Neil Brand and ‘The Son of the Sheik’

We often forget about the music when watching films. However, music provides meaning. It cleverly manipulates us into thinking about a scene in a certain way. This is no different in sex scenes.

Photo credit: Rachael Burns

Photo credit: Rachael Burns

Dr Andrew Moor and Neil Brand, renowned silent film composer, explored the topic at the first event of Humanities in Public’s Sex strand. The pair presented several classic film clips to explore the relationship between Sex, Film and Music more deeply.

Neil explained that sex has a story: “Who? What? Why?”. Music helps provide this story where other filmic devices fail. It can communicate “what the sexual experience is like” or to “comment outside” of it. This relationship has altered over time: “The ways in which we are presented with sex in films have changed”.

A Streetcar Named Desire was adapted in 1951. Neil explained that sexuality is “a currency” in the film, and is present throughout due to the use of music: “the music conveys sexuality”. The music resembles a “kettle coming to the boil” as the audience can hear the rising sexual tension between Blanche and Stanley. The music allows and releases Blanche’s sexuality, as Neil explains her “arousal has to be heard in the music because it is not expressed in her physicality as Stanley’s is”. Andy exemplified this by remarking that being a “small man being stood so close to a huge Marlon Brando is inexplicably arousing!”.

Photo credit: Rachael Burns

Photo credit: Rachael Burns

Music is used in Don’t Look Now, a 1973 film, in a much different way. Rather than drawing attention to sexuality and expressing it, instead, in this film music “inoculates us to sex”. Andy remarked the “music allows you to pretend you’re not looking at Donald Sutherland’s hairy backside”. He referred to this as “posh sex music”, as opposed to “naughty sex music” which recreates the “physicality” of the sexual scene with a “jazz throb”. Instead, the ‘posh sex music’ used here imposes a “contemplative layer” and makes the audience believe they’re watching something more “wistful” than pornographic!

Moor and Brand then went on to discuss a more recently made film, Shortbus (2006), particularly the song ‘We All Get It In The End’. Andy shared his desire to have the iconic song played at his funeral! The music here creates a “celebration of community” between the film’s characters and the audience.

Music has always been an important accompaniment to film, however, it played an even more vital role in the silent film era. The event featured a film screening of Rudolph Valentino’s final film, The Son of the Sheik. The Son of the Sheik tells the story of an Ahmed (Valentino) who falls in love with a dancing girl named Yasmin. The film followed in the success of Valentino’s The Sheik and soared in popularity, particularly as it was released posthumously. Valentino died two weeks before the film’s release.

Photo credit: Rachael Burns

Photo credit: Rachael Burns

Rudolph Valentino’s death sent him soaring to iconic status and a female hysteria followed. Ridiculous rumours circulated, for example, that a girl stole a finger from his corpse. Dr Moor described Valentino as “dangerously decadent”, referring to the “crisis of masculinity” that accompanied his fame in America. Valentino played many different nationalities, giving his work a level of performance that Andy described as “camp”. The level of “make-believe” in his acting almost permitted a loose female sexuality that was previously frowned upon: “girls were ‘allowed’ to fancy him because he was make-believe”.

Neil discussed playing piano for silent films, admitting he’d never seen the film before and the audience would be getting “music straight off the cuff”! He enlightened the audience to the Moving Picture Moods book that became every 1920s silent pianist’s bible: “every silent film composer has at least 16 bars of Arab material!”.

Watching the film, accompanied by Neil’s piano, was like taking a step back in time to the 1920s. One guest said she “forgot Neil was even playing” because the music was so fused with the events on-screen.

The event was part of the launch event for Humanities in Public's SEX strand

The event was part of the launch event for Humanities in Public’s SEX strand

Whether the music hits you “like a punch in the face” or dissolves into the events on-screen music gives meaning and significance that would be hard to find otherwise. Neil’s job is to do exactly this. In an interview, he told me “the film is essentially a piece of fluff, but it’s my job to make it feel important, immediate, and meaningful”.


This review was also published on the Manchester Metropolitan University website.

This event was part of Humanities in Public’s SEX strand.

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