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Aural Fixation: The Sound of Sex Addiction and Other ‘Shame’-ful Secrets

By  · Published on December 1st, 2011

When it comes to director/screenwriter Steve McQueen and screenwriter Abi Morgan’s film about living a life of secrets (and what it does to those who carry them), much more is said with their characters’ actions than any of the words that pass through their lips. Even more so when it seems most of the words that are said are unreliable and laced with the feeling that they are not simply lies, but lies each are telling themselves. Shame shows us a complicated and layered world that is both enticing and chilling, begging the question – what kind of music would underscore and accompany these distinctive moments? A mix of score (by composer Harry Escott), piano concertos (as performed by Glenn Gould), jazz (John Coltrane and Chet Baker) and popular music (from Tom Tom Club, Blondie and Chic) come together to create a musical landscape that is both sexy and unsettling while also deeply sad, troubling, and (at times) terrifying.

Escott begins the film with an almost mournful-sounding orchestration (aptly titled “Brandon”) as we focus in on our lead, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), lying in bed with a mix of emotions already playing across his face. The piece is driven by an unrelenting ticking which immediately gives you the sense that this is not a place of rest as we begin to realize Brandon’s addiction to nighttime rendezvous may not be the only thing keeping him awake. Brandon never seems able to rest or relax. If he is not out getting his sexual fix, he is running (both literally and figuratively) the streets of New York, the pace of which is mimicked here and called upon throughout the film as we delve into Brandon’s frenetic life and routine.

Neither McQueen nor Fassbender present a simple picture of a man who happens to be flawed. Yes, Brandon has a predominant flaw that he deals with on a daily basis, but if there is anything “simple” about him it is that he is human and, while he plays more into the extremes when it comes to seeking out intimacy and connection, the most alarming moments of the film come when you find yourself identifying with him. The music choices only help to reinforce this feeling as we listen to soothing, sexy jazz and upbeat pop songs that instinctively make you feel at ease, but are contrasted against scenes and moments that are anything but. It is this constant push and pull that is brilliantly portrayed throughout the film and strung together by the musical choices that accompany it.

The musical highlight (and one of the more striking moments in the film) comes from Brandon’s sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), and her rendition of “New York, New York.” Slowed down and sung at an almost painful pace, Mulligan proves she not only has acting chops, the girl can sing. The unrelenting close-ups during her performance, focusing on both Sissy and Brandon, only further drive home the idea that this is the most intimate moment of the film – when everyone’s clothes are on and the two characters are on opposite ends of the room from one another.

Despite Sissy’s repeated attempts throughout the film, she and Brandon never have a real conversation, but as she sings, the lyrics of the song speak so honestly to what they both are clearly feeling (and craving) – acceptance. They want to be a part of something, be connected to something and no longer feel the need to run or hide (or be ashamed) of who they are or how they feel. But they are damaged people living in an imperfect world and watching Sissy truly lay herself bare and Brandon’s reaction to it makes you both intrigued and terrified to know what events may have led these two to this place. As our own Kate Erbland pointed out in her review of the film, we never get Brandon and Sissy’s full backstory, but this moment works as one of the closest hints we get towards what that story may entail.

Like most songs, the titles of those featured here highlight the ideas of love, lust or loss and those same themes play out throughout the film in a raw and unshakable portrait of two broken people. From “Genius of Love” and “I Want Your Love” to “Rapture” to “Let’s Get Lost” to “Unraveling” to “The Problem,” it quickly becomes clear that the thin lines between love, lust, shame and honesty are what make these topics so enticing and, at the same time, utterly maddening since you can easily flow from one to another in the blink of an eye. Having one of Escott’s pieces followed by Howlin’ Wolf’s bluesy “You Can’t be Beat” may seem like a black and white juxtaposition of two totally different styles, but they actually work well together, proving that these feelings and choices may not be so different from one another after all.

Shame is a film that stays with you long after you leave the theater and the music helps to add texture and resonance to its captivating and unshakable feeling. The music may seem random as it pulls from many different genres and the film itself may seem that way too at times as Brandon ping pongs between facing and giving into his demons, but in the end there is one thread that ties everything together – human nature and it’s constant need to fulfill its wants and needs. The soundtrack (and film) ends with Escott’s simple piano where only a few notes work to say so much and at the same time, nothing at all. We all have our secrets, but sometimes more is said or revealed in what isn’t said and Shame’s soundtrack works to fill those gaps without overpowering the performances of the enigmatic characters on screen.

This soundtrack is available through Sony Masterworks.

  1. “Brandon” – Harry Escott
  2. “Goldberg Variations; BMW 988; Aria” – Glenn Gould
  3. “Genius of Love” – Tom Tom Club
  4. “Rapture” – Blondie
  5. “I Want Your Love” – Chic
  6. “My Favorite Things” – John Coltrane
  7. “New York, New York ‘Theme’” – Carey Mulligan; Liz Caplan
  8. “Let’s Get Lost” – Chet Baker
  9. “Prelude & Fugue No. 10 in E minor, BMW 855; Prelude” – Glenn Gould
  10. “Goldberg Variations, BMW 988: Variation 15 a 1 Clav. Canone alla Quinta. Andante (1981 Version)” – Glenn Gould
  11. “Unraveling” – Harry Escott
  12. “You Can’t Be Beat” – Howlin’ Wolf
  13. “The Problem” – Mark Louque
  14. “Prelude & Fugure No. 16 in G minor, BMW 885; Praeludium” – Glenn Gould
  15. “End Titles” – Harry Escott

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