How ‘Sharp Objects’ Uses Music to Create a Dialogue with the Dead

     August 24, 2018

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Warning: Spoilers for Sharp Objects through the penultimate episode, “Falling.”

Music is a tether to the past, a time machine that doesn’t require advanced technology. A song can transport a person back to a different place; the emotions felt on a particular day instantly rush to the surface with a tap of a screen or the drop of a needle. In Sharp Objects, fragmented memories appear out of sequence, as if someone is skipping through an album on shuffle because the songs are too painful to listen to in full. Flashes of scenes from Camille’s (Amy Adams / Sophia Lillis) childhood are often accompanied by music that didn’t come from this period of her life. Led Zeppelin is not a band that was heard in the Crellin household. Instead, this is from her recent past, another moment to haunt her, but which also acts as a salvation.

“Let’s get out of here,” whispers Camille to her roommate Alice (Sydney Sweeney) during a flashback in Episode 3, “Fix” — at the facility where they are both receiving treatment for self-harm. She is not talking about making a physical escape from the confines of this building; Alice’s iPhone provides a different kind of vacation from this existence. Shared headphones transports them via Robert Plant’s vocals, “Thank You” is their way out. But it doesn’t last, when Alice drinks Drano — or poison, as Richard calls it — Camille grabs the nearest thing she can do harm herself with, a bolt from the toilet seat. The blood droplets are an image that have been part of Camille’s visual playlist throughout the first few episodes. It’s one mystery solved in a sea of traumatic memories punctuated by violent acts.

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Image via HBO

Director Jean-Marc Vallée has always used music in his films to enhance what we know about a character’s pain; in Wild, the Simon & Garfunkel song El Cóndor Pasa weaves its way throughout Cheryl’s (Reese Witherspoon) journey as an echo of her mother. And in Big Little Lies, Jane (Shailene Woodley) listens to music while running as a means of escape. She screams into the void, before shaking things off at home with her own private dance party to the appropriately named B-52’s track, “Dance This Mess Around.” Emmy-award winning music supervisor Susan Jacobs has collaborated with Vallée on each of these projects, and she has referred to the director as “a painter with music.”

But unlike the playlist curators in the stories of of Wild and Big Little Lies, Camille’s musical influence is a much more recent addition. She tells Alice in Episode 3, “It’s not really my thing, music.” There is a lot to explain why Camille is so fucked up, but this comment underscores the sterile nature of the house Camille grew up in.

Music wasn’t completely absent from Camille’s childhood, but Alan’s (Henry Czerny) perfectly manicured listening arrangement isn’t particularly welcoming. The strains of crooner Engelbert Humperdinck still drift throughout the house, but as Adora (Patricia Clarkson) and Alan dance to “The Way it Used to Be,” Camille has a visceral reaction to being there, which causes her to flee. Alan uses music as a way to avoid the truth of what his wife is doing to his children; the one that died and the one who is now being poisoned.

Alan only wants to make his wife happy, he rarely speaks out. When he does he is met with scorn. His pain about the death of Marian (Lulu Wilson) is swallowed whole by Adora, but he is also complicit in his silence. Sticking on headphones and listening to French music does not assuage his guilt — he can only shut out so much and for so long. “Go relax. Play some music,” Adora directs in the penultimate episode, “Falling,” as she makes more “medicine” swaying to Les Parapluies de Cherbourg by Nana Mouskouri. As Amma (Eliza Scanlen) goes from room to room upstairs, the song drifts up the stairs, but it provides little comfort.  

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Image via HBO

At the end of this episode, Alan’s choice of song brings these swirling memories of Amma to the forefront. “Down in the Willow Garden” is a traditional murder ballad about a condemned man waiting to be executed after he poisoned, stabbed, and then drowned his lover. If you didn’t listen to the content of the lyrics, then the dulcet tones of the Everly Brothers’ harmonizing could be misinterpreted as a sweet love song — it comes from the album “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.” The darkness bubbles on the surface as he dances with Amma. This is one of the most pointed song choices of Sharp Objects, taking us to the credits of the penultimate episode as it is now clear how Marian died. The mystery of Natalie (Jessica Treska) and Ann’s (Kaegan Baron) deaths has yet to be resolved, but there is something rotten in the Crellin house that no amount of crooning music can cover up. Alan’s salvation is now infected; the violent beginnings of Wind Gap that were celebrated a few weeks ago seep into every corner of this town.

Camille doesn’t have a song or a band that remind her of growing up in this town, but the music she listens to because of Alice has become an anthem for both her deceased sister and the half-sister who skates in her place. Instead, the soundtrack of her youth are sounds rather than songs: a fan, roller skates, pigs, and the railway. Vallée’s use of diegetic sounds and songs is disorientating because we hear what the characters do, which often amounts to a snippet of a track — as if you’re listening to a free preview on iTunes.

The sounds of nature in the woods all around Wind Gap is part of the town’s fabric. It’s a sound Camille can’t escape in the past or the present. It is the soundtrack to the sexual assault in the woods she can’t call by its name. Led Zeppelin becomes her way to “get out of here” as an adult, a memory that pops into her mind as she skates with Amma after taking ecstasy. Music at this moment is like medication, it is also her dialogue with the dead. Songs can’t bring back Marian and Alice, but it can allow Camille to converse with them in fragments. Songs can’t save Natalie and Ann, but they can help Camille put the pieces together in order to solve their murders.

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Image via HBO

Songs, like memories repeat throughout Sharp Objects. It’s not just Led Zeppelin that appears on numerous occasions; M. Ward, The Acid, and Hurray for the Riff Raff are all artists that get multiple plays. Engelbert Humperdinck even sneaks in at a high school party as Amma injects some of her father’s influence into her wasted antics.

One song that you might not have noticed playing on repeat is the opening credits. At first listen it doesn’t sound connected week-to-week. But it is actually different versions of “Dance and Angela” from the 1951 film A Place in the Sun. Music supervisor Susan Jacobs explains, the thought behind this as “Each version of the song gives us a broader representation of the complexity of all the characters.” Sometimes it is clearly Camille, such as The Acid’s penultimate episode track, or it’s Alan getting a shot at the start of “Fix”  when Alexandra Streliski is the chosen artist. The first track that plays in this episode is also by this artist, and comes straight from Alan’s record collection. There is musical consistency in Sharp Objects, but we don’t know what the title track will sound like until the needle drops, which only adds to the disorientating atmosphere. On Big Little Lies, the title music by Michael Kiwanuka is like a balm, it washes over you, but on Sharp Objects, there is no such salve.

Ultimately, the shattered screen of Alice’s iPhone mirrors Vallée’s fractured use of music and memory in the series. Songs are used to remember, as well as forget; to ignore the reality of what is taking place in Wind Gap and within the walls of Crellin house. There is no amount of Led Zeppelin or Engelbert Humperdinck that can keep those secrets from surfacing, it is only a matter of time. Headphones can only block out the truth for so long.  

The Sharp Objects finale airs Sunday, August 26th on HBO.

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