By Michaela Moye
1996. The year I turned thirteen. The year my mother died. The year a pretty blond boy changed my life.
My obsession with Leonardo DiCaprio was nothing unique. Like (probably) millions of other girls my age, I wanted to know everything about him. I devoured dubious facts from teen and gossip magazines before I finally got to watch Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet at a classmate’s house. I kept the copy of Newsweek with him, Claire Danes and a bust of The Bard on the cover under my bed, like I were hiding porn. It was on that cover I had first laid eyes on him.
I loved musicals; I loved OSTs, and Romeo + Juliet was ‘Spectacular Spectacular’ (hat tip to Moulin Rouge! another Luhrmann extravaganza). It was like nothing I had ever felt. One of its soundtracks, Kym Mazelle’s house version of ‘Young Hearts Run Free’, was already well-known to me long before I watched the film. The music video had so much airplay I know the real reason I hadn’t grown sick of it was because of Harold Perrineau’s portrayal of Mercutio – while dressed in drag.
As much as I loved musicals and OSTs, my Romeo + Juliet experience opened another channel of screen music appreciation. I was paying attention: not just to the facets of music from Disney classics such as Aladdin and Beauty and The Beast (which were major hits in my house); or to the musicals that aired on TNT, which I adored; or the Bollywood tunes I sang constantly and to which I wished I could learn to dance (I’m a hopeless dancer). I was paying attention to the nuances of sounds, in relation to visuals as well as the impact they had on my emotions. Not since The Good, The Bad and The Ugly had I paid such rapt attention to the score of a film.
A year or two later, another friend let me dub cassettes from her father’s CDs — both the score and the soundtracks from Romeo + Juliet. I was in music heaven! During that time, I also acquired music from The Cable Guy, which was also released in 1996 (I’m a big Jim Carrey fan!) and Pulp Fiction, which I didn’t see until the mid-2000s. When I eventually watched Pulp Fiction, it was very familiar to me, not just because the film had become a cult classic, but also because I already ‘knew’ what it sounded like.
In 1997, I wept alongside the world as Jack shivered in the icy ocean and Rose clung onto life and her makeshift raft. Like everyone else (be honest!), I had belted ‘My Heart Will Go On’ into hairbrushes and maths sets and rulers. Even now, decades later, I cannot hear the opening of the song without feeling emotional. I saw the film just once at the cinema with my best friend and her mom and I haven’t been able to watch it again since. Although, I must add that getting to endure the Kannywood version, Titanic Masoyiyata, in all its ridiculousness lessened the trauma of watching DiCaprio’s needless onscreen death.
Nevertheless, another movie heart-throb “changed my life” as I used to tell everyone who would listen to me talk about Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, while ramping up the drama of an already incredibly dramatic film. Shah Rukh Khan, with his shiny hair and cheesy grin, burst into my life in neon technicolour, and I felt like I could embrace my inner pop princess – a deviation from the Goth and Grunge phases of my teens. I still collected rock music and listened to my cassette of Bon Jovi’s ‘These Days’ religiously (LOL).
Now, I am not exaggerating when I say that album changed my life. In 1996, when I first heard Bon Jovi’s ‘This Ain’t A Love Song’ and ‘These Days’, I was a frightened girl whose already unstable life had become even more tumultuous. Listening to those songs, and subsequently the album, made me feel connected and anchored in some way. This was the first time I experienced suicidal ideation and the music somehow prevented me from harming myself.
Back to 1998, Bollywood, Britney Spears and even more Boy Bands that I had decided to like (they couldn’t all be Take That; it wasn’t their fault!). Between 1998 and 1999, to paraphrase Ms. Spears, I was not a girl, but I was not yet a woman. I was rounding up secondary school and dealing with anxiety. Against the backdrop of an increasingly volatile hometown, I had to deal with boys, tension over what school to attend and uncertainty about what course to study. Fortunately, City of Angels and its beautiful soundtrack helped. The music was not an escape like the pop fare I consumed (hey, Spice Girls!), it was more of a couch – a comfortable, familiar place where I could think of nothing else besides Peter Gabriel’s low moaning on ‘I Grieve’ and Alanis Morrisette earnestly warbling on ‘Uninvited’.
In “The Year 2000”, I got into university. I took along boxes of cassettes – many of them homemade mixtapes. That same year, I began to focus my attention on local talents: I discovered P-Square and other Nigerian actors besides Ramsey Noah and RMD (I exaggerate, but only slightly). To be honest, with the exception of Baz Luhrmann’s lurid 2001 offering, I do not recall being particularly inspired to seek out new music via film soundtracks during the early 2000s. Of course, I watched a lot of movies and TV shows, but I don’t remember being particularly inspired by any of them.
I barely had time to watch the Western fare I largely consumed except for re-watching the pirated Moulin Rouge VCD I had – holding on to the familiar as I already knew most of the songs. I can assure you that during this time, I wasn’t discovering any new music from Nollywood films – the soundtracks were mostly just keyboardists improvising during ominous scenes and Kenny G songs playing throughout the romantic bits and shopping sprees.
Recently, one of my besties has persuaded me to start watching Bridgerton. Her [superior] argument is “the music”. It was “subliminally captivating,” she said. Hooked! “They take contemporary music and remix it so it sounds classical…they use…as soundtracks during their balls. You’re seeing this grandeur and connecting with it through music that you know,” she reeled me in. Between writing drafts of this essay, I managed to complete the second season of Bridgerton (I still haven’t seen the first). And I must say, I will never listen to Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ the same way again.
Similarly, I joined the Downton Abbey train late – perhaps in 2019 or 2020. I was either unemployed or the lockdown in Abuja had begun. In any case, I had a lot of time on my hands. I remember posting on Facebook that it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. This is largely because those first opening bars of ‘Downton Abbey – The Suite’, were the most beautiful sounds I had heard in a long time – they sounded pure, crystal clear, uplifting and yet, weighty enough that I knew I was about to watch some more…wait for it…life-changing stuff! Ha ha!
In the same vein, I believe my enjoyment of the Twilight films – I did not enjoy the books and completed only one, Eclipse – has much to do with their soundtracks. Robert Pattinson crooning and then caterwauling in the background music of the café scene was a pleasant surprise for me, as was his excellent piano-playing. Granted, I didn’t realise he was the singer on Never Think until I Googled “Robert Pattinson piano playing Twilight” (and I only found out he was the vocalist on ‘Let Me Sign’ when I was fact-checking this essay).
Twilight’s soundtrack has been referred to as “before its time” and I agree, wholeheartedly. I want to believe that if there wasn’t such a media frenzy over the fact that teenagers (and just a few adults such as myself) were playing Team Edward vs Team Jacob, the music would have received even greater attention. ‘Bella’s Lullaby’ introduced me to Carter Burwell even though I was already familiar with his work from Fargo and No Country For Old Men; same for Howard Shore with Jacob’s Theme. The exciting, eclectic soundtrack, which featured bands like Muse, and The Killers introduced me to artists such as Bon Iver, Iron & Wine, and Sleeping At Last.
However, Pattinson’s musical prowess was not as surprising as hearing Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman sing for the first time in Moulin Rouge!, or seeing Tom Cruise perform Bon Jovi in Rock of Ages. My favourite scene from the movie features a topless Cruise grinding all over the furniture and Malin Ackerman while singing Bon Jovi’s ‘Dead or Alive’, and Foreigner’s ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’. It’s always fascinating to see actors embody their musical personas.
And this is why my most recent, favourite, film-inspired music is from Emma. This 2020 remake introduced me to Johnny Flynn, younger half-brother to Jerome from Robson & Jerome (and later Game of Thrones) fame, on whom I had a brief but intense crush in my early teens. Flynn’s portrayal of Mr. Knightly was remarkable for his range, voice, and appealing good looks, which are enhanced by scars on his face from a childhood incident. Johnny Flynn’s voice, in my opinion, is most suited to the role and the setting. When his character duets with Amber Anderson’s Jane Fairfax, I’m transported to a world I’ve only known via Jane Austen’s novels. While my favourite musical piece from Emma is ‘Mr. Turner’s Waltz’, Flynn’s light-hearted rendition of ‘Queen Bee’, a ballad that he also wrote, links the film’s mainly traditional English folk soundtracks with the period in which it was made.
To be honest, music from films has also helped me keep an open mind about movies I didn’t like at first or didn’t know how to react to. Why did I keep watching Elizabeth Banks’ ‘Charlie’s Angels’ (besides the fact that I absolutely love her and K-Stew)? The Music!There is a long list of films and series that have sent me down several rabbit holes on YouTube and helped me discover artists and songs: the music is why I shamelessly watch the Fifty Shades trilogy over and over again. The music is a big reason why The Walking Dead is one of my favourite series and why I know Bear McCreary’s name. And the music – especially a brilliant score – is what makes films like Midsommar so compelling.
This essay is an original contribution published in ‘Audiovisual Crossroads’ #1. Read the rest of the collection here and send us your comments at email@example.com
Michaela Moye is the author of ‘Relieved’, a collection of poetry and short stories. Her work as a writer, editor, researcher and communications consultant spans print, online and broadcast media; and the development sector. She volunteers with Environment Friendly Initiative. Her desire for a change in how mental health issues are perceived in Nigeria inspired the founding of Saint Jude Foundation for Capacity Building, an organisation committed to research, advocacy and training. Moye also runs a small business that sells books, handcrafted items, and sundries. She lives in Abuja.