The Emotional Magic of a Perfect Lip-Synching Moment

By  · Published on September 5th, 2014

Roadside Attractions

In the middle of all the drama and intense suicidal issues that make up The Skeleton Twins, Bill Hader’s Milo breaks into song, but it is not Hader’s voice ringing out, it is Starship’s Mickey Thomas explaining that “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” It’s an excellent moment, delivering a greater impact than it would have had the song simply played over the scene.

From musicals to pop montages, we frequently see the lyrics of a song say things a character cannot (or will not) say, which allows each film to get a character’s internal emotion across without direct action. But when a character embraces a song by lip-synching to it, it lets the characters play along.

What’s more, a character’s awareness of a song typically heightens a song’s impact because it seems (at least) to come from the character instead of the production team. It can be a powerful illusion.

There are a bunch of great songs featured in The Skeleton Twins (Blondie’s “Denis,” Randy & The Rainbows “Denise,” and John Grant’s “Outter Space), but Starship’s tune stands out because it is a song Milo chose to not only play, but perform to. He could have launched into a funny or serious or moving monologue directed at his sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig), but all he really wants to do is cheer her up. Cue the 1980s pop hit.

As Kate Erbland noted in FSR’s round up of the best films from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The Skeleton Twins is, “… sad, silly, and ultimately moving” and this scene perfectly embrace all these different emotions. Milo and Maggie are dealing with some heavy problems, which are certainly hinted at in the song’s lyrics, but what this scene needed was a moment of levity and Milo’s performance fit that bill perfectly, swirling every feeling into a cathartic mix.

For two siblings back together in their hometown, it’s natural for them to start reminiscing (and falling back into old habits), which makes a pop song from the past feel like a natural choice. This is a song Milo and Maggie probably grew up listening to (after multiple viewings of Mannequin) and this scene feels like a real glimpse into their childhood together – complete with choreographed dance moves. Milo is unquestionably entertaining as he embraces Thomas’ part on his own, but it is when Maggie finally gives in to “sing” Grace Slick’s part that the palpable connection between these estranged siblings truly comes to life and says more than mere unsung (unsynched?) words ever could.

Milo and Maggie’s rendition of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is not the first time a well-chosen song has been lip-synched to and allowed a character to embrace their emotions while still being true to their character. Housecleaning will never look the same after watching Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn do it to Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Live and Let Die” in American Hustle. Even though she is technically singing along more than truly lip-synching, Rosalyn’s performance still makes the song the focus of the scene while her erratic dance moves say everything you need to know about her dizzy state. The aggressive song works for Rosalyn’s mindset at this point in the film, but having her interact with the song (instead of only listening to it) gives the song even more meaning because she’s choosing to adopt the song and its lyrics to fully act as her emissary. It feels like an extension of Rosalyn – a loose cannon trapped in her domestic role and clamoring for release.

Where Rosalyn’s performance is more of a personal crusade and Milo’s performance is intended to get Maggie to smile, Pretty In Pink’s Duckie (Jon Cryer) lip-syncs to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” for Andie (Molly Ringwald) and Iona (Annie Potts). Duckie is not necessarily shy, but he has moments where he cannot quite say how he feels and this scene offers a shocking change both in Duckie’s bold entrance and in how he abruptly channels Redding through his passionate dance moves. Duckie desperately needs to tell Andie how he feels, but it would be too sharp a character turn for him to do it straightforwardly, making this scene the perfect way to let him say his feelings without betraying the true nature of his quirky, silly character.

Films like Blue Velvet use lip-synching to hint at something much more ominous (an impassioned performance of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” precedes a brutal beat down) while Ferris Bueller’s Day Off uses it to great comedic effect through the film’s infamous parade scene. The key that links all these different scenes is how the lip-synching element elevates the use of music in the scene by allowing the characters to re-interpret the song and make it their own. We know Ferris (Matthew Broderick) is a cut up, but who knew he was also a Wayne Newton fan?

Music is a key ingredient in any film and is made even more powerful when it becomes an active part of the narrative. Singing along to a song is something a character can certainly do with passion (looking at you, Jerry Maguire), but lip-synching takes a song beyond appreciation into performance.

The Skeleton Twins hits theaters Friday, September 12th.