Should I Watch..? '9 Songs'
What's the big deal?
9 Songs is an art-house romantic drama released in 2004 and is widely regarded as the single most explicit film ever released in UK mainstream cinemas. Written, produced and directed by Michael Winterbottom, the film follows the relationship between American exchange student Lisa and English climatologist Matt against the backdrop of nine nights of live music in London. The film features several unsimulated sex scenes as well as numerous other acts and shots that almost redefined what was legal and what was straight-up pornography. Released to a massive amount of controversy and a media out-cry, the film didn't exactly set the box office alight with a worldwide total earnings of just $1.57 million. However, it did become a regular at film festivals at the time and it sparked debate about how much could conventional cinema show on screen in the face of online pornography.
What's it about?
English climatologist Matt is away in Antarctica conducting research while reminiscing about his recent relationship with Lisa, an exchange student over from the US. Their relationship is a simple one - meeting at a rock concert, they head back to Matt's place and engage in a lustful evening of passion. Their only shared interests are casual drug use, increasingly sordid sexual encounters and live music. As the months roll on, they see a number of live musical performances all over London but is there anything else to their relationship or is it doomed to fail?
In order of appearance, the musical acts and their songs are as follows:
- Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Whatever Happened To My Rock And Roll
- The Von Bondies - C'mon, C'mon
- Elbow - Fallen Angel
- Primal Scream - Movin' On Up
- The Dandy Warhols - You Were The Last High
- Super Furry Animals - Slow Life
- Franz Ferdinand - Jacqueline
- Michael Nyman - Debbie
- Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Love Burns
Release Date (UK)
11th March, 2005
Drama, Erotic, Music
What's to like?
Even if we haven't seen films like this, you can picture the sort of film 9 Songs actually is. The film has a simplistic structure, the likes of which I've never seen before. First comes the song, apparently shot on multiple cameras throughout the venue but rarely close to the stage or unobstructed by drunken revellers. Then comes a graphic sex scene, usually ill-lit compared to the bright and gaudy lights of most online porn before a thin sliver of dialogue with little in the way of context. Sometimes, to break up the monotony, Winterbottom throws in a helicopter shot or two of the Antarctic. Then the pattern repeats again for another eight times.
Stilley and O'Brien, who performed all of the sex scenes for real with no doubles, deserve plenty of credit and actually do rather well in their roles. Their relationship is a strange one but the love scenes feel natural and the course of their courtship come across as believable. It's a pity that they are pretty boring people outside of the bedroom and I found myself wondering what exactly is Winterbottom trying to say. We've all had the kind of relationship seen here, driven by desire and blinded to obvious faults. But is he really suggesting that a sexually-fuelled relationship is like spending time in a frozen wasteland? Perhaps he should get out more.
- O'Brien and Stilley only met three days prior to shooting and never communicated outside of the set. This was to prevent their real-life relationship affecting their on-screen one. Other than the actors, the only other people present during the love scenes were the director, cameraman and soundman.
- The film was intended to be wrapped up in just ten weeks. However, Winterbottom recorded over 200 hours of footage and the shoot lasted for five months.
- Fearing the damage it might do her career as well as wanting to preserve the film's "artistic integrity", Stilley asked Winterbottom to not credit her for her performance and only refer to her in interviews as Lisa, her character's name.
What's not to like?
First of all, let me say that I am not morally offended by 9 Songs. Anyone who is offended by the sight of two adults engaging in sexual activity is unlikely to ever see this film in the first place so as far as I'm concerned, the moral minority can do one.
What does offend me is the film's overall quality. The sex scenes are graphic but not arousing, the characters are dull and uninteresting and the concert footage sounds distorted and is leaden with some heavy strobe-effect lighting, making watching the film an almost painful experience. I understand that Winterbottom is trying to replicate the feeling most of us experience at a gig but surely he could have picked more recognisable songs. Yes, Primal Scream and Elbow are household names but even I (a radio DJ) have only just heard of the Von Bondies. The film stood the best chance of entertaining us during the concert scenes so why not maximise their effectiveness by turning the volume down and showing us charismatic footmen instead of grainy shadows and cigarette smoke?
As much as I'd like to say I understood Winterbottom's intentions, I can't honestly say that I do. His metaphors are lost in a blizzard of nudity, rock music and... well, a blizzard. I got the feeling that all 9 Songs actually achieved was a predictable out-cry from the more conservative media outlets. It was an experiment to see what he could show in a mainstream cinema release and nothing more. But I often find that the problem with art-house - more often that not, it's the making of the film itself that is the point and not what the film is showing.
Should I watch it?
Probably not, if only because you'll wonder why you did in the first place. It isn't titillating enough for raincoat-wearing perverts (well, those without an internet connection) or interesting enough for the rest of us. Even the bands featured get short-changed as their footage feels like it was recorded on a cheap mobile phone. 9 Songs feels like a waste of time for everybody involved, mostly yours. You'd be better off putting a CD on.
Great For: fans of indie rock, the inventor of the pause button
Not So Great For: horny couples, short attention spans, art-house's impenetrable reputation
What else should I watch?
Erotic films offer carry a stench of seediness about them, scorned by critics as exploitative and cheap multiplex filler. Often, this is true - nobody could ever accuse the likes of Showgirls of trying to be high-art. But films that have eroticism as their unique selling point rarely become anything other than fodder for the Dirty Mac brigade, especially in the current climate that scrutinises gender equality in the industry like never before. The daddy of them all, Last Tango In Paris, has sadly since become synonymous with the ill-treatment of its leading lady Maria Schneider by Marlon Brando and director Bernardo Bertolucci, behaviour that Bertolucci deeply regretted afterwards.
Weirdly, explicit sex in little doses does seem to appeal to Academy voters - it would appear that such material in other genres works wonders. Halle Berry's performance in Monster's Ball is an exceptional one that deserved to win but one that was overshadowed by her love scenes with Billy Bob Thornton. The same fate befell Kate Winslet in The Reader, a touching drama about the relationship between a young law student and a former prison guard in a post-War Germany struggling with coming to terms with its recent past. Of course, I'm not suggesting that these fine actresses won because they stripped off but it's an interesting observation. After all, how many winners of the Best Actor Award had to go fully nude for their triumph?
© 2018 Benjamin Cox