Stephen Frears is an underrated director. 1984’s The Hit is a classic, and I can now say the same about his biopic on British playwright Joe Orton after having finally seen Prick Up Your Ears.
The impressive cast includes Alfred Molina, Vanessa Redgrave, Wallace Shawn, and Gary Oldman, fresh off of his role as Sid Vicious in 1986’s Sid And Nancy. There’s still some Sid in Oldman’s interpretation of Joe Orton. The arrogance, the dangerously playful smile, the steely eyes – they’re all here.
Frears directs this film in a hybrid cinema/theater style, obviously appropriate given the subject at hand. What is most attractive about this film for me is how Frears plays on the classical Hollywood musical structure throughout. In fact, Prick Up Your Ears is possibly the closest a film can come to being a musical without actually being a musical.
A few things about the classical Hollywood musical (I’m thinking Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Golddiggers of 1933, etc): the numbers often have distinct functions. Some display a utopian ideal (because of a musical number Marilyn and Jane are able to get a job, for example, in Gentlemen), some have the sole function as spectacle (think Busby Berkeley), some advance the narrative. Many classical (pre-1960s) musicals concentrate on diegetic music, that is, music sourced within the scene, where anything non-diegetic acts only to fill in the sound and not as the main source. Finally, there is a sort of “myth of spontaneity” (thanks, Richard Dyer) which is what perhaps we most associate with musicals – everyone sings and dances in unison and perfect rhythm despite the lack of any apparent rehearsal.
Prick Up Your Ears seems well aware of these modes. Three scenes in particular are worth further discussion in the current discourse:
First: having recently met Alfred Molina’s Kenneth – his eventual lover – Joe and a number of other theater students take to the riverside for a night out. Frears’ camera cranes high above the action in a Berkeley-esque show of spectacle. The lights of the night flicker in and out in tune with the non-diegetic music. Flat compositions dominate and at one point, crucial to the burgeoning relationship, Kenneth and Joe are actually atop a small stage. Behind them a (rather phallic) light dims, setting them romantically in the foreground. Joe has just left the girl he arrived with, and, in effect, this section acts as Joe’s transition into homosexuality – this is it’s utopian ideal. The “musical” number here starts the relationship. The scene ends with a cutaway to fireworks, a subtle reference to censored films’ treatment of sex during the height of the Production Code (where fireworks = sex; fade to black = sex; cutaway = sex, etc).
Second: my favorite scene of the film, and one reminiscent of some of the subway sequences in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. Joe, having just won a major writing award, enters the subway in search of a romantic tryst. Immediately after an overhead shot of Joe descending the stairs Frears effortlessly switches his style to a more expressionist look. The light is low-key and filled with literal atmosphere. The public restroom is occupied by ominous looking characters, still as in a tableaux, eyeing the newcomer. Have we entered a scene from West Side Story? The myth of spontaneity is the first element, alongside the aforementioned change in style and production design, that clues us in to the musical nod. Joe turns and leaps. He is caught sure-handedly by another man, right on cue. Will they break into dance? Will they all start snapping? No. Instead, Joe reaches up and twists out the light bulb, sending that part of the frame into darkness. Frears cuts to a wide shot revealing other light bulbs simultaneously extinguishing. The movements of the characters in the now-darker restroom takes on a stealthy choreography. The mood is surreal, the score accentuates the action, and the background dripping sounds of faucets and rain create the rhythm. This “musical” number advances the narrative and is also a utopian ideal: Joe is moving further away from Kenneth, and his masculinity knows no bounds.
Third: Joe and Kenneth vacation in Morocco. This is probably the most obvious example. They are immediately accosted by many young men, all dressed in white. A cut brings in the non-diegetic, and narratively relevant music (“By The Beautiful Sea”) as Kenneth runs towards camera surrounded by young men. The rest of the scene plays out in similar fashion. Numerous wide shots, punctuated by the non-diegetic score, of Kenneth and Joe running, frolicking, and generally vacationing. Spectacle? Certainly. Narrative qualities? Sort of – a minor reconciliation. Spontaneity? Absolutely.
So why do all of this? Why should Frears bother? In one sense he is placing his own camera and scene work in opposition to the real Joe Orton’s plays, which have been often described as “macabre.” Frears’ ironic sensibility, aware of its origins, seems to be at once a revisionist musical intent on reworking the classical ideals to a more reasonable, modern theory, a technique designed to starkly contrast with the brutal ending of the film (read: Joe’s life versus Joe’s death), and a nod to the influence of the theater and of the whimsey of technical expertise as escapism.