Sharp Objects: how Led Zeppelin are the access key to the mistery

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This article reveals important plot elements of HBO series Sharp Objects. It is therefore recommended to read it after watching the series in order not to ruin your viewing experience.

“Dynamics, light and shade, whisper to the thunder. Sort of invite you in, sort of intoxicating.”

The words of guitarist Jimmy Page describing the feel of Led Zeppelin’s Ramble On are a perfect fit for the evocative sonic world of HBO’s miniseries Sharp Objects. Based on the 2006 debut novel by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), it portrays the story of Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), a fractured, self-harming two-bit reporter based in St. Louis whose new assignment requires confrontation with the tormented past from which she escaped.

Crafted with tremendous attention to the rural flavor, Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild, Big Little Lies) reclaims the good old Southern Gothic tropes only to subvert their premises to his advantage. Wind Gap is one of those crummy towns doomed to misery, located in an ominously flat region of Missuori. The air is grossly fetid, partly because of the hog farms, partly because of the torrid climate languishing each and every summer. Recently, the murder of a young teenager and the missing of another one have moved the waters, disturbing the exhausted apathy of the community.

Sharp Objects is a show whose music wears its heart on its sleeve, where what we hear is no less important than what we see. The very first frame of  the title credits is a needle descending on a record player, promptly suggesting the relevance of the aural sphere of the series.

One of the interpretative keys of the show lies in its soundtrack, which offers a selection of tracks that flawlessly nuances from electronic artists (The Acid, Sylvan Esso, LCD Soundsystem) to the band that makes any other filmmaker blush of envy: Led Zeppelin, or “the most legitimately timeless musical entity of the past half century”, as defined by Chuck Klosterman. The wariness about licensing their music is almost as legendary as the band itself, but with the help of veteran musical supervisor Susan Jacobs, Vallée managed to land four tracks by the band, and wisely used them in creative ways that differ from the most common modalities in which television (and cinema as well) incorporates music to its narrative. A conventional scheme in a soundtrack would involve original musical composition playing underneath emotionally intense scenes, and the addition of pre-existing songs as rhythmic and/or stylistic boost. Vallée denies both possibilities to favor an employment of music that, instead of hovering above the action, is woven onto the story, and becomes one of the most important narrative tools.

This show provides a reversal of perspective from standard crime and thriller dramas, partially because the main mystery doesn’t lie in the whodunit, but in the genesis of Camille’s emotional – and physical – burdens. It also relies on the exploration of anger and pain through different generational points of view. Adora (masterfully portrayed by Patricia Clarkson, whose role earned her a Golden Globe) is Camille’s abusive mother, a passive-aggressive nightmare concealed under silk and powder perfection. Her youngest daughter Amma (Eliza Scalen) works hard on preserving her façade of well behaved, innocent mom’s favourite creature while sneaking out the house after the curfew to get stoned with friends. Still not over her beloved little sister Marian’s death, occurred many years prior, Camille hasn’t spoken to her mother for months, and never met her half-sister Amma, born from another relationship her mother had when Camille had already moved to St. Louis. As Camille returns to her hometown Wind Gap to report the missing of the young girl, these precarious family dynamics will be overturned to fuel the intrigue of this slow-burn show.

The ways that sound and music interact with the narrative and influence our perception of events provide a further shift of perspective. As mentioned, Vallée’s commitment to work without composers has been a trademark of his since the early works. His filmmaking language has proven to be intrinsically diverse in the way he conceptualizes scenes around music, instead of the other way around, and branch out from there. His sensitivity leads him to place the characters humanity of the at the core of his stories, an humanity naturally triggered by the visceral energy of the music they listen to. When a character actively interacts with a track which source is to be found in the story world (say, a radio) that means that the song is employed diegetically. This usage of music opens up a shared space between the viewer and the characters that triggers an emotional connection, because its function is for us to learn about the characters directly from their own point of view, thus waiving the need to incorporate interior monologues and streams of consciousness. We can say that it represents an original way to embrace the famous Show, Don’t Tell formula, or rather Play, Don’t Tell.

Led Zeppelin are the musical silver thread that links the eight episodes, and Camille’s go-to pick for long, boozy car drives. We hear their unique sound right from episode one, as Camille hits the road toward Wind Gap. An Ipod connected to the car stereo kicks off the drive with Robert Plant’s passionate bluesy cry from I Can’t Quit You Baby – a nice anticipation of the sit-on-the-porch-in-a-rocking-chair mood to be found in Missouri. Then comes Thank You, What Is and What Should Never Be, and I Can’t Quit You Baby once more. Each of these Zeppelin songs has a misty, freaky quality that mirrors Camille’s constant level of intoxication, as well as her swings between memory and reality. What Is and What Should Never Be fully captures that feeling of a light/shade swapping and time blur that mix up Camille’s mindset. As for the lyrics, they seem to function as commentaries on the theme of damaging relationships between adults and children, echoing the baleful environment of the Crellin household where Camille grew up. Lyrics from I Can’t Quit You Baby provide further observations on this concept, sounding like something Adora would say to scold Camille: “Said you messed up my happy home/Made me mistreat my only child”. The former lines “I can’t quit you, baby/So I’m gonna put you down for awhile” are a reference to Camille’s smoking habits and alcohol addiction.

In Vallée’s work music is used to enhance what we know about the characters’ pain. Camille and Alice are roommates at the rehab centre, in treatment for their self-harming inclinations. They are orphans of their own contemptuous mothers. As time goes by they become friends, with music they become sisters, bound as being the whole affective universe of one another. As she arrives at the clinic, Camille states that “It’s not really my thing, music”. “Well, no wonder you’re here, girl! With this [ipod] I can get out of here whenever I want” Alice replies. She hands an earbud over Camille, plays Thank You and shows her how music can help them cope with their emotional battles. However, mockingly, her music could not save her from her demons; later, we’ll discover that Alice took her own life, entrusting Camille with her iPod and the ghost of another sister, whose memory, in this case as in Marian’s, is as omnipresent in her memory as it is in her sensory background.

In the Evening from Led Zeppelin’s 1979 final record In Though the Out Door is the song that carries out the most significant narrative interplay of the show. The fifty seconds of the introduction are the otherworldly invitation mentioned by Jimmy Page, an intoxicating blend of whispers and mysticism that enclosesthe spirit of the series’ atmosphere. Vallée interweaves the feeling of the song to the story, creating a sort of a theme whose meaning varies with subtleties each time we hear it, and evolves according to its recurrence. Starting out in episode two as a method to set up a mood and stir up dramatic tension in the community, it actually provides the first visual/aural cues. At this time of the story, we know that the missing girl was found dead in similar circumstances to the other murder that occurred earlier that year, and there’s the alarm for a serial killer on the loose. After attending the girl’s funeral, Camille plays the track in the car, while driving through town to interview the locals. She looks toward a playground, sited in front of some woods, a location that will prove to be very important, and as she notices it the intro of the song culminates on Robert Plant’s thundering acuto, whose energy is dampen – but the tension intensified – by a change of scene.

Further on, we will find an important variation in the employment of In the Evening: the track becomes non-diegetic, external to the narrative world, subtle, hinted. It’s a detail now, one of the many suggested by the director – so many that most of them are to be noticed not sooner than the second or third vision– that make a real difference. This detailed sound mostly emerges when the protagonist is in a state of agitation and turmoil, taking the form of a living and sinister shadow. It perplexes the viewer in a foreshadowing rebus. Vallée plays with this sound, concealing a few notes in other artist’s music, he even mixes the buzz of a night insect flying around a streetlight with the buzz of Page’s guitar, in an aural representation of Camille’s hallucinogen condition. We hear that murmur less and less, we almost forget about it, until it resurfaces in the final sequence of the show, as the whisper that – this time for real – drags to the thunder. Just as we think that everything is resolved, Plant’s cry brings us back on our toes. This time the acuto is more intense, evoking a revelation that comes under the form of a simple sentence to reveal the entire series’ enigma. Finally, here comes the song’s verse, a forceful momentum where Page’s splendid guitar riff, Jones’ organ, and Bonham’s slaps explode in a real stomper. It’s a roar so loud that the lights go out on the close up of the just unveiled killer. Black screen. Closing credits.

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