Popular Songs in Film: From Diegetic to Non-Diegetic — 4 Comments

  1. I can think of excellent examples of songs non-diegetically featured in films and these were in the 1950’s and afterwards: 1. “Johnny Guitar” (Peggy Lee – sung right at the end of the film – and the “soaps” of the mid-late 50’s, eg. Douglas Sirk’s “Imitation of Life” and other Warners films from that period using Johnny Matthis or Nat “King” Cole singing them. Examples from “Johnny Guitar” and “Imitation of Life”:

    (Though the “Johnny Guitar” is non-diegetic it is referring to diegetic music later when the character played by Sterling Hayden plays and sings the guitar and the song which closes the film.)

    Sirk’s “Imitation of Life” uses music to establish the ‘melodramatic’ tone of the entire film to come. It also places the film squarely in the era of a particular singer and song, eg. Nat “King” Cole. (Note how those diamonds in the opening graphics look like giant soap bubbles.) The song specifically sets the basis of the narrative.

    Same in the mid 1960’s with John Wayne’s “El Dorado” (though this wasn’t a popular song, per se, but a ballad which alludes to the narrative arc by establishing the challenges and endurance necessary to prove masculinity.)

  2. I wonder, also, how we might define the diegetic music in Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” which refers to the non-diegetic soundtrack of “Red River”. The characters in “Rio Bravo” (Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson) actually sing the main theme (which was only ever a melody) from the 1948 “Red River” and make it into a song in “Rio Bravo”, when they are killing time inside the jail. This was a deliberate homage and ‘textural reference’ to Hawks’ “Red River”. Would this be ‘source scoring’?

  3. Great examples, Sue. This is why I don’t say films were “the first” to use popular songs a certain way. One can usually find earlier examples. So while The Graduate or A Hard Day’s Night, for example, are not the first films to use popular songs non-diegetically, they were hugely influential. So I like to use films like these as landmarks in the history of film music. It would be interesting to search for influences of these earlier examples you mention on later films…

    As for the scene in Rio Bravo you mention, since it doesn’t seek to express the inner psychology of the characters in the manner of non-diegetic music, I’d still call it diegetic music. But there is that interesting connection with Red River. Perhaps one might call it “intertextual” diegetic music?

  4. I’ve listened again to that song in “Rio Bravo” and it appears slightly different from the score for “Red River”. There are passages which are the same, but the music itself IS different. I have erroneously believed it was exactly the same music. And it is diegetic music, which is the same as the plaintive music played on the trumpet which comes from the saloon across the road, heard and commented upon by the characters but not actually SEEN being played. It doesn’t matter because diegetic music is heard by the characters. Hawks uses the trumpet melody effectively in “Rio Bravo” when the Walter Brennan character (“Stumpy”) plays it on the harmonica and it’s meant to represent, I think, the slow passing of time inside the jail and for “Chance” (Wayne) it is a possible omen of death and, therefore, disturbing to him. He’s a man NOT in touch with his emotions (and we find this when he meets “Feathers” – Angie Dickinson).

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