Music and sound in Andrea Arnold's films

Katie Jarvis as Mia in Fish Tank (2009, Artificial Eye)
By Anwyn Crawford

In her films Red Road and Fish Tank, acclaimed British director Andrea Arnold creates complex and ambiguous female characters. Anwyn Crawford looks at how sound and music flesh out their lives and stories.

Andrea Arnold’s two acclaimed feature films, Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009), both begin with the sound of a woman breathing. It is a sound that creates an immediate and intimate proximity with these films’ complicated female protagonists, while the camera is placed right up against their bodies. Both these women – one only on the verge on adulthood – will use their bodies to achieve certain ends, and will be used in turn by men who wield their own power. The moral universe of Arnold’s films is not straightforward. Jackie, in Red Road, and Mia, in Fish Tank, are lead characters who provoke sympathy and repulsion in nearly equal measure, but a viewer is denied the reprieve of distance. We see what they see, and hear what they hear.

Arnold is alert to the ambient noise of urban space – housing estates, the edge of highways, train stations – and she understands that music, like light, emits from numerous sources. It hisses thinly out of in-ear headphones, or becomes a muddy thump on the other side of a bedroom wall, or blasts briefly out of an open doorway. Encounters with popular music are frequent in Arnold’s films, and Fish Tank in particular highlights her canny ear for the music that a teenager living on an Essex estate might actually listen to. It sure as hell isn’t Mumford & Sons. 

Mia is fourteen, an aspiring though not especially gifted dancer, and favours American R‘n’B and hip-hop. The first song we hear is Cassie’s ‘Me and U’, playing through a cheap set of portable speakers as a half-dozen teenage girls try to imitate Cassie’s undulating dance moves. Their soft, pubescent bodies are no match for the taut abdominal muscles so fetishised in contemporary music videos, which makes their routine both sad and embarrassing – at least, Mia thinks so, and shows her displeasure by head-butting one of the group. Mia’s own relationship to dance is intensely physical but never overtly sexual: she dances in her tracksuit, and her self-devised routines tend toward the athletic gestures of break-dancing. When her mother’s new boyfriend, Conor, catches her in pyjamas rotating her hips to Ja Rule’s ‘Down 4 U’, it’s another moment of embarrassment. He tells her that she “dances like a black” – a dubiously racist comment that underscores the hyper-sexualisation of black women in contemporary pop culture.

Nevertheless, an array of music by black artists soundtracks the day-to-day lives of these white characters: mum Joanne is a reggae fan (Steel Pulse, Gregory Isaacs); Conor champions soul and funk (Bobby Womack, James Brown), and British talent makes an occasional showing (a snatch of Wiley’s ‘Baby Girl’ on the television, or UK Apachi’s ‘Original Nuttah’ over a neighbour’s balcony). There’s even a close-up on a stack of CDs with the Soul Jazz compilation An England Story topmost.

Bobby Womack’s sweet, wistful 1968 cover of The Mamas & the Papas’ ‘California Dreamin’ becomes Fish Tank’s lietmotif: a song as far away in time and geography from current-day Essex as possible. It’s a song that belongs to Conor, the stranger in Mia’s world, but which she quickly appropriates. Their joint relationship with ‘California Dreamin’ anticipates the uneasy emotional ground ahead: Conor seduces Mia, urges her to keep their liason a secret, and then flees the family altogether. Dreams of sunshine leave with him. Mia finds herself in a fourth-rate strip club, preparing to audition as a dancer – still in her tracksuit – but as the first bars of Womack strike up she runs outside, never to return.

There’s a similar moment of impulsive escape in Red Road, where CCTV operator Jackie abruptly leaves a party taking place on the 24th floor of the Glasgow tower block that gives this film its name. Oasis’s ‘Morning Glory’ is blaring from the living room, and a robust, tuneless group sing-a-long manages to undercut the cliched Britpop triumphalism of much UK cinema in the 1990s. Red Road is most definitely the morning after; a film defined by the harsh grief of its adult characters. A part of this grief is the result of crack cocaine abuse, which lends a stinging irony to Liam Gallagher’s promise that “All your dreams are made/when you’re chained to the mirror and the razor blade”. Jackie’s first verbal encounter with Clyde, a released prisoner who clearly has something to do with her past, occurs during the comparative silence that falls when ‘Morning Glory’ is abruptly taken off the stereo.

The film gains much in eeriness by presenting us with long stretches where, as Jackie monitors her bank of screens from the City Eye control centre, little sound intrudes but her breathing, the click of buttons and the toggle of a joystick as she zooms in and out on multiple cameras. There’s a great deal to see and not a lot to hear: devoid of a soundtrack, the security footage seems to emanate from another world, one in which everything is tainted by a mute suspicion. Red Road, unlike Fish Tank, does have an incidental soundtrack: a series of ominous squeaks and clunks like elevators shifting on their cables. It’s very Unknown Pleasures, and indeed the credits roll with a cover of Joy Division's ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.

Both of Arnold’s films are marred at their conclusions by a shift of tone to an optimism that is intended to feel hard-won, but registers onscreen as abrupt and false. The emotional complexity of her film-making is more memorably apparent in Fish Tank’s penultimate scene, where Mia, her mother, and her younger sister Tyler all dance together across their living room to Nas’s anti-anthem ‘Life’s A Bitch’. Here pessimism, thwarted tenderness, familial hatred and fragile hope all co-exist in the one spontaneous choreography.

Anwyn Crawford is an Australian writer based in New York.

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