Feats of Strength: Tabu and “Be My Baby”

The quality that I appreciate the most about Netflix is the sheer breadth of its library.  As much as I loved spending time at local video stores, poring over their collections, the range of their selections paled in comparison to Netflix.  It is easy to pick up on unexpected gems which slipped under the radar, like I did a few weeks ago with the film Tabu.  While it was appreciated by many cinephiles, unfortunately for the most part the Portuguese movie went unnoticed by filmgoers here in the States.

I highly recommend that you check out Tabu at some point, but I wanted to highlight one of the most powerful scenes in the film and specifically how the careful use of music help contributed to its potency.  The story mainly centers around a long-ago love affair between a married woman and young drummer, set in the backdrop of colonial Mozambique.  Throughout the film, the director peppers in performances of the drummer into the story, splicing in clips of old Phil Spector classics and syncing them up with the actors, and providing an intriguing juxtaposition with the African setting.  The use of these oldies helps contribute to a feeling of nostalgia in the viewer, enhancing the narrative recollections of the drummer of his long-lost love.

The classic song “Be My Baby” has been used several times over the years specifically for evoking those feelings of nostalgia, most memorably in Dirty Dancing, but in this particular scene the director Miguel Gomes is mining the pathos inherent in the music.  In this scene, the couple has decided that it would be best to end the affair, though both are heartbroken by the decision.  We first see the result of the breakup through the eyes of Aurora, as she hears the song playing on the radio; we are then taken to the studio where the song is being performed, with Gian-Luca drumming along.  It is an emotional moment, as neither person can finish the song without crying–and because the scene is so expertly constructed, neither can the viewer.

The use of old Phil Spector songs is one example of the film’s several interesting and sly comments on colonialism.  For example, the version of “Be My Baby” from the climactic scene highlighted above is not the original song from The Ronettes, but a Spanish cover by the group Les Surfs.  Les Surfs were a family act from Madagascar that achieved their greatest fame from covering English hits in different languages, reversing in some ways the earlier scenes of the colonial musicians playing songs in their original form.  The central love story between the Portuguese colonizers ends up being a footnote in the revolution that would soon take place in Mozambique, with the narrator mentioning in passing how the events help spark the initial fighting.   And in fact the title of the film is a direct reference to Murnau’s silent film of the same name which explores colonialism from an earlier perspective.  There are many layers to Tabu, all of which are worth exploring.

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