4 Great Soundtracks From Films About Women, By Women
Having been inspired by last month's International Women’s Day, I’ve been re-watching some of my favourite films which were both directed by women, and place the story of women at their centre. The following films combine within them simultaneous representations of strength and weakness, power and impotence, freedom and subjugation.
Whether as a rousing battle cry, or a quiet moment of personal contemplation, each soundtrack acts to echo the multitudes each film contains.
BORN IN FLAMES (1983)
Born In Flames, directed by Lizzie Borden, is a documentary style sci-fi set ten years after a socialist revolution which has left America with its first ‘truly democratic’ socialist government. So far so good. It turns out, though, that even ‘true democracy’ isn’t so just because you say it is; the minorities remain oppressed. Enter the ‘Women’s Army’, made up of a diverse crew who begin by combatting would-be rapists by surrounding them on bicycles blowing whistles, and end by taking up arms, fighting fire with fire.
Music is a liberating force within the film. Two pirate radio stations act as centrepieces around which the action unfolds, the Greek chorus amidst the chaos. When both stations are blown up, the final radical act is to re-establish them. Honey, who runs Phoenix Radio works for “the freedom of life which is found in music”, while Isabel, who runs Radio Ragazza, gives a joyful performance of ‘Undercover Nation’, a punk rally cry by the actress’s own band The Bloods.
The documentary-style, and the fact that many of the actors were plucked by Borden off the street, or are political activists playing themselves, causes the film to take on a patchwork-like quality, stitched together by its soundtrack. The title song ‘Born In Flames’ by The Red Crayola (1981) is a disco-pop-cum-riot-grrrl call to arms, a mixture of sweet falsetto and piercing screech, and its repetition throughout holds the action together. The influence of the Riot Grrrl movement is palpable, and in turn reverberates back. Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre) has said that she used to sign autographs with a simple ‘Born in Flames’ to encourage her fans to watch the film. It’s not the easiest watch, but its representation of an intersectional, queer-inclusive kind of feminism makes it vital viewing.
Next up is Julie Taymor’s evocative and moving biopic of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, played by Salma Hayek. The film follows the life of Kahlo from the fateful bus accident that left her disabled at the age of eighteen, to her defiant appearance at her first ever Mexican exhibition, which she attended while lying prostrate in her bed just before her death.
Elliot Goldenthal’s Academy Award winning score is woven intricately into the canvas of the film. His use of an ensemble of acoustic Mexican instruments serves to connect Kahlo with Mexico, and provides a bucolic delicacy that contrasts wildly with the music of Hollywood that fills Kahlo’s imagination during her period in America.
Throughout the film, the musicality of Kahlo herself is a signifier of her Latin-ness and also of her defiance. Her performance of ‘La Bruja’, a traditional song in the regional folk style of Son Jarocho is an expression of her self-hood in the face of her disloyal husband. So too is the recurring presence of the same beautiful female singer, who first appears during a party where Kahlo seductively dances with a woman to express her bisexuality, again at her wedding, a 'radical act’ in those turbulent political times, and at her bedside at her first Mexican exhibition, which she attends against doctor’s orders. The singer, and her Son Jarocho songs, act as a sign of Kahlo’s vitality, and simultaneously beckon her as Santa Muerte into her final hours.
THE HEADLESS WOMAN (2008)
The Headless Woman, directed by Lucrecia Martel, is an Argentine psychological thriller for viewers who are okay with being very confused. The film begins with Veronica, our headless woman, driving home from a family gathering along a deserted road. As she bends down to answer her ringing phone, she hits something. After a few sickening moments, she drives on. The action centres around the unravelling of Veronica’s mind as she pushes her guilt, and her memories, further and further down. As she becomes increasingly estranged from her own life, she comes to realise the effect that mindlessly fulfilling her role as wife and mother has had upon her.
The film is filled with a disconcerting silence, which contributes to the opaqueness of the plot since we’re barely told anything about anyone through any musical hints. Music becomes, as a result, a signifier of dread. In the car as she drives from the gathering Veronica is playing Nana Mouskouri’s ‘Soleil Soleil’, an upbeat French 70s pop song, which provides an innocuous enough background for a driving scene, but is soon a disorienting accompaniment to genuine horror. When Veronica travels in the back of a car past the scene of the accident three quarters through the film, she sees police investigating what looks like ‘something in the canal’, and once again pop music subverts the usual method of signifying that ‘something this way comes’. It’s a disquieting and disturbing watch, and you can never really figure out why.
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (2015)
In A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, Ana Lily Amirpour offers a master-class in stylised simplicity. The film follows a vampire (The Girl) with a penchant for Breton stripes and sucking lifeblood, who wears a chador like billowing superhero cape. When she and local boy Arash fall in love, they decide to leave the fictional Iranian ‘Bad City’ together.
Each song is an event. Music is how Amirpour defines her characters, how they define themselves, and how they define each other. Almost every track is put on by one of the characters themselves. The Girl is a vinyl collector. We see her slinking around her room putting her makeup on to Farah’s ‘Dancing Girls’, performing a sleepover-movie trope before going out not on a date or to a party, but to kill a corrupt pimp. Her femininity and her radical action are inextricably linked and subverted by association. The pimp pumps iron to minimal techno track ‘Bashy’ by The Free Electric Band. In an awkward moment Arash asks The Girl, hoping to find a clue to help him understand who she is, 'What was the last song you listened to… Her answer, '"Hello, Hello", Lionel Ritchie', contains her essence. That’s all he needs to know.
Genre: Music performance