The films of Whit Stillman might not be for everyone, but they certainly do the trick for us. Plenty has been written, often in quite some depth, about the themes and issues dealt with in his films, so I have decided to focus on some of the music that he uses.
Popular music plays an important part in all of his three films to date: Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days Of Disco. Of course, this is most obvious in the last of these, with its soundtrack of wall-to-wall disco classics. I feel that his choice of music is more than simply nostalgic scene-setting though, as much of this music reflects both the hedonistic high-life that Stillman’s characters aspire to, and also the bittersweet sense of youthful searching and emotional confusion that pervades his films.
“Shame” by Evelyn “Champagne” King (from The Last Days Of Disco)
Stillman is also adept at the humorous and memorable juxtaposition of music and images, as when the Italo-Disco classic Dolce Vita soundtracks the inevitable collapse of the heedless and irresponsible disco-era way of life (as exemplified by the downfall of the Studio 54-esque nightclub at the centre of the film).
“Dolce Vita” by Ryan Paris (from The Last Days Of Disco)
There is an interesting scene in Stillman’s second film, Barcelona, in which the protagonist, an expat American salesman, connects with a Spanish girl over a love of the “disco music of the late seventies…despite what everyone else thought”.
“You’ve Got What It Takes (To Please Your Woman)” by Silver Convention (from Barcelona)
As well as being escapist “party” music, disco represents a badge of identity, both aspirational and nostalgic, to Stillman’s characters. This is most memorably expressed in the following climactic monologue from The Last Days Of Disco:
Some people find Whit Stillman’s characters objectionable, and there is certainly no doubt that their pretensions and attitudes are sent up by the director to some extent. However, the universal human emotions that the director and actors also convey are what, for me, elevate his films above straightforward social satire.
For example, the environment and lexicon of the characters in Stillman’s debut film, Metropolitan, may be very particular, but the feelings and desires they experience would surely be familiar to most young people. I think the director indicates this occasionally with his choice of music. Despite the film focussing exclusively on white, upper-middle class characters, a number of key scenes are conspicuously soundtracked by classic R&B. This music represents a very different part of the social spectrum, but like the film, expresses equally universal human emotion and experience.
“Dry Your Eyes” by Brenda & The Tabulations (from Metropolitan)