‘The Meyerowitz Stories’ and the Tradition of Family Singing in Film

Noah Baumbach elevates a film trope from the 1940s.
By  · Published on October 17th, 2017

Noah Baumbach elevates a film trope from the 1940s.

It’s a Norman Rockwell-esque scene: a loving family gathered around a piano, singing songs they’ve sung for years. Only this singing family consists of an egotistical patriarch, an alcoholic stepmother, an anger-prone son, and a depressed daughter. Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) boasts stellar performances from its entire cast, most notably Elizabeth Marvel (Jean Meyerowitz) and Adam Sandler (Danny Meyerowitz) as two-thirds of Dustin Hoffman’s (Harold Meyerowitz) progeny. Even though the entire film is acted beautifully, the standout performances take place during the musical numbers.

Baumbach’s use of a family sing-along is purposeful, memorable (The New Yorker used a cartoon image of the family around a piano as their article’s banner), and has its basis in film history. Baumbach name-drops one such classic film in his script. At the end of the film, Harold complains that the Turner Classic Movies channel only plays Meet Me in St. Louis directed by Vincente Minnelli. Earlier in the film, Baumbach actually pays homage to a scene from Minnelli’s film. In Meet Me in St. Louis, Esther and Rose Smith sing the title song with Rose playing piano, while Esther sings over her shoulder. Baumbach echoes this image, replacing the two sisters with Danny and Harold Meyerowitz.

The song sung by Danny and Harold retells a story in which Harold misremembers his art assistant’s name. While some of Harold’s memories are true, many of them are incorrect. The assistant’s name was Byron, but Harold would refer to him as Myron. “Say it with confidence and look him in the eye,” the lyrics advise, highlighting the family’s emphasis on confidence over concrete detail. Effectively, Harold looks his family in the eye and confidently repeats his constructed family narrative, driving wedges between family members. While this narrative is not true, Harold has the ability to confidently tell his children it is.

While the two songs are about different subject matter, they both give the audience a feeling of family unity at its most idyllic. No conflict, all smiles. This trope gets subverted as we move through time.

In these sing-along scenes, everyone singing is happy in the moment, but once the music stops, the characters go back to their lives of conflict. In Meet Me in St. Louis the patriarch of the family bursts into the room, yelling at his daughters to stop their singing. Back to reality. In a similar way, Baumbach uses this trope in the traditional sense. He gives the audience a kind of dream sequence. It’s the image of the family with Vaseline smeared on the lens. But on another level, he elevates the trope by writing bittersweet lyrics.

This mixing of positive and negative valences has become a sophisticated way to employ the Meet Me in St. Louis trope. Nora Ephron used the group-singing convention in her film You’ve Got Mail to contrast her two leads’ personal lives. Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and her employees sing a song in rounds gathered around a piano. Each person sings a short melody in time with the rest of the group. The song is cheery and light until her boyfriend sings a dirge-like melody throwing the song into a less-cheerful tone, singling him out as unlike the rest of Kathleen’s friends—foreshadowing their ultimate split.

The scene depicting Kathleen’s song is crosscut with Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) trying to enjoy his family Christmas party. Joe’s 9-year-old aunt Annabel is entertaining the family with an out-of-tune and overly energetic rendition of Tomorrow from Annie accompanied by piano. As his young aunt is singing, Joe’s father’s fiancé is making passes at him. Even though the scene at the Fox’s Christmas party looks like the ideal family gathering, there is an emptiness to the action (and just re-reading this description, it almost sounds like something out of a David Lynch movie). The contrast between Kathleen’s actual group singing and Joe’s family’s rejection of group singing in favor of performance signals that Joe desires more than his family is offering in the way of unity.

Just as Nora Ephron employs singing to emphasize one character’s longing, Peter Hedges employs the same technique in Dan in Real Life. However, where Ephron uses it to show a character’s longing for what could be, Hedges shows a character longing for what has been. Dan (a widower) performs the Pete Townsend song Let My Love Open the Door with his brother Mitch in order for Mitch to impress his new girlfriend. However, the song has emotional weight for Dan because he has not played guitar since his wife passed away. Thus, while Mitch is performing the song for superficial reasons, Dan is making peace with the memory of his late wife as he senses his own heart opening again.

Baumbach similarly uses family singing to show a longing for the past with a song played by Danny and his 19-year-old daughter Eliza. The opening lyrics are, “You’ll always be my superstar. You’ll always be my number one.” And the song goes on to retell memories of Eliza’s childhood in idealized terms. None of the family’s current dysfunction is present anywhere inside the lyrics. The song’s chorus resolves, “And there’s always you. And there’s always me. And there’s always us. Mommy and daddy and genius girl make three.”

The lines, written when Eliza was 9-years-old, now are only half true. In reality, Danny and his wife have separated. The incongruity between the lyrics of the song and the reality of family life mirror the overarching plot of the film, in which Harold repeatedly recounts half-true memories to Danny, Jean, and his favorite son, Matthew (Ben Stiller). While both the lyrics of the song and Harold’s memories are sincere, the reality is that both are only slivers of the truth.

Both of Danny’s songs at first listen are cute and work to fill in backstory for the characters, but when listened to more carefully they reveal a deeper theme: hope. In the song sung by Danny and Eliza, the lyrics have the hope of the 9-year-old girl that her family will always stay together. Playing this song not only reminds the two about their shared history but also of an idealized, unbroken family dynamic that they have lost (but since they once had it, maybe they can find it again in one form or another).

Additionally, the song is placed directly after a frustrating scene in which the Meyerowitz family demonstrates just how dysfunctional they are. The song reveals to the audience that they aren’t ok with their family dynamics. They just can’t seem to work through their issues in the present—thus they attempt to retroactively revise their past, however unsuccessfully.

The Meyerowitz Stories is an enlightened meditation on the fact that one’s memory (in the film’s case familial memory) is often only an abstraction of the past, not true fact. The Meyerowitz’s incorrect or half-true memories are held in their minds and reinforced by family members repetitively telling the revised stories. In many cases, the narratives are much more grandiose and forgiving than the actual occurrences. However, these stories get repeated and repeated like the chorus of a song. In this way, these memories become canon in the narrative of the family. The use of the family singing trope makes this point that much more clear.

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