The Musical Pulse of Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend”

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Between my numerous entries on Weekend and studies of the HBO series Looking, I think I’ve written more on the works of Andrew Haigh than just about anything. There is something terrifically addicting about the art he brings us – I’m drawn to his work first because it’s genuinely good, and upon each viewing I uncover something new, and am pulled deeper into the experience. He is absolutely a talent to keep an eye out for, and I eagerly anticipate seeing his latest film 45 Years (if/when it ever crosses the Atlantic!)

With Weekend (my introduction to Haigh), one of the initial draws was the strong musical soundtrack – I downloaded the two John Grant songs almost instantly, and gradually compiled as much of the (unofficial) soundtrack as I could. These songs have swirled in my mind over the past couple years and gradually brewed into the piece you are about to read. (And for the record, Looking has an excellent soundtrack as well!) The below piece is SPOILER-HEAVY so read with caution.

Andrew Haigh’s Weekend exemplifies contemporary neorealism in several regards. One way is through its narrative structure: we follow the main protagonist Russell along every step of his journey – his solitary walks to the bars, his bike rides to work, even him putting on shoes. Each aspect of his life is documented and compiled as part of the experience we share with him. Even visually, this is further communicated through numerous wide shots rather than close-ups, imagery of of Russell in a broader landscape, like the Manchester buses and on his lifeguard station at work. His frequent, though authentically staged, isolation is communicated to us in nearly every scene without Glen.

We not only see elements of neorealism, though; we also hear them. Weekend‘s sound design has a mostly atypical cinematic soundtrack to speak of – few”out-of-body,” omnipresent musical selections that only we, the viewer, can hear. The film opens with virtual silence as Russell gets ready to go out. The only sounds heard are the soft splashes of his bath, the crinkle of his shoebox lining, the tick of his lighter.

Not only does this instantly convey a sense of realism (which will permeate throughout the film through the aforementioned elements), but it also conditions our senses to take notice when music does happen. The songs, while played within some authentic, real-world setting of someone’s house, a dance club, etc., are frankly so few and far between that they carry a noticeable weight and significance all their own. All (good) soundtracks should include musical selections that support and communicate the story, and it’s even more impressive that Weekend can do so within its own neorealistic boundaries of when a song can be heard.

In chronological order, here is a timeline of the musical moments in Weekend:

Song: “William Posters” by Milk.

Jamie recounts a story of when he and Russell were kids getting into trouble. He describes Russell as being “stoned out of [his] mind” as they fled from a massive fire (which, presumably, they started). Russell smokes and sits back as Jamie gives us our first real introduction to his past.

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Song: “Oubliette” by Milk.

Jamie & Russell talk about Lois’s (Jamie’s daughter, Russell’s goddaughter) upcoming birthday party. Jamie asks how Russell has been, since he’s been keeping “a low profile recently;” Russell replies that he may be up for a promotion at work, though he looks like he has more to say.

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Another guest at the party interrupts them and sits between the two, and even takes Russell’s hat to tease him.

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In the next shot, we cut to silence. Russell has left the party and is saying goodbye to Jamie.

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Song: Club pop music.

Russell goes to a club. He and Glen have their first “encounter” and exchange glances, but Glen walks somewhere else – as we later find out, Russell was his #2 choice for that night. Russell is stuck dancing with the “hobbit,” who pathetically keeps trying to kiss him. There is a laugh-oud-loud moment when during the pop jam thumping overhead, the singer sneers, “We, we like to tear it down.” as a clearly disinterested Russell nurses his beer whilst being fondled by the hobbit.

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No music is heard for about 30 minutes. During this time, Russell wakes up with Glen in his flat. They are initially a bit awkward, trying to recount the events of last night. Before Glen leaves, though, they exchange numbers.

While Russell is at work, he and Glen text, meet up after, then head back to Russell’s apartment. Before Glen leaves, he lets Russell know he is leaving for Portland the following day, and invites him to his going-away party that night. The next musical moment is:

Song: “Bang Bang Cherry” by Hook & The Twin.

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“Bang Bang Cherry” pairs a slinky guitar riff with a fire alarm-esque keyboard screech. The natural rhythm of the song progresses in a mostly traditional way, interrupted occasionally by the off-putting keyboard sound.

This complements the action onscreen well – Russell arrives at what he was expecting to be a gay club for Glen’s going-away shindig. As he’s waiting for Glen, he orders two beers, only to find out Glen doesn’t like beer. When Russell asks why he chose this venue, Glen remarks, tongue-in-cheek, that it’s “a bit more fun, isn’t it, than your normal gay bar?”

Much like the song heard thumping overhead, Russell’s arrival and his exchange with Glen does not quite transpire how we would expect. The alarm also (literally) warns us for some of the fires still to come.

Song: “We’re So Light” by Hook & The Twin.

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“We’re So Light” builds up from a pulsating keyboard line, drum machine, ripping guitar licks, and stacked vocals to build an almost-overwhelming whirlpool of sound.

As this song throbs in the background, Russell learns more about Glen’s past from Glen’s roommate Jill. She asks, “Has [Glen] told you about John? […] This is way back when he did boyfriends.” and elaborates on John’s exploits, including cheating regularly on Glen, even getting beaten up after cruising in a public park. The camera remains stagnant on Russell, as the gravity of this bizarre past of the man he thinks he knows weighs him down. He realizes he doesn’t know Glen as well as he thought.

Song: “William Posters” by Milk.

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This is the only song to appear in Weekend twice. The first time we hear it (as mentioned above) is when Jamie is describing an anecdote from his and Russell’s past – a humorous, but not embarrassing, experience Jamie shares with the other guests at his home.

This second instance of this song is a much more private affair. Russell, who logs a diary of sexual encounters, shares this very intimate journal with Glen; we get the impression Russell has never shared this with anyone before.

On another (more narrative) note, it is interesting too that the same song is heard twice within roughly 24 hours of this film’s timespan. It is not unlikely that Jamie and Russell, friends since age 12, be fans of the same band, in this case Milk, especially given that this same Milk song played at Jamie’s house one night and at Russell’s the following night.

Song: “TC and Honeybear” by John Grant

My favorite musical moment in the entire film. Russell and Glen have just had a major argument, spanning marriage as an institution to owning pets to the elephant in the room: what their relationship is now, and what it will be. Russell, upset, steps away to the restroom. While he’s in there, Glen plays “TC and Honeybear” – Russell hears it muffled, coming from the living room.

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This song is a soft, acoustic guitar-driven ballad. As Russell leaves the restroom and walks down the hallway, we hear the lyrics: “Before that, Honeybear had given up. He felt so sad and lonely.”

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As he enters the living room, we hear: “Then one night, he looked up and he saw, he saw his one and only.” And he joins Glen at the window, as they look out into the night.

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One could certainly connect the lyrics of “TC and Honeybear” to Weekend as an essay all on its own. I view “Honeybear” as Russell – a quiet, reserved man lacking confidence, while “TC” represents Glen – a catalyst, someone to bring him out of his shell.

The song slows down with a ritardando and picks back up with a lovely  instrumental interlude with flute. Russell grabs Glen’s hand.

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Song: “Marz” by John Grant

Russell returns, alone, from the train station. He stands in the balcony and opens the package Glen gave him.

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He presses play and hears his own voice. “Um — I don’t know. I can hardly remember anything.”

Glen: “Just start from the beginning, when you first saw me.”

The gloomy piano riff of “Marz” begins. The lyrics tell of longing, optimism, waiting for something better.

This musical moment is particularly striking because of how different it is from all others that preceded it – this is the first and only “out-of-body” piece of the soundtrack. All other songs heard in the film take place within the strict context of the story – played in a club, in Russell’s apartment, at Jamie’s house. We are the only people to hear this song, and it isn’t playing really anywhere (in the Weekend universe, at least).

This is also the first and only song heard when Russell is really alone. Every other piece heard in the film is in some situation where Russell is with others, and even the way the scenes play out illustrate Russell’s character relative to those around him. We know he’s shy from how he lets Jamie speak on their behalf and tell his childhood story, during “William Posters.” We chuckle at the irony of his encounter with the pathetic hobbit in the club as “We like to tear it down” echoes overhead. We observe the tenderness between him and Glen as “TC and Honeybear” hums in his living room. But in “Marz,” we get Russell – just Russell.

So why does this matter? Looking at Weekend as Russell’s story, of him coming to terms with himself and his identity, the musical moments are another element building up to his self-acceptance, and us finally getting into Russell’s head. The film maintains multi-sensory levels of separation between Russell and the world around him – through its wide shots, of Russell as one small piece of a broader ecosystem, to its neorealistic musical soundtrack design, creating a confounding disconnect between action and emotion.

We break both of these barriers in this “Marz” sequence. We get close-ups of Russell, just Russell, alone in his apartment. We hear the song directly, not through an incidental, secondary channel like a radio or DJ, but as the sole audio track heard. The impact is so strong, it feels like the fourth wall has been broken – a surprising push from a mostly subdued neorealistic drama. This finale is a moment of purity, an unclouded look at Russell. It offers a chance for introspection, not only for Russell, but possibly even ourselves.

A weekend is a short amount of time, and a 97-minute movie is even shorter. It is truly a testament to filmmaking, and the emotional impact of music, of how much can change in so short a time.

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If you’re like me and you simply can’t get enough Andrew Haigh, check out the other essays I’ve written on his works:

Greek Pete

Weekend

Looking

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