9 Songs Review
By telling its narrative through the elements which the mainstream would deem as ephemera, 9 Songs sets itself up as an undoubtedly experimental work. Director Michael Winterbottom hopes to communicate a love story solely through real, unsimulated sex, inane chitchat and the nine songs of the title as performed by various bands in person and (almost always) in their entirety. As such the film is hardly an epic like a number of his works - only two actors as opposed to the multi-character intricacies of Wonderland and 24 Hour Party People; digitally shot present day setting as opposed to the bigger budget recreations of the past found in Jude and The Claim - an aspect also reflected in its length. Indeed, the 66 minute running time again points towards its experimental nature - this feels more like a side project than a genuine feature, something akin to the brief video pieces which Jean-Luc Godard would construct prior to his features during the eighties.
The problem is that owing to its sexual content 9 Songs has attracted the kind of attention that such a minor work cannot really sustain and thus produced an unwelcome friction. Should we view the film as simply an experiment or give it some greater importance? If the latter then 9 Songs undoubtedly fails. It’s not a work which provides any great answers or even fully engages with its audiences, certainly not a wide one. Rather it’s a niche piece that may very well gains its own followers, but the majority are likely to denounce it as inconsequential and ephemeral - which to a degree, given its nature, is exactly what it is.
Yet if we do engage with the film on a wholly experimental level, then it doesn’t always prove a success. 9 Songs enacts a number of balancing acts and the pros don’t always outweigh the cons. On the one hand, it’s a remarkable work in terms of its immediacy. The digital cameras get truly up close to their subjects whilst the almost complete lack of stylisation means that the reality continually comes through, an element of course enhances by the fact that the various sex scenes are genuine. And yet, we are never able to fully engage with the film as we are continually drawn to various logistical questions with regards to this reality. We wonder, for example, how the scenes at the numerous gigs were captured. Or whether a certain moment is scripted, improvised or, essentially, documentary; if the sex scenes are really and the gigs unstaged then does that mean that the drug taking scenes are as well or in the instance with the lapdancer?
A similar situation is present with the various musical numbers. Whilst they most certainly impress and capture both the essence of the respective performers and their essential liveness (the cameras stay within the audience who are also continually audible), it’s also questionable as to what exactly their overall purpose is. In many ways they often appear simply as a means of bulking out the narrative or providing a respite from the otherwise near-constant sexual activity. The only other conceivable option is that they are in some providing clues to the narrative - given 9 Songs’ nature we continually force ourselves to do this - but if this is the case then Winterbottom is guilty of being obvious in the extreme. As the relationship slowly peters out, its trajectory is echoed in the song selection. Early on we get the euphoric, upbeat likes of ‘C’mon C’mon’ by the Von Bondies and Primal Scream’s ‘Movin’ on Up’, a mood which is later replaced by the more reflective nature of the Michael Nyman and Super Furry Animals numbers. Even if we pick up on the various lyrical snippets, the same is true with many be so obvious as to become banal. (Something not readily associated with the likes of Doves and Franz Ferdinand.)
Interesting, the Michael Nyman piece (an excerpt from his soundtrack to Winterbottom’s Wonderland incidentally) is used on more than one occasion to score the sex scenes which would suggest that the director is still not averse to using tried and tested mainstream methods. The music - especially when drowning out any signs of diegetic noise - makes us, at these points, process the film in the same way we would a Hollywood sex scene, and if we are doing it here then should we not also do elsewhere? In other words, should we look for a direct, easily consumed narrative within 9 Songs and thus leave with all of our questions answered? Yet if we do so then each scene must in some way convey a significance, something which doesn’t always exist.
Moreover, if we are forced to look at the film in this way then a number of scenes simply outstay their welcome as their relevance is often immediately apparent. What’s especially damaging about this is that owing to the film’s sexual content it takes on an uneasy voyeuristic edge. One particular scene - in which lead actress Margo Stilley masturbates - gets its point across long before Winterbottom cuts and thus attains a nasty aftertaste.
What we’re left with then is merely a curiosity. Not so much from the perspective of Winterbottom’s career - his output is currently too erratic and diverse to take on a cumulative significance - but from a wholly censorial point of view. As such it is likely to remembered as a groundbreaking work, but perhaps less so for other reasons. For a film intended to be simplicity itself, 9 Songs continually complicates itself too much for its own good.
Shot on digital cameras, 9 Songs perhaps looks as good as could be expected under the circumstances. The photography is intentionally dingy and underlit and both aspects are captured perfectly well by the disc. Certainly, there are no technical difficulties to speak of, the anamorphic transfer (at a ratio 1.78:1) being fine. As for the soundtrack, options of DD2.0 and DD5.1 are offered. Given the films musical nature, the latter is far preferable giving a real sense of the bands and musicians in performance as well as capturing the low-key dialogue without fuss.
The special features are sadly minimal though some do prove rewarding. Author Tom Dewe Matthews provides an introduction which covers both censorship as a whole and 9 Songs in particular. When discussing the latter he’s interesting, especially when relating the BBFC’s reaction, but otherwise he speaks in generalisations too often (British cinematic sex equals only the Carry On and Confessions series) and with an annoyingly patronising edge.
More rewarding are the interviews, especially as 9 Songs leaves its audience with plenty of questions, both in terms of its content and its production. Understandably director Winterbottom and actors Stilley and Kieran O’Brien each see the film from a different perspective which makes each a rewarding listen. Indeed, much of what they say is very interesting, although unlikely to sway your opinions of the film itself.
The extras package is rounded off by a music-only option (unexpectedly handy as the film has, perhaps unsurprisingly, only nine chapters) plus the theatrical trailer and promos for some of Optimum’s other releases.