At the height of its popularity, soul music earned its reputation for plumbing emotional depths and encouraging social awareness. But in movies, more often than not, the genre is dismayingly used in unimaginative and superficial ways. Michael Mann’s Ali is a good example: each time the film becomes stiff and tight-fisted just as it’s supposed to be hitting an emotional high point, Mann insists on plugging in predictable selections from the Sixties R&B songbook. A lovers’ spat is scored to Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way”; the death of Malcolm X is announced by the surging orchestration of “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The choice of music feels at once incidental and obligatory, and though together these two songs constitute only a few minutes in a two-and-a-half-hour biopic, it’s painful to listen to such deep reservoirs of feeling and artistry being used as short cuts for what the dramatically lit, coffee-table-book images lack. In Ali, Mann treats black pop in the same thoughtless way Lawrence Kasdan did in The Big Chill—as a string of oldies-but-goodies that reproduce our stereotypes of a particular historical moment.
Since even the best pop songs tend to hew to a single definable mood or circumstance (a simplicity that becomes even easier to take for granted as time passes), how can a filmmaker use an old chestnut in ways that are emotionally ambiguous and politically suggestive? And how can a film do justice to the complexity and history of the music it employs without making music the center of its attention or the object of excessive reverence? Jungle Fever is the only movie I can think of that provides a multifaceted, forward-looking response to these questions in the context of classic R&B. Read the rest of Andrew Chan’s entry in the Reverse Shot Sounds Off symposium.