Thursday, August 13, 2009

Music on The Wire

I'm into the second season of The Wire now, and today I noticed that Asst. State's Attorney Rhonda Pearlman seems to have similar musical tastes to mine. In the first season, she was listening to Lucinda Williams (something from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, as I recall), and in the episode I watched today she was listening to "Goodbye to Carolina," a deep cut from Lyle Lovett's I Love Everybody.

It's pretty impressive, I think, that from season to season the characters' musical tastes are given attention and coherence. And the music chosen is just damn good, in general.

In the first season, I thought I heard Freamon listening to jazz saxophonist Hank Mobley in the office; later he and and Jimmy go to a bar where the great Miles Davis album Kind of Blue is playing. At the end of one episode, Daniels is listening to Ellington's "Fleurette Africaine," a haunting tune from the album he did with Mingus and Roach, Money Jungle, which itself is a great description of the world of The Wire. Later there's a scene in Daniels' house, I think it is, where he's listening to Coltrane.

The music is often chosen for thematic or slyly humorous purposes. In Avon Barksdale's strip club the dj is playing Bill Withers's "Use Me," for instance. There's a hilarious scene in the first episode of season two when Boadie is driving through Philadelphia listening to Garrison Keillor, and a witty use of the song "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" as the maverick McNulty plots to get revenge on Rawls for plunking his ass on a boat.

It's attention to details like these that make this show so enjoyable to watch.


Sean Collins said...

And David Chase almost always employs diegetic music — music that comes from within the scene: a radio, a CD player, etc. The few times he uses non-diegetic music, it's especially powerful because you suddenly are aware that he's making a statement as author of the work.

And if I remember correctly, he combines the two in episode 10 of Season 2, "Storm Warnings." Pryzbylewski begins listening to Johnny Cash "I Walk the Line" in the office, and Chase x-fades to a non-diegetic copy of the same tune for a (rare) montage of the city, then x-fades back to Pryzbylewski's tape in the office. It's brilliant.

No one pays that much attention to music on TV.

madandy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
madandy said...

And he uses music structurally, having the same song sung by differently artists in the introduction, which affirms the cyclical nature of power and relationships in the show. I can't wait till you finish this season. It is my favorite.

Sean Collins said...

I wrote David Chase. Should read David Simon.

framiko said...

Great point about the diegetic/non-diegetic music. I guess that's why the music is so expressive of character—because for the most part the music has actually been chosen by the characters themselves. Jimmy McNulty's oldies, dockworker Frank's "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)," Freamon's jazz, the drug dealers' SUV-shaking hip-hop.

Incidentally, there's an interesting moment in Funny People (the new Judd Apatow movie, which has more soul than his others but probably doesn't deserve all the attention it's been getting from the New Yorker), featuring a live version of James Taylor doing "Carolina in My Mind," which you think is non-diegetic, but then turns out to be diegetic.

Sounds similar to what you're describing in Episode 10.

Good point too, madandy, about the implications of the different versions of "Way Down in the Hole." In each season, though the particulars may change, it's the same old song—of power, corruption, self-interest....yet also, perhaps, something more admirable in humanity.

framiko said...

McNulty was listening to "Ruler of My Heart," by Irma Thomas in the episode I just watched. Sweet.

Anonymous said...

There's a great WIRE "best of" soundtrack CD that includes both music and important moments of dialogue from the whole series. Get it only after you've finished the whole series to avoid spoilers. I'll see if I can find it in my car or house or get my wife or tween to burn a copy for you.

--Your WIRE obsessed colleague