Jean-Luc Godard once described one of his films as a “neorealist musical,” and while I doubt he would approve of this use of the term, I can’t help but feel it was made for a movie like Rachel Getting Married, Jonathan Demme’s buoyantly told story of a woman getting out of rehab to go to her sister’s wedding.
In making this film, Demme employs what is probably the most common marker of cinematic “realism” these days—the shaky, handheld camera that so many other directors have used as a lazy short-cut to building a sense of being in the moment. However, Demme’s use of this method is hardly laziness; rather, he displays a great deal of self-discipline and skill in how he tells the story. Scenes rarely feel forced or stagy, and the film has a kind of home-movie immediacy that comes from all of the clutter and people wandering in and out frame.
The music, however, is what really matters here. The film is built around music, but at the same time, it approaches the music on realist terms. There is no non-diegetic sound in this film; everything emanates from within the space of the story. Even the music played during the closing credits comes from peripheral characters in the film who are jamming in the backyard after the wedding is over.
In spite of this one constriction, the film is still dripping in music, oozing it from every moment, at times almost absurdly (the film’s style may say “realism,” but there’s something surreal about seeing Robyn Hitchcock singing at a Connecticut wedding). The family is surrounded by musician friends, so the score of the film largely comes from these people hanging around the house, practising their parts for the wedding. The groom even sings his wedding vows, and quite well it should be added, seeing as how the character is played by Tunde Adembimpe of TV on the Radio (who brings a nice geeky awkwardness to the groom, most memorably in a tour-de-force dishwasher loading sequence).
More so than teary-eyed speeches and shouting arguments, the music elaborates the emotions of the characters, as it should in any musical. At times, it is sentimental, other times simply jubilant, and it even occasionally verges on sarcastic (at one point, a couple of kids practise a version of “Here Comes the Bride” that calls to mind Jimi Hendrix doing “Star Spangled Banner”). But most importantly, this approach turns the film into a curious hybrid, beholden neither to the demands of realist drama nor Hollywood melodrama.
It’s a pleasant surprise. I really wasn’t expecting such a charming, idiosyncratic film to come out of this story. The premise flirts with the maudlin and cliche, but it never really succumbs, which is admirable when you consider what we’re dealing with here. There’s Kym, fresh out of rehab, whose acid-tongued remarks and sarcastic demeanour hide the guilt and self-loathing she feels for her involvement in the accidental death of her younger brother (yes, a dead child story. It’s one of those movies). Then there is Rachel, the more successful, stable sibling who feels resentment at Kym for disrupting what is supposed to be a perfect wedding day with ugly emotional truths, family conflicts better left buried, et cetera. This is well-trodden emotional terrain we’re walking on.
But the conventional melodrama in the script that is trying to make itself heard never quite comes through—the songs just drown it out. The music inspires a loose-limbed approach from Demme that is miles away from the stiffness of his last fiction film, The Manchurian Candidate. Even as the script is pulling towards confrontation and catharsis, Demme is pushing the film towards something more open-ended, less easily defined, and ultimately, more rewarding.
The final confrontation, that last emotional bloodletting that would put everything in its place, mercifully never comes. Instead, we are left with things left unsaid, arguments never finished. In other words, a family like any other.