Original post on Medium.
When Crystal and I fired up The Broken Circle Breakdown on the AppleTV last night, I was initially hacked off to discover it was subtitled. We had bought into it based upon the trailer, which outlined the film via its English-language music and visuals, and not realizing it was an Oscar contender in the foreign film category.
Not that I’m anti-subtitles. Crystal works for a US distributor of Asian and Indie film, which means that we watch more subtitled fare than the average household. (This also suggests I might have been more up to date on the Oscar nods as well.)
On a Friday night capping a long week, I wasn’t excited about the reading a subtitled film would likely require, but within minutes I was transfixed by this melodrama surrounding a Flemish family whose lives revolved around bluegrass and each other. I can’t remember the last film I saw that was still so present with me the next day.
Maybe my frame of mind was tweaked by having just received news of the death of an old music-industry pal, but I saw enough of my past in both the music and the relationships that I felt a near-immediate kinship with this troubled clan.
Didier, our male lead, is a Flemish farmer who is obsessed with old-timey bluegrass music. We’re talking single-mic, all acoustic and sans irony, albeit with a side of hipster beards and tattoos. To him, it is a connection to an iconic America of old, a place where folks — ostensibly folks like him — sang of their struggles and joys while blazing their own trail.
He spends the days renovating his run-down farm and his nights playing bluegrass with his friends. When he meets and begins to woo Elise, a young tattoo artist, part of the “getting to know you” patois is a wide-eyed elegy of Bill Monroe and all songs down-home and old-timey.
Fortunately, Elise has an untapped aptitude for song, going from slowly mouthing lyrics to singalong with the band to center stage at what looks like the Flemish answer to the Grand Ole Opry. (This scene is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of telling a story through montage while still retaining characterization. I defy your heart not to flutter at the hat-covered kiss at the coda.)
Where the film really took me back was when Didier explains why he plays banjo. He was a punk rocker back in the day, and although he migrated towards bluegrass, “the banjo kind of snarls, which reminds me of punk.”
“I’m too stupid to play the guitar and too dumb to play the mandolin. I used to be a punk rocker. The banjo kind of snarls, which reminds me of punk.”
I’ve always been a music nut, but I never really became an aficionado until I moved to Dallas in the early nineties. I certainly didn’t like anything that remotely sounded country, deriding it as “tear in my beer bullshit.” I tended towards the rock and indie hits of the day with a little jam band lightly mixed in.
Then, my best friend, Houston Joost, took me to see The Old 97’s.
In this band, at the time lauded alongside as a vanguard of the “alt-country” scene, I found the voice that had always been inside my head. Wry, dark and twangy — but loud. Some called it cowpunk, but I heard more punk than cow. These were city-boy songs with murderers and loose women and beer, rather than tales of tumbling tumbleweeds.
That said, I dug the band’s more pure country forays, in covers of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. They also covered Jon Langford, who despite his history in the punk scene was edging ever closer to country in his solo work, with The Waco Brothers, and notably in his paintings.
I became a sponge for all things “alt-country,” which I now called “real country.” I worked slowly backwards, from the 97’s, Tupelo and Robbie Fulks with each leading me down other roads which let to others. Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen were early stops. I went deep on “Outlaw Country”. Deeper on Gram Parsons. OD’d on The Band. Detoured with Alabama 3. Lingered with Bill Monroe. Summered with the Carter family. Befriended both Hanks I and III. Went as far as Harry Smith could take me.
By the time O Brother, Where Art Thou came out, I had reached the place that it came as more validation than revelation. Sure, I love most every T Bone Burnett compilation or crossover production experiment, but I always note, with some sense of superiority, the source material.
A time machine
My tastes continued to branch and became increasingly eclectic. Of late, I’ve been listenting to a lot more jazz. In the age of Spotify, my library has swelled to nearly 200,000 tracks traversing a wide array of genres. But there’s still a disproportionate amount of twangy music that Crystal lovingly refers to as “the elbow jangles.”
Somehow, the music of Broken Circle Breakdown knocked something loose and today I only want to listen to anything with a banjo. Part of that is due to the excellent soundtrack by the Flemish cast, which I’d put next to (if not above) any such American album of the last ten years. It’s made up largely of traditional tunes like the suggested-by-the-title “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” alongside a couple more contemporary compositions from the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Lovett.
It’s different than a T Bone production, which even when contemporary, sounds, to my ear, curatorial. You can feel the “mud and the blood and the beer,” as well as an aura of absolute respect, in every note of the BCB soundtrack. The songs are integral to the action of the film, as often sung organically in the moment as they are a performance set piece.
It’s also, like much “old-timey” music, largely Christian. This ties to a key theme in the film, as our life-crossed lovers are overtly atheist early in the film, a position that comes up in the face of overwhelming tragedy with their daughter, Maybelle (think “Carter”). As they try to rebuild their lives, one of the major drivers of conflict between the couple is Elise beginning, perhaps out of desperation, to show signs of wishing for if not believing in a higher power who can redeem the situation.
Didier won’t be moved, and is actually angered by Elise’s softening. As he begins to rant (even in concert) at God alongside the America he once loved, and now blames for his woes, I saw even more of myself.
I spent a good twenty years somewhere between faith and agnosticism, leaning towards the latter. Yet, even when I was farthest away from faith, I loved me some gospel music. I could sing it at the top of my off-key lungs, even as I scoffed aloud at the message.
It’s often said that hate is the flipside of love. Anger is disappointment in one you once friended. I’d add that those who rant most loudly against anything — America, God, baseball, you name it — are often those closest to it. They are wounded or worse, ignored, by that which they truly love.
With only the minorest of spoilers, the film ends with a song, and an indication that Didier may have more faith than he has thusfar let on.
That’s maybe the best way any story can end.