats but it is there, in my opinion, not to draw attention to the feelings of the scene with a big neon sign but instead as something that accompanies it. It is to make the scene so much richer because the melodies and lyrics that we hear is in choreography with the images and situations we are witnessing. The music and the mise-en-scene perform a kind of dance. One could argue that the songs are too on the nose. For example, upon their first meeting, Star and Jake lock eyes as Rihanna belts out: "we found love in a hopeless place". It's a little too perfect, lyrically, but melodically produces a kind of dissonance. Rihanna's We Found Love is a nightclub staple and it builds up to a momentary stupor. I personally have had these moments in nightclubs and despite my mind's protestations, my body just instinctively goes along with it. Melodically, it kind of works ironically with the scene in question.
It is important to note that this song wasn't added later in post-production into the scene but plays in diegesis, playing unedited within the scene itself. The group of kids carry portable speakers and dance to the song in the middle of Kmart's checkout aisle. I think that's a really important distinction to make because it highlights the way music plays into our lives, out of design, and just by chance while fitting in a little too perfectly. Also note the distinction between lyrics and music. Richard Dyer (2007 p.250) states that "music can only ever be representational in a limited sense. The nonrepresentational, semiotic, amodal, affective level is its primary and often only level."
Lyrics on the other hand carry semantic meaning and may reinforce, a little too neatly, an idea within a scene. However, sometimes songs just play at the right place and at the right moment. "In film," Dyer says, "this is reinforced by the sense that it [music] has its own internal aesthetic agenda, and that most of it has no diegetic business being there" (2007 p.250). Reflecting upon a scene through the dichotomy of the images and the music, may seem like they are separate forms that work either as something that fits in too well or something that is incongruous for effect but AMERICAN HONEY shows that music can be intrinsic to the story and the story can be told like it was music.
Music and lyrics are used as ways to build rapport within the group, and for themselves. They chant like tribes preparing for battle, through hip hop and rap. The battle in this case, is against poverty and against rejection and against being born unprivileged. The reward is money and that’s because in most of the rap songs they listen to, money is glorified as a symbol of all things they aspire towards: affluence, acceptance and privilege.
So Andrea Arnold has constructed something much more from the music and images. She has composed a poem ripe with symbolism and so full of feeling. The emotions are so authentic that it takes away the obviousness of the symbolism (while retaining their metaphorical significance) and focuses on the beautiful interplay between serendipity and chaos. These things fit in so nicely and they do so out of chance and not by design and because maybe they are just meant to be there.
Dyer, Richard. 2007, 'Side by side: Nino Rota, music and film' in Goldmark, D, Kramer, L & Leppert, R (eds), Beyond the soundtrack: representing music in cinema. University of California Press, Berkeley pp. 246-259
Langer, Susanne K. 1953, Feeling and form: a theory of art developed from "philosophy in a new key, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London