Classical music is as important as photography in Terence Davies’ elegiac film about the people and city of Liverpool in the last century. Archive film of labouring lives, in streets and homes, factories and docks, are underscored by great washes of Mahler, Brahms. Perotin and Tavener. It’s almost always the slow movements and their juxtaposition with the images of hard lives is very moving.
The meaning, though, is ambiguous. The music is one artist’s addition to pictures filmed by other artists with their own, perhaps complex, intentions. Does its introduction signify the essential dignity of people struggling to make the most of the mean hand they’ve been dealt? Or does it inspire sadness at the waste of human potential produced by industrial society? Perhaps it’s like the Last Post, simply a requiem for what has been lost.
The music itself cannot have been familiar or valued by many of those over whose faces it plays, if only because poverty will have kept them out of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra‘s concerts. Even radios will often have been beyond their means, at least before the 1960s. And that is before the question of taste. There’s a short burst of the Hippy Hippy Shake to introduce a brief (and refreshingly unsentimental) appearance by The Beatles, then Davies explains that he lost interest in popular music when Presley arrives, turning entirely to classical work and his ‘beloved Bruckner’. But that was not the experience of most of his fellow Liverpudlians, who followed The Beatles into liberating new worlds, and it is hard not to feel that Davies is reclaiming his city’s soundscape for the music that he values.
But ambiguity is one of art’s – particularly music’s – great qualities. It keeps real art alive, restlessly shifting between possibilities, between interpretations, between meanings. So the uncertainty of Davies’ intentions (to me, not to him) is central to this film’s power. With its other qualities – its formal beauty, its passion and bitterness, its narrative subtlety – this ambiguity is part of what makes you want to watch Of Time and the City again, even as it ends. It’s one reason why the film can speak in its intensely local accents to people across the world, and one reason why it’s likely to be watched long after the pleasing but forgettable films made the same year.
Without the music, the film would be less moving and less interesting, easier to understand, but less meaningful.