Beginners: Syncopated Beats and the History of Sadness

This engaging and thorough article from Kutter Callaway focuses primarily on the music of Beginners, and as such, you might find it illuminating to listen to the music in question as you read. We have included a media player at the bottom of the article for just that purpose. Time stamps are included within the article to help you find the particular variation on the “Beginners Theme” that Kutter examines.

With all due respect to Christopher Plummer and the shiny new Oscar he recently received for his supporting role in Beginners (2010), it is Ewan McGregor’s understated yet pitch-perfect performance that shoulders the weight of this Academy Award winning film.

McGregor plays the part of Oliver Fields, a forty-something graphic artist grappling with the loss of both his mother and his father in relatively quick succession.  Highlighting Oliver’s newfound sense of loneliness and isolation, the film’s opening segment follows him through the vacant house of his now deceased father, Hal Fields (played by Christopher Plummer).  While he silently organizes and cleans the files, books, and unwanted trash that litter this painfully empty space, Oliver pauses over the personal ad that his father had recently submitted.  Through a series of flashbacks triggered by this ad, we soon discover that, although Hal knew he was gay for the entirety of his forty-five year marriage, he did not come out as a gay man until his wife died.  In the four years following his wife’s death though, Hal lived his life with a kind of exuberance and joie de vivre that reflected a lifetime of denial, repression, and angst.   It is thus all the more tragic that his days would come to an end only four short years after his new life had begun.

Yet, Plummer’s well-deserved accolades notwithstanding, Beginners is not about Hal.  It is about Oliver.  In the wake of his parents’ deaths, Oliver is alone.  He is lost.  He is grief-stricken.  But the depth of his grief exceeds that of mere loneliness or despair.  Oliver is literally dis-integrating.  At work, he becomes consumed with creating an album cover that depicts human history as the “History of Sadness.”  At home, he has conversations with his father’s dog, who reminds him that “the darkness is about to drown us unless something drastic happens right now.”  And in his social life, he attempts to sabotage his relationship with the one person who might save him from this creeping darkness: Anna. 

To be sure, Oliver’s budding relationship with Anna serves as the primary means by which he not only awakens from his stupor, but also takes the first steps toward integrating his life into a larger, more meaningful whole.  Yet, to fully understand the complexity of Oliver’s plight and his movement toward wholeness, we must understand something of the way that music works in this film.  More specifically, the recurrence of the film’s principal leitmotiv and its relationship to the rest of the film’s music offers unique insight into Oliver’s profound sadness.  In doing so, it also underscores the path he must forge in order to begin living once again. 

As the bulk of the film’s music suggests, one of the central themes that Beginners addresses has to do with our historical consciousness.  Indeed the majority of the music in the film is 1920’s jazz music, which features equal parts ragtime, blues, and big-band influences.  What is interesting about this particular choice of music is that, as it originated during what is now commonly known as the “Jazz Age,” it is rife with the political and racial tensions that marked the cultural landscape of the 1920’s.  For, on the one hand, the origins of jazz are deeply rooted in the African American experience of slavery and segregation.  Yet, on the other hand, young white Americans quickly re-appropriated this music not only for entertainment purposes, but also to express a rejection of and rebellion against the dominant culture of their time.

Jazz music, then, represents a very specific kind of historical consciousness.  But it is a historical consciousness that has been received, reprocessed, and repurposed.  Consequently, as this music dominates the film’s non-diegetic underscoring and as Oliver hears it playing on either vinyl or CD while he interacts with memories of his mother and father, we recognize that he has been inserted into a story that he did not start and that he will not bring to an end.  For good or for ill, this is the confused and confusing history that he has inherited.  It is for this reason that Oliver repeatedly reminds us through voice-over narration that “this is what the sun looked like in 1955,” and “this is what it means to be Jewish in 1938,” and “this is what happiness looked like in 2003.”  In other words, Oliver’s identity is fully, wholly, and absolutely the product of the story in which he finds himself.  And just as he points out to his canine companion, this history has been quite literally bred into him.

Thus, if there is an element of his historically situated self that Oliver struggles to either understand or embrace, it is the one that his parents in particular have bequeathed to him.  He truly loves his parents and, in an important sense, is lost without them.  In their deaths, a part of him has gone missing.  Yet, like every child of every parent, his dysfunctions are their dysfunctions.  His inadequacies are their inadequacies.  Thus, his parent’s marriage, which appeared to him to be detached and loveless, has robbed him of the ability to either value or otherwise engage in a genuinely intimate relationship.  If marriage, if relationship, if love looks like that, then he would rather be alone.  In this way, his parents’ lingering influence is like a song that he cannot get out of his head.  In fact, throughout the film, the scenes that depict Oliver’s memory of his parents are almost always underscored and thus marked by the very jazz music that, on the surface, seems so filled with “soul,” but in reality hides a painful and convoluted history. 

It is in the midst of these grief-filled episodes of nostalgia that Oliver first meets Anna.  It is also where we first hear the film’s principal leitmotiv, “Beginner’s Suite” (0:00)  It is a simple piece played primarily on a piano in 4/4 time.  Interestingly, while the notes of the melody stress the downbeat of the 4/4 time signature, the underlying chord changes stress the upbeats, giving the tune a somewhat syncopated feel.  We first hear this musical figure as Oliver and Anna dance at the party where they meet.  It also plays as they eat tacos from a food truck, as Anna tells Oliver of the burden she feels for his loss, and once more as Oliver narrates his love for her.  Thus, this music expresses the growing bond of love between the two characters.  One of them is “upbeat,” quirky, and free-spirited. The other is a bit of a “downer.”  But their contrasting emphases neither eliminate nor overwhelm the other.  Rather, the unique rhythms that each possesses become all the more meaningful when played in light of the other.

Yet, in spite of their earlier connection, their relationship slowly dissolves, and as it does, the music shifts as well.  The melody (let’s call it “Anna’s melody”) goes silent, but we still hear the leitmotiv’s underlying chord progression (1:10).  Oliver recalls two more memories of his parents – one in which they dispassionately kiss every morning, and another where Oliver speaks with his father about holding his hand as a child. Both of these moments feature the “Beginner’s Suite,” but the orchestration now includes a lone French horn instead of Anna’s melody (2:56).  Thus, rather than offering an alternative yet complementary voice, the memory of his parents’ failed relationship simply fills the syncopated void.  It is in this moment that we realize that Oliver’s love song has been displaced by another song – a song from his past that he cannot quite seem to shake.  

Thankfully, the film does not leave us here.  But neither does it offer us a simple or straightforward path out of Oliver’s grief.  As he comes to his senses and hops on a plane to New York to profess his love for Anna, the “Beginner’s Suite” returns just as we might expect (3:46).   Like Anna herself, Anna’s melody is once again a part of the leitmotiv and thus, a part of Oliver’s life.  But so too is the orchestration that emerged while he recalled his parents’ fractured relationship.  What we now hear is not the original leitmotiv that expressed Oliver and Anna’s bond of love, but a song that incorporates what originally seemed to be contradictory elements – his disintegrated past and his integrated future, his familial dysfunction and his romantic love, his sadness and his hope.

As the film comes to a close, Oliver sees a picture of a daisy and imagines that his mother handed it to him at some point in the not-so-distant past.  He envisions her saying “Here is simple and happy.  That is what I meant to give you.”  But as he knows all too well, he has not inherited simple and happy because life is not simple and happy.  It is complex and difficult, and the way forward is not always easy or obvious.  As Proverbs states, “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief” (Prov. 14:13).  This is life as we know it – the world as it has been handed to us. 

But as the music in Beginners suggests (and as I think Oliver and Anna discover), moving from grief to joy is not about abandoning or simply rewriting the difficult stories that have shaped us, but incorporating our sadness into our laughter, and allowing our very selves to be caught up in and transformed by the offbeat love of another.  It is a life-long process that requires practice, collaboration, and the ability to balance a number of unique voices.  But then again, the best music always does.

Kutter Callaway is the Director of Church Relations and an Affiliate Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary.  His theological musings are often focused on contemporary culture. His book, Scoring Transcendence: Contemporary Film Music as Religious Experience (2012), on the theological significance of music in film, is available now through Baylor University Press. He also contributed to Halos and Avatars (2010), the first book on theology and video games, and Don’t Stop Believin’ (2012), a dictionary of religion and popular culture.