The Saddest Music in the World

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

17 October

The London Beer Flood, 1814

On this day in 1814, a huge vat containing the equivalent of one million imperial pints of porter ruptured in central London, causing a tidal wave of beer to cascade down the road and through neighbouring houses. Eight people died, either by drowning or underneath the buildings brought down by the liquid. The brewery was owned by Henry Meux (pronounced myooks) and could be found just off the Tottenham Court Road, London, roughly where the Dominion Theatre is today, and its giant vat was one of a series constructed around that time, big vats being ideal for the ageing of porter (a drink not unlike Guinness). Earlier in the day of 17th an iron hoop, weighing around 350kg had fallen off the nearly 7 metre (22 feet) high vat. At 5.30pm the vat burst, taking out the end wall of the brewery, smashing hogsheads and liberating a further 2,100 barrels of beer from another large vat in the cellar below. Among the people who died were a four year old girl and a party of people who had gathered to mourn the loss of a two-year-old boy who had died the previous day. One of those who died was his mother.

The Saddest Music in the World (2003, dir: Guy Maddin)

“If you’re sad and like beer, I’m your lady” says Isabella Rossellini, who plays the beer baroness who, at the height of the Great Depression, sponsors a contest to find the world’s saddest tune. Guy Maddin’s insane gothic musical was the first of his films that I’d seen. Possibly only matched by My Winnipeg for accomplishment and accessibility (if you persist), it’s a darkly comic, dizzy musical based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day) and we join the action as Winnipeg (Maddin’s home town) has been chosen for the third time by The Times of London as the “world capital of sorrow”. Hence the competition launched by Lady Port-Huntly (Rossellini) to match music to the metropolis, the winner to be paid in “Depression-era dollars”, the whole thing supposedly taking place in 1933. Shooting in black and white on 8mm and then blowing the picture up, Maddin achieves a grainy quality, old school but not quite (see 2011’s Keyhole for something similar), not quite pastiche, not quite recreation, as if we’re looking at the past through a distorting mirror that also produces halo effects. The effect is slightly unnerving, unique, and things continue in that direction once the actual competition kicks off, when we’re treated to a series of songs from an assortment of oddball variety acts – bagpipes and pygmies and a hockey team being three notables. Though it’s in English it’s like watching a comedy in a foreign language, one with a peculiarly dry sense of humour. David Lynch is in there somewhere, undoubtedly (let’s not forget that Rossellini had turned up in Blue Velvet) though the weird humour and point of view is all Maddin’s.

Why Watch?

  • To see Rossellini getting her legs amputated
  • Who said arthouse can’t be funny?
  • A good place to start with a unique film-maker
  • False legs, made of glass and filled with beer!

The Saddest Music in the World – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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