American Popular Culture Home American Popular Culture Home
American Popular Culture Home About Americana Contact Americana American Popular Culture Archive
Emerging Pop Culture
Magazine Home
Become a member!
Receive our
Music in American Popular Culture Visit Press Americana

“ All important music is a swan song.”

Part I:
A Better Tomorrow:
Popular Music and Film Utopia

In Tim Burton’s Big Fish, we are greeted with the rarest of cinematic creatures: a current film which uses pop music to raise the possibility of successful utopia. It does so by using popular music to present an alternative template for how to create lasting social utopia: by sonically “liberalizing” how we go about “defining” utopia. In the case of Big Fish, popular music’s ability to offer a re-energized vehicle for utopian, communal bliss, resurrects the possibility that music can do more than merely represent an “idealized unrepresentable,” as film music scholar Caryl Flinn has phrased it in Strains of Utopia, through its ability to create a lifeline for Big Fish’s haunted characters. The film becomes a meta-narrativistic exploration for a “submerged” fantastical, a quest which is in direct opposition to the cynicism (and, at times, nihilism) that often persists in modern film in the wake of the 1960s. Danny Elfman’s film score becomes a fundamental imperative for such revisionist hope, as the capacity for bliss (individual, familial, communal) is conveyed through the vehicle of popular song.

It is important to begin this discussion by emphasizing that Burton is working within a critical framework whose tradition is long and distinguished in American art. From Ralph Waldo Emerson to the Hudson Valley painters of the early twentieth century, Big Fish’s depiction of an independent-minded voyager, Edward Bloom (Albert Finney/Ewan McGregor), who refuses to align himself with the constricting bourgeois mores of 1950s America is perhaps the most recent incarnation of the American wing of international (utopian) mythology. Indeed, it is Big Fish’s ability to utilize film music to cleverly twist the conventional “epic” narrative, that allows for the “democratizing” necessary for lasting, successful utopia. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno discuss this in Dialectic of Enlightenment: “To celebrate the anger of Achilles and the wanderings of Odysseus is already a wistful stylization of what can no longer be celebrated; and the hero of the adventures shows himself to be a prototype of the bourgeois individual, a notion originating in the consistent self-affirmation which has its ancient patter in the figure of the protagonist compelled to wander.”

Music enables us to re-configure this “wandering,” by literally “scoring” its re-configuration. Big Fish is Burton’s attempt to re-infuse the American narrative with a mythic resonance that it often lacks in the post-modern world, and Edward Bloom is the film’s John Bunyan, whose quest for an idyllic utopia which includes the freaks and exiles that America so often turns away, is a powerfully rendered statement by a major American filmmaker as to the utopian possibilities that music possesses.

Such possibilities are immediately manifest in the opening moments of the film, where the score tracks images of the river that runs through the local town where Edward Bloom lives. The film deliberately introduces what will be its overriding symbol – water – in connection with the attendant musicality which will bestow its mythic import. Flinn writes of the filmic connections between water and song: “Utopias have consistently provided a womblike haven from the world, replete with their soothing waters – something as true today for feminists who glorify the maternal and its amniotic chora as it was in More’s scenario.” Certainly, the connections between water and music are understandable: both are possessed of the innate ability to foster alternate spaces where the inhabitants/listeners feel they are being immersed in something approaching holiness. The opening moments of the film, in which underwater scenes of the river are tracked by high pitched violins and multi-tracked female voices, are laden with a deeply spiritual (and utopian) quality that set the stage for Edward Bloom’s opening tale, and, ultimately, his entire life. Furthermore, the chorus of ethereality the female voices possess draws the viewers into the “utopian” narrative, as they, through the act of listening, are being immersed in the waters of myth themselves. Big Fish’s opening scene provides a literal manifestation of Flinn’s articulation: the river is a physical stand-in for the womb music is creating.

However, rather than stopping with a specifically gendered musicality, the film deliberately creates a space in its alternate utopian endeavor for the man, as well. This is a key point, given that the men are classically considered threats to utopian success. To emphasize this point, Edward Bloom’s subjectivity is constantly tracked by music, be it variations on Elfman’s scores or popular music selections from the past several decades. However, whenever Edward’s son William’s (Billy Crudup) subjectivity is dominant in a scene, all attendant musicality stops. William’s utopian “void” (manifest in his refusal to believe in Edward’s seemingly fantastical tales) is emphasized by his being situated outside the film’s musical realm. For instance, one of the earliest scenes occurs as the two men, Edward and William, stand on the docks – we have moved from being immersed in water to being divorced from it – and argue passionately, their contrasting ideologies tracked by the diegetic sounds of a distant ship-horn and the rumbling of the docks themselves. Fittingly, as their argument comes to a close, Edward turns from Will and walks out towards the water (a foreshadowing of his final re-immersion into the river that comes at the film’s close), while Will himself heads back towards the banquet hall – away from the water – to rejoin his wedding party.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing elements of Edward Bloom’s still vibrant, to borrow a phrase from F. Scott Fitzgerald, “capacity for wonder,” is that the creation of the utopian existence he has engendered endures. The viewer is made aware of this by the music that tracks him, like a melodic aura, wherever he goes, thus refuting the common assumption that utopias are born to fail at the “hands” of men. Flinn begins a chapter with the following quote, courtesy of Martin Rubin: “Music is the voice of the past, of memory, of an idealized state, of a lost moment frozen in time and left behind by its inexorable advancement.” However, Edward Bloom’s utopia is far from being dormant, and his musical subjectivity constantly emphasizes this fact by his aural “wearing” of song in the same way he physically “wears” his wedding ring. Music, rather than embodying the voice of the past, comes to embody the voice of the present and the voice of the future, as the music which tracks Edward’s contentment has, rather than having been “left behind by [time’s] inexorable advancement,” carried Edward’s utopia into the years ahead. Edward Bloom is, to put it directly, Utopia-incarnate, an individual who has transcended society’s common assumption (embodied by the skeptical William) that man is incapable of creating (and then living within) an ideal world built from the materials of earthly existence. Edward has been able to transcend such skepticism by rejecting the conventions of mythic narratives, thus allowing for his utopia’s outcome to differ from the utopias of the mythic voyagers who have come before. Before we take Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s “Odysseus” argument a step further, another section from Enlightenment is necessary:

Borchardt fails to perceive what epic and myth actually have in common: domination and exploitation. What he finds mean and vulgar and therefore condemns in the epic – mediations and circulation – is only the development of naked power – the fact from noble quality that he lauds in myth. In the alleged genuineness of what is really the archaic principle of blood and sacrifice, there is already something of the bad conscience and deceit of domination proper to that national renewal which today has recourse to the primitive past for the purpose of self-advertisement. Aboriginal myth already contains the aspect of deception which triumphs in the fraudulence of Fascism yet imputes the same practice of lies to the Enlightenment.

Horkheimer and Adorno capture a vital truth in the context of the Odysseus tales: that violence is a necessary means to reach a peaceful ends. The romanticizing of vengeance is a dangerous one, as it sets the artistic foundation for a culture to celebrate killing instead of love.

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the majority of mythic stories is the hero’s violent triumph over a series of obstacles that then allows the hero, at the story’s conclusion, to stand alone, family unit intact, having slain all pretenders and contenders to the throne. However, such mythic journeys inherently preclude the possibility of enduring utopia, as the very definition of “success” is dependent upon the annihilation of the freaks and exiles (Cyclops, sirens, Trojans, suitors) that could potentially form some type of truly democratic community. Modern myth is very much about sacrificing potential community for desired individualistic sovereignty. It is quite understandable, then, why critics such as Flinn have come to the conclusion that implicit in music’s “representation” of utopias is that they are bound to fail, given that the central stories the modern world embraces are bound up in an individual’s facility to transcend those around him. In the case of Big Fish, Edward refutes these expectations by embracing his potential “obstacles,” rather than attempting to violently defeat them. Such reconfiguring of mythic “success” is vital to the film’s message of enduring utopia, and music articulates this reconfiguration by tracking these “others” with musical subjectivities which represent their connection with Edward, the audience, and ultimately, situates them within Edward’s “utopian” world.

Perhaps the finest example of this type of musical-mythic communality is the scene in which Edward first encounters the town witch (an aging woman with only one functioning eye) whose vacant eye, when it sets its sights on an individual, foretells the manner in which they will die. Rather than Big Fish utilizing Edward’s encounter with the film’s “Cyclops” as a flashpoint for Edward’s establishing his dominance over an “othered” subject, Edward instead speaks to the woman forthrightly, gleaning knowledge from her character and quickly befriending her. During the walk, he tells her that he wants to know how he’s going to die, because, then, it could make [him] stronger as a person. Once the witch accedes to Edward’s wish, this knowledge serves as a pacifying truth to Edward during his future times of fear and despair. The witch has given Edward knowledge through communal interaction, rather than having bestowed knowledge by embodying a potential archenemy whom Edward needs to conquer in order to move forward in his journey. This reconfiguration is done primarily through music, given that we never hear (or see) the witch speak; instead, it is up to the score to illustrate this moment of mythic (and, therefore, utopian) reconfiguration.

Though the scoring of Edward’s encounter with the witch is certainly possessed of the requisite ominous overtones that such a scene of mystery necessitates, the score immediately lets the audience in on the joke, if you will, by lacing such classically standard horror scoring with an acoustic guitar and a bluegrass fiddle, two instruments which, given their historical roles in American song, conjure a type of thoughtful, joyful Americana, which presents the witch as a loving elder who provides invaluable knowledge to Edward at a key moment in his journey. Further, the witch is played by Helena Bonham Carter, who also plays the role of Jenny, the piano teacher who is important in Edward’s and William’s lives. The moment both the elder and younger Blooms go to Jenny’s house to visit her, they hear her piano playing before they have even knocked on the door. The simple piano chords that Jenny turns into a wistful melody are subtly referenced in the scoring of the witch, as we hear fragments of Jenny’s song beneath the more haunted strains the witch embodies. The witch is seen as a “carrier” of musical subjectivity, which aligns her as one who “believes” – thus placing her within Edward’s experiential utopia.

Big Fish’s refusal to “dominate and exploit” re-situates myth into a democratic space. Where Horkheimer and Adorno lament fascism’s “scenting out a democratic spirit” in Homer, they are only partly correct: if there is a “democratic spirit” in the Odysseus tales, it a democracy founded upon war and bloodshed, unmitigated rage and the vengefulness possessed by the Gods of Olympus. Big Fish, however, is a powerful antidote to such warmongering attempts at forming the Great Society; Edward, once having recognized the unique beauty and soulfulness of other human beings (regardless of physical appearance, religion, gender, nationhood) incorporates them into his evolving, unbound utopia, whose members will ultimately carry the torch of communal possibility once he passes away. That he incorporates such constant, evolutionary vitality to his communal enterprise is what keeps it alive – his utopia is, rather than a staid, sterile environment disconnected from the outside world, an endeavor constantly gaining membership and meaning. Never is this more evident than in his reconstruction of the town of Specter, which Burton fascinatingly articulates (primarily) through the musical soundtrack.

Upon Edward’s leaving his hometown, alongside his newfound companion, Carl the Giant (Matthew McGrory) – yet another instance of Edward choosing friendship over antagonism – he decides to cut through the forest to see what adventures await him there. Edward ultimately stumbles upon the hidden town of Specter, a place that seems to exist outside of time itself. Specter is the “impossible unrepresentable,” a utopia existing outside of both “prehistory” and history itself that Flinn and Julie Kristeva write about. In other words, Specter embodies the failed utopias the American viewer has come to expect. Burton emphasizes this failure by the implicit creepiness with which Specter’s utopian endeavor is conveyed: our first sight of Specter is sound-tracked by banjo music increasing in volume, and a series of shoes dangling from a telephone wire at the edge of town. The shoes remind us of strangled musical notes, dangling limply from a musical staff, thus laying the groundwork for a utopia living on borrowed time before Edward (and we) even realize where we are. Such a musical wasteland is humorously extended by way of the banjo music, which we soon realize is being played by a very old man on a fragile porch. As Edward makes eye contact with the player, the melody becomes readily apparent: it is the song “Dueling Banjos,” so famously a part of the dark side of Americana by its usage in the 1971 film Deliverance, in which a group of city men find horror in the country. Burton emphasizes the imminent doom by a clever twist of ironic filmic referencing – just as the country town in Deliverance was ultimately buried under water, so too will the town of Specter (in its present, pre-historical state) be buried underwater, a fitting fate for an impossible way of existence.

However, Big Fish stands in stark opposition to the Old Testament style vengeance and violence of Deliverance. The townsfolk of Specter, though wildly misguided in their visions of happiness (the mayor brags that no one ever leaves town), are still good-natured individuals who revel in nightly dances and take pride in their communal spirit. Clearly, they do not deserve the economic depression, citywide famine, and debilitating floods that overtake them. But, since their mythic hero is Edward Bloom and not the Holy Creator himself, their town will be not only brought back into existence, but re-built according to Edward’s own notions of utopia after Edward’s car (with him in it) is flooded along with everything else by the deluge of Specter. Edward’s experience at the bottom of the sea – which sets up another key linking of water and music – is a defining moment in Big Fish’s affirmation of utopia through film scoring.

As Edward’s car rests at the bottom of the sea, waiting out the flood, the re-introduction of the haunting piano keys (slowly tapped arpeggios which throughout the film are a musical signal of things “magically” coming together), are augmented by string music. It is within this musical aura that the mysterious lady of the lake (whom Edward had first witnessed during his first trip to Specter) swims down to greet him at the window of his car, which elicits a smile of recognition from Edward. Thus, instead of a flood meant to drown out the admittedly stale town of Specter, the flood is meant to engender a rebirth – a rebirth merging the musical subjectivities of the nameless mermaid and Edward’s utopian seeker. And yet, Edward’s reconstruction of Specter is not complete until the town’s resident musical being, Jenny, is re-incorporated into the town.

Edward’s visit to Jenny’s (who is now a grown woman) house is a fascinating moment of filmic scoring: the haunting arpeggios that began during the flood (and were being extra-diegetically placed into the world of the film) are, upon Edward’s ascent up Jenny’s rickety steps, now shifted into the diegetic realm of the film, as we hear her playing the same arpeggios and liltingly beautiful melody on the piano. This is a wonderfully creative statement of Edward’s attempts to follow through on his calling (the rebuilding of Specter), for, just as the Lady of the Lake’s carrying Edward’s calling to him was marked by this melody, so now are Edward’s final steps towards that goal marked by another mysterious woman’s (Edward does not yet know this is Jenny Beamen) carrying of the same musical piece. Fittingly, the moment Jenny turns to Edward to refuse his offer to buy her house, she ceases playing, illustrating, through the disappearance of the song, that his quest has been temporarily halted. However, once Edward’s quest is fulfilled, and she signs her deed over to him, the piano keys now merge seamlessly into the scene, the piano augmented with the flourishes of strings, flutes, and a plucked guitar – Edward’s utopian vision has been rendered whole.

Part II
Containing Multitudes:
Pop Music and the Re-evaluation of the Father

However, the utopia that Edward carries is not complete without someone to pass his utopia on to. Therefore, if the film’s attempt at utopian fulfillment is to be successful, it must, in addition to its re-conceptualization of mythic narrative, also re-conceptualize the myth of the patriarch. Or, more clearly, unless Edward and William mend their broken relationship, Edward’s carried utopia will die with him. Given that Edward does not fit the criteria for a “successful” father (he travels all the time, has a secret life, etc.), the film realizes a broader definition of paternal “success” is in order. William articulates the father-son tension with his father in a conversation with his wife early on in the film: “Everybody likes my father. He’s a very likable guy….Look, you have to understand, he was never around very much when I was a kid. And the reason he tells these stories, is they take him to a place where he is much happier than he is when he’s here.”

William’s issues with his father are the archetypal strains in father-son relationships art has confronted in the past several centuries. Be it Shakespeare’s blood-and-power epics King Lear and Hamlet, Freud’s Oedipally charged essays on family socio-sexual politics, or Bruce Springsteen’s sins-of-the-father pop songs, the patriarchal father is perhaps the most dominant cultural symbol in the history of the Western World. And art has, for better or worse, helped sculpt the myth of the patriarch into the rigid structure it is today. The problem, of course, with the rigidity of this symbol is its reductive simplification of fatherhood; just as there are an infinite number of fathers in the world, so too are there many paternal types. This is especially the case in twentieth (and twenty-first) century America, where changing mores in gender politics – and politics in general – have helped create a host of alternate types of patriarchy. Edward Bloom is certainly one of these alternate types. And Big Fish’s exploration of his “alternative” patriarchy allows for the film’s ultimate goal of utopian endurance to flourish. Fittingly, Big Fish once again utilizes popular music as the vehicle through which this re-evaluation occurs, a fact which is especially apropos considering what popular music represented in the 1950s and 60s America much of Edward Bloom’s fatherhood takes place within. The film’s decision to track Edward’s experiences to pop music provides an alternative method for judging the father.

Rock-and-roll has, in addition to being one of the dominant musical genres over the past several decades, always been considered a young person’s music. From the moment Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson, et al. burst into the nation’s consciousness, much of the music’s commercial cachet has been its (sincere or artificial) counter-cultural spirit. In this context, rock-and-roll is the perfect signifier for Edward Bloom’s independent spirit. For instance, when Edward tells of how he got the money to purchase he and his wife’s dream house, the counter-cultural, anti-corporate, anti-authoritarian spirit is in full-force: unwittingly forced into a failed bank heist by his old friend (from Specter), the poet Norther Winslow, the two men make their comically stumbling getaway to the sounds of the pop song “United We Stand.” Besides serving as an ironic summation of Edward’s actions, it also captures Edward’s admittedly counter-cultural leanings. Edward is a lover, not a fighter. Such patriarchal reconfiguration is even more explicitly conveyed in the scene immediately preceding the bank-robbery; Edward Bloom, shown in his prized red Chevrolet, is tracked by The Allman Brothers song, “Ramblin’ Man,” as he drives across an open highway:

Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man,
Tryin’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best I can,
And when it’s time for leavin’,
I hope you understand,
That I was born a ramblin’ man.
Well my father was a gambler down in Georgia,
He wound up on the wrong end of a gun,
And I was born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus,
Rollin’ down Highway 41.
I’m on my way to New Orleans this morning’,
Leaving out of Nashville, Tennessee,
They’re always having a good time down on the bayou,
Lord, them Delta women think the world of me.

The song is a brilliant evocation of Edward Bloom’s status as an alternative patriarch, whose colloquial joviality, unbridled warmth, and starry-eyed wonder at the world around him stands in direct antithesis to the withdrawn, opaque, hardened John Wayne type which America has, more often than not, considered to be the ultimate representation of the Father.

As Big Fish unfolds, we come to realize that William misreads his father’s repeated absences from home as a lack of interest in his child. But, by the film’s conclusion, we realize that Edward’s years on the road were spent creating the enduring utopia that would be the legacy Edward was to leave for William. As Big Fish’s final scenes play out, culminating in Edward’s funeral, where the characters whom William has decided were but figments of his father’s imagination arrive to pay their respects, it is clear that Edward’s life’s work was to, literally, bequeath a community which, upon his death, would become the “tangible” utopia his son had always refused to believe in. “Ramblin’ Man” is an ideal song to help track this unique goal. Implicit in the song’s opening verse is the narrator’s plea for “understanding” (a charge both Edward and William want from the other), and it is an understanding which subtly articulates that, upon the narrator’s leaving (which, in Edward’s case, will be his death), his true reasons for his “ramblin’” will be revealed. Moreover, such “ramblin’” is significant on two distinct levels, as it is not only Edward’s physical “ramblin’” (his traveling) that is misunderstood, but his vocal “ramblin’” (his penchant for storytelling) that is a source of confusion (for William) as well. Though William interprets his father’s stories as proof-positive of his father’s endless mendacity, the song tells us that only upon Edward’s “leaving” shall the truth of this (second) “ramblin’” be made clear. In the case of Big Fish, we come to find that Edward’s “ramblin’” provides the requisite link for the disparate exiles and outsiders who ultimately make up his utopia.

As rock and roll can be seen as the music of a new generation, Edward is clearly a member of that new generation, for whom the old ideas of patriarchy no longer apply. The 1950s and 60s in America were truly a time of flux, and Edward, ever the free-spirit, embraced these changes. His fatherly choices were, rather than the tough-love ideas espoused by the generations that came before him (when the father was around a great deal physically, but rarely emotionally), he has chosen an entirely new method to set an example for his son. Therefore, The Allman Brothers song represents Edward’s fresh twist on the old ways; by tracking Edward with a music tied to rebelliousness, Big Fish challenges the stale notions of the father that we have for so long held dear. This rebelliousness articulates a utopian capacity within the body of the father that has so rarely been explored in mythic narratives, a capacity which rock-and-roll music brings to light with considerable aplomb in Big Fish.

Further, though it is quite clear that the song is possessed of a desire for understanding between father and son, music also functions as a celebratory embodiment of the “not-yet-conscious,” that the music scholar Ernst Bloch wrote about. By tracking Edward’s travels with a song as openly celebratory as “Ramblin’ Man,” the film makes it clear that what is to come – especially in the case of Edward Bloom’s utopian dreams – will be realized. Clearly, Bloch’s notions of pop music’s “anticipatory” qualities are utilized to full effect in the film, as we see Edward Bloom embody an alternatively, prophetically utopian masculine ideal, whose presence complicates the oft-held critical assumptions that the realm of musical utopia is strictly a feminine one, whose inherent fragility is fractured with the arrival of the patriarch.

Consider the flurry of scenes leading up to Edward’s courtship of Sandra, the girl who will ultimately become his wife (Jessica Lange/Alison Lohman). Edward, who has toiled away as a jack-of-all-trades at a traveling circus for months just so he could glean knowledge from his boss as to who Sandra, “the love of his life” (whom he had first witnessed in attendance at said circus) was, finally heads to Auburn University (where Sandra is a student). Though Sandra is engaged, that Edward is sound-tracked while walking to her door by the Buddy Holly song, tells us that she is destined to be Edward’s:

Everyday it’s a-getting closer
Goin’ faster than a roller coaster
Love like yours will surely come my way
Everyday it’s a-goin’ faster
Everyone says go along an’ ask her
Love like yours will surely come my way

The song’s melodic bed – comprised of understated acoustic guitar and a breathtaking use of the celeste – creates an atmosphere of innocent certainty which the lyrics further. In the case of Edward Bloom, this certainty is destiny incarnate, as he successfully woos Sandra away from her fiancé. As was the case with “Ramblin’ Man,” popular music is possessed of a prophetic voice which allows the viewer to see into the future, a prophetic capacity which also enables Edward’s musical utopia to continue unabated. In other words, Edward’s refusal to succumb to fate is articulated by his carrying of musical subjectivity with him.

The question, then, is this: what does Edward Bloom’s capacity for musical utopia (and its attendant relation to a seemingly pre-destined future) have to do with the re-evaluation of the Patriarch? Before supplying the answer, it is important to further articulate Kristeva’s notions of the maternal-musical relationship to which I alluded earlier. Flinn provides a strong summation: "Inhabited as it is by gestures, rhythms, sounds, and movements offered through the maternal body, the chora exists prior to naming, prior to language, prior to the father. Much as in Barthes' idea of significance, difference is negated here; meaning is made similarly impossible and erotics are random and free-floating." The chora is closely aligned with Kristeva’s well-known concept of the semiotic, and in fact she often uses the two terms interchangeably. The chora is a pre-Oedipal, imaginary place in which the infant cannot distinguish self from mother, subject form object, nor splits of any other kind. For the subject it offers a place of self-fulfilled plenitude, a utopian moment within its early history. Yet while the chora is first and foremost a spatial construct, it also suggests a temporal one. In fact it might best be conceived as a space dramatically marked by time, inhabited by the ghosts of goods already past. Kristeva is careful to downplay the idealized dimension of the chora and its relation to early subjectivity, however, maintaining that only after the subject has entered the symbolic can this site begin to gain meaning or be theorized at all. Yet, at the same time, and because its utopian dimensions can only be gauged retroactively, the pre-Oedipal chora exists as a theoretical projection which, though unattractive as an alternative for representational practice and subjectivity, ultimately remains an irretrievably lost utopia.

Kristeva’s notions of lost utopia are, clearly, tied to the belief that the chora (musical realm) is a “pre-historical” moment of bliss which, once the father emerges, is forever shattered. More clearly, we only can become aware of our inhabitance of utopia after we has been expelled from it. Thus, the emergence of the patriarch is one marked by violence, as the father’s presence violently negates the child’s (and the mother’s) formerly idealized state of existence. Such methodology, though thought-provoking, does not align with the father we encounter in Big Fish. Rather than the killer-as-patriarch, an image so infused with our American heroes that our entire socio-sexual beliefs are defined through them (i.e. John Wayne, Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway) men who confronted all-comers and violently established their identities by way of interpersonal conflict, the film gives us Edward Bloom. Rock-and-roll, a music intrinsically tied to a counter-cultural set of beliefs that most often aligns itself in opposition to martial conflict (the Beatles, Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, et al were noted opponents of the Vietnam War) is, then, chosen to track a man who embodies the fundamental beliefs rock-and-roll has so often espoused.

Why is this an important shift? Because, if part of the classical father-son relationship is one marked by rebellion (the son’s revolting against his father’s physical/emotional domination), then Edward’s alternative patriarch represents a potential for reconfiguring the father-son dynamic in a way which would eliminate the need for tension between the two. Perhaps much of the conflict William experiences with his father is born out of his inability to understand a man whom he has no cultural reference point for; in other words, how is William supposed to understand his father when the culture he has been raised in has created no (cultural) space for a man like Edward? Big Fish provides this space through music, arming William with the requisite understanding that ultimately eliminates the conflict between himself and Edward.

Part III
One from the Heart:
Musical Subjectivity and the Art of Storytelling

Which brings us to the dual funeral scenes at the film’s close. Though it is clear the first “funeral” is a dream-narrative created out of the shared imaginations of the now-reconciled Edward and William, while the second “funeral” is the earthly, real-life equivalent, both share an overriding sense of celebration and (sustained) enchantment. Fittingly, it is popular music, which has served the film’s utopian vision so loyally throughout, that is asked to carry Edward’s utopian vision full-circle. The music of these final scenes gathers these disparate elements together beautifully, as we see a consummation of Edward’s utopia, as magic and truth, faith and beauty, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, myth and religion, all merge into a unified, enduring whole.

As William awakens from his slumber to find Edward has emerged from his coma, it is immediately clear that language has failed the talkative Edward just when he needs it most. Stammering inarticulately, Edward’s gestures tap William to narrate this last adventure of Edward’s life, while Elfman’s score is the musical stand-in for Edward’s voiceless subjectivity. As William begins to narrate Edward’s dreamed journey towards the river, the strands of Elfman’s score, which have, for nearly the entire film, been disparate instrumentally and melodically, now begin to merge into a unified whole — symbolic of Edward and William’s reconciliation, and Edward’s “success” as a father (and a man) as he moves towards death. The listener is overwhelmed by the piano arpeggios, ascending strings and strummed guitars that have tracked sections of Edward’s narrative throughout the film. Though the death of the father is classically seen as a necessity for the son to forge his own identity, the music makes it clear that Edward’s death is yet another “movement” in the utopian process he created, which William will now further.

With William and Edward speeding (in Edward’s vintage red Charger) towards the river, they are forced to halt on the bridge because of traffic. Immediately, the music stops, and the viewer is removed from the diegetically wondrous aural strains of the dream-narrative. However, Carl the Giant, one of Edward’s earliest exiles to join his amorphous utopian community, steps forward to push the cars out of the way (all the while being tracked by bass strings and pounding drums, which emphasize not only his authoritative presence, but, more importantly, his possession of the musical subjectivity which aligns him as “within” the utopian community). Carl’s ability to clear the roads for William and Edward parallels his ability to re-start Edward’s (and the viewer’s) musical subjectivity, thus emphasizing music’s ability to (within the world of Big Fish) serve as the chief method of narrative seamlessness and, ultimately, utopian communality.

By emphasizing both Carl’s possession of musical subjectivity (fittingly, Carl “possesses” a segment of Edward’s musical theme) and William’s situation within Edward’s musical subjectivity (music no longer stops when William enters a scene), Big Fish illustrates that the utopia that Edward has worked so hard to create will not be annihilated with his passing. In fact, the opposite is the case: as Edward moves closer to death, his utopia is moving closer to physicalized wholeness, as the myriad of individuals who have helped to comprise his utopia over the years have gathered at the water’s edge to send off their utopian catalyst. As William carries Edward into the river – where Edward is greeted by his “lady in the river,” Sandra – the strings step forward to highlight the blissful, transcendent finale of which Edward’s life is so deserving. Literally, the music that scores Edward’s final journey make the listener aware that the America Edward has constructed, replete with the exiles and outsiders, freaks and dreamers with whom he has associated, is once again emblematic of the “democratic spirit” Horkheimer and Adorno believed myth so often sacrificed.

With the “second” funeral, Big Fish illuminates that such a democratic re-situation is inherently possessed of a magic which can only be articulated through the wondrousness of popular music. Thus, Edward Bloom’s eulogy, naturally, is told through melody, rather than words, as the specific “words” of memorial are drowned out by a fully realized orchestral score. Ultimately, Big Fish’s tracking of Edward Bloom’s utopian legacy with popular music re-inscribes popular music with the facility to chart what is gained in this world, rather than simply what has been lost. And, with this reconsideration of filmic utopia, it asks the viewer to re-think the limitations we have classically felt cinema music possesses.

September 2006
From guest contributor Paul Kareem Tayyar

[back to top]


Home | About Us | Contact | Archive

© 2006 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture

Website Created by Cave Painting