article 113: Music in “BARBIE”

This is a title I would never in my life have expected to appear here. The summer of 2023 has been marked by the cinematic phenomenon “Barbenheimer”, an obscene conflation of a serious attempt to portray the making of the first atomic bomb under the supervision of J. R. Oppenheimer with a “blockbuster” movie about Mattel’s weirdly skinny plastic doll, whose debuts I recall, with a shudder, from my childhood.

Naoko’s father, a native of Hiroshima, has his own memories of August 6, 1945. I went to see “Oppenheimer” alone, and thought it was a train wreck. Then word started coming in from respectable people who said “Barbie” was actually quite good. So, with the lowest of expectations, we set out last night for our local multiplex. “Barbenheimer” is said to have resurrected moviegoing. The reports of its death may be greatly exaggerated, but there weren’t many vital sign visible where we went, for the first time since Covid. The once snazzy bars, restaurants and souvenir shops which line the lobby are still dark, as are two ticket counters. It seems most people book online nowadays, and dinosaurs like myself have to wait behind popcorn purchasers to get a paper ticket. The huge nearby IMAX, shaped like Columbus’ egg with its bottom smashed, is being converted to office space.

“Barbie” begins at its high point: Helen Mirren narrates a hilarious persiflage of the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Girls in pinafores are playing with baby dolls, until a monolith – a huge bikinied Barbie doll – appears, and liberates them from their gender-stereotype programmed motherhood. I was hoping the girls would then attack a bunch of beastly little boys, like the newly-armed primates in “2001” attack a rival tribe, but they only proceeded to destroy their old dolls and homemaker accessories. The movie doesn’t exactly go downhill from there; and anyway, this piece isn’t intended as a review, but as a report on the music soundtrack. How could this brilliant opening be otherwise accompanied than by the contra-C pedal point and alternating major-minor triads of the prelude to Richard Strauss’ otherwise desolate tone-poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra?

Much of the rest of the film is accompanied by specially-composed morceaux in a style which I believe is known as “disco”, appropriate to the 1960’s Barbie World where the action is largely located. At various points during rides in Barbie’s cute pink sports car, adults – the film’s true demographic – sing “oldies” from their childhood, none of which I was familiar with. There were a couple of brilliant lines regarding music, which focus on the movie’s theme: the dismantling of The Patriarchy, and the role Barbie dolls ostensibly played in that ongoing process. In one scene, a guy is mansplaining high finance to a girl faking dumb in order to ensnare him in a plot. He refers to “CDs” – certificates of deposit. The girl chirps, “But nobody buys CDs anymore.” I roared with laughter. “It’s funny ’cause it’s true,” as Karen Walker in “Will and Grace” used to say.

In another scene, Ken tells Barbie he is “going to play the guitar at you”. What a fantastic twist of a preposition! Is this a commonplace which I, living in another age, am simply unaware of? Barbie, in on the same flimflam, has to listen to him for four agonizing hours around a beach fire. The song is a wonderful parody of a hoarse male swooping around idiotic lyrics. But the final female song, undoubtedly a serious entry in the Oscar sweepstakes and (unless my sense of irony is already in terminal decline) intended as a tear-jerker, is an equally generic, breathy nothing.

The film ultimately gets lost in overly-complex, pseudo-philosophical transitions between Barbie World and Real World, humans and BarbieKens. One nice touch is the appearance of the ghost of Barbie’s inventor, Ruth Handler, played by a wonderful Rhea Perlman. And kudos to Mattel for letting themselves be mercilessly roasted. Will Ferrell as their CEO was worth the price of admission. If you can bear a bit of “woke” overload, go see the thing.

But enough already with the reviewing. I begged Naoko to wait for photos of the music credits, which always, ALWAYS appear at the very end of the roll, after the electricians, the “gaffers” (someday I must research that funny word), the hairdressers, the Second Unit, the caterers, the drivers...When we got home I saw that I had completely missed – or were they ultimately cut? – two insanely difficult choral works by Ligeti, which also appear in “2001”: “Atmospheres” and the “Requiem”. They, and all the multitude of songs, were fully credited with writers, lyricists, performers and copyright holders; all except one:

“Also Sprach Zarathustra”
Written by Richard Strauss

– like an incomplete credit for a pop song. I actually would have liked to know who made the fine recording, even though it omitted the big organ chord, so weirdly held at the end after the orchestra goes silent, like the bass notes in the overture to Don Giovanni. In the “2001” soundtrack the organ is tuned a couple of Herz lower than the orchestra.

I went ahead and checked the soundtrack listing for that monumental film, and was gobsmacked when I saw the name of the conductor of the pieces by Ligeti: Ernest Bour. I knew the plump little Alsatian fairly well from 20th-century gigs at the now-defunct Dutch Radio Kamerorkest, and had no idea he was a renowned specialist in Moderns. I had blotted one painful appearance under his baton so completely from my memory that I had to check my archive to confirm it was he who led it: Bach’s concerti for three and four harpsichords, 13 January 1980.

Those are such difficult pieces to make any sense of. Bach should have left them as pieces for concertante violins. In any event, Ernest Bour was not destined for the task. I recall somebody’s Witz from an earlier appearance with Bach’s concertos for two: “What’s worse than a concerto for harpsichord? A concerto for two harpsichords.” That punch line could be extended upwards. The Holland Festival on one facetious occasion had something like 14 harpsichords onstage at once. Pity the tuner! And then there is John Cage’s five-hour hell, “HPSCHD”, employing seven.

O my long-suffering, beloved instrument...

September 1, 2023

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