THE final chorus in the movie Song for Marion took a long time coming. All that uplifting singing, all that grit in G-minor was beginning to sound like a broken record even before the oldies took the stage. Haven’t we just heard this before? Didn’t we just see Quartet, that movie about the rigmarole over superannuated opera singers doing the Rigoletto quartet? Didn’t we go through this a few years ago with As It is In Heaven? And didn’t our own documentary, The Choir of Hard Knocks, cover similar territory in the streets of Melbourne?
As the grumpy Terence Stamp said in Song for Marion, ‘‘ it isn’t me’’.
There are two million Australians who’ll disagree, as they tune in nightly to The Voice; there are many more who have queued at cinemas to see the latest take on the power of the voice and, evidently, there are still fans of Glee on pay television.
Singing has become the vehicle for every feelgood moment across our cinemas and TV screens. If it has sentiment, it has singing. If it is about community, it’s got choirs. If it’s lifeaffirming, it will drag the cranky pants into its competition and beat him into cheeriness with a chorus of inclusion.
Cynical perhaps, but what else do you expect from a girl who was told by the nuns to mouth the words of hymns so she wouldn’t spoil the sound of souls singing at 6am mass.
Still, the audiences are all ears. So let’s tune in to this musical moment and see whether it’s fresh or a retro movement.
At first glance, it looks
old-fashioned. Singing is as wholesome as church fete jam. It was slowly going the way of tea-cosies and crochet clothes hangers. But as with many fads, something old-fashioned suddenly can seem fresh. When you can play World of Warcraft on your phone, find sex on the net and go to parties on Facebook, singing can look like the next best thing. Who knew? Next they’ll have us watching people cook. Or tuning in to fat people on diets.
Even if it’s hard for sceptics to fathom the point of watching people sing, it is easy to understand the pleasure of singing. Singing releases stress, is great for lung function and blood pressure, and, if we’re all singing in key, it is pleasing to the ear and brain. Sometimes you get shortbread biscuits at the end.
It’s so much a part of us that the author of Music and the Mind, Anthony Storr, devoted a book to the idea that our bodies are biologically tuned for music and human societies bond through it. Singing has been a collective ritual throughout our evolution, leading us into buffalo hunts, bringing rain, rallying armies and frightening opposing footy teams.
The people of song lines, singing circles, ethnic chants and ecclesiastical choirs might be missing it. Who knows, the iPod generation, who privatised music with their ear buds, might also be missing the sharing of music.
We all like singing. OK, sounds good. But it’s only recently that we’ve been content to listen to other people sing, and it’s this voyeuristic element to the warbling craze that seems a little strange.
So, you have to ask, what purpose does singing serve in these movies and TV shows?
Singing on the screen is the greater leveller. You can be blind, disabled, orphaned, bigthighed and even a dumpy middle-aged woman whom no one has kissed, but your voice can lift you above the pack. A fine voice, we’re told, can take you into people’s hearts, on to charts, into the green rooms of pop stars and into Windsor Castle to meet the Queen. It’ll even buy you a makeover.
For the audiences, the witnessing of this act of salvation makes them feel as if they’re doing their bit. It encourages us to think the world must be an all right place if society’s losers can make it on the strength of their voices.
The singing shows are our sacred moments — but with better sound systems. The singers are parables for our own troubles, the judges sit at the pearly gates with the keys to getting through to the other side, the audiences are witnesses to the moment and the ratings are testament to the truth. Hallelujah.
Those nuns might have a lot to answer for at the moment, but failed Catholic choristers are not the only sceptics in town. As Terence Stamp said before he got cajoled into song, ‘‘ bloody crackers, you lot’’.