This essay explores music’s power to explicate, exaggerate, and even undermine moving images, examining first the marriage of sound and film through the invention of the Vitaphone and later illustrating the maturation of this marriage through an exegesis of Nicholas Britell’s score for the popular television show Succession. The Vitaphone debuted with Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, a film that made Jolson a household name and further popularized the vaudeville tradition of blackface. It is no coincidence that the synchronization of sound and film—a major innovation that would change the way we think of both for decades to come—had such racist origins, as the history of American innovation is also the history of capitalist white supremacy. Succession concerns the Roys, a legacy media family whose scion, Kendall, considers himself an innovator. Through Britell’s instrumentals, which are written to reflect Kendall’s ups and downs, we come to understand the score not as a simple, uncritical accompaniment of Succession’s images (as the Vitaphone was for The Jazz Singer) but as an anticapitalist voice of its own, delivering criticisms of Kendall’s avarice and cultural appropriation while still evincing compassion for him as he plunges deeper into addiction. This essay maintains that sound in film, a technology with troubling origins, is now capable of asserting itself apart from that film and thus delivering a dialectical criticism of those very origins.
Hearing Is Believing
R.A. Frumkin (they/them) is an assistant professor of creative writing at Southern Illinois University. They are a novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist, and critic, having published works of these genres in outlets such as Granta, Guernica, the Washington Post, the Paris Review, McSweeney’s, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Their novel, The Comedown, was published by Henry Holt in 2018 and translated into Italian by SEM Libri as Questioni di Famiglia in 2019. The TV rights to The Comedown were recently acquired by Freddie Highmore’s production studio and the project is in development. Rebekah is currently at work on a collection of short stories and a second novel.
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R.A. Frumkin; Hearing Is Believing. Resonance 1 March 2021; 2 (1): 19–26. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/res.2021.2.1.19
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