HEADPHONES play a big role in my life.
They give me the freedom to listen to music and podcasts in public without disturbing others. They allow me, at any time, to escape boredom, silence or unwanted interaction. Sometimes, more pressingly, they distract my mind from creeping feelings of insecurity and upset.
In many ways, headphones have become my comfort blanket. I am wearing them as I write this, and will probably wear them tonight as I go to sleep. But I am not alone. In Edgar Wright’s recent exhilaratingly fun film Baby Driver, our protagonist, Baby (Ansel Elgort), also has a dependency on headphones.
His need, which is founded upon a severe case of tinnitus, means he craves a constant flow of music to drown out a piercing ringing sound. If the music stops, the painful ringing returns along with haunting memories of the crash which caused his condition.
As we see in the playful opening credit sequence of Baby Driver, headphones give Baby the freedom to escape these problems and enjoy his music on the move. He can dance around the streets as carefree and goofily as Kevin Bacon in Footloose.
There is a similar scene in Guardians of the Galaxy when we first meet Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as an adult. Peter’s headphones blast Redbone’s Come and Get Your Love as he dances through a cave kicking around pesky womp rats.
As Guardian progresses, we learn that Peter’s Walkman has deeper emotional weight – like Baby, it is attached to memories of his mother. So it is no surprise Peter gets protective when a prison guard puts on his headphones and starts listening. For Peter, this represents an invasion of his privacy.
Later on, we see the opposite side of this as Peter opens up to Gamora about his mother. It leads to Peter trusting her to wear his headphones and listen to Elvin Bishop’s melodic tune Fooled Around and Fell in Love – an intimate moment between the two which nearly ends with a kiss.
Headphones also act to spark a romance in Garden State. Enthusiastic and engaging, Sam (Natalie Portman) attempts to spark a conversation with a zoned-out and evasive Andrew (Zach Braff) in a hospital waiting room. The conversation is rather one-sided until Sam offers her oversized headphones (any wearer would be engulfed in sound) to Andrew, saying: ‘You gotta hear this song. It’ll change your life.’
It does and, as Andrew is awakened by the sounds of The Shins, the camera cuts to Sam’s bright and smiley face. This moment of clarity, brought to him through headphones, puts Andrew back on a path to reconnect with the world and find love.
Speaking of sharing, Dan (Mark Ruffalo) and Gretta (Keira Knightley) wander the New York streets together at night wearing a headphone splitter in John Carney’s Begin Again. With songs like Frank Sinatra’s Luck Be a Lady Tonight and Stevie Wonder’s For Once in my Life, it is an irresistibly romantic scene (even though the two share a love for music, not each other) which demonstrates the power of music to transform a setting and its mood.
At one point, Dan and Gretta enter a nightclub to dance to their own music. This leaves the two out of sync with the frantic moves of their fellow clubbers. It is a moment mirroring 1980’s French film La Boum (The Party/Ready for Love), in which schoolgirl Vic (Sophie Marceau) deals with the struggles of moving to a new school and having a turbulent home life.
At the big party, Mathieu (Alexandre Sterling) – Vic’s love interest – sneaks behind her and puts his headphones over her ears. Upon hearing the soothing sounds of Richard Sanderson’s Reality, she immediately turns around and embraces him. The two continue to slow dance in direct contrast to the up-tempo movement surrounding them. With her troubles at home, headphones provide a moment of comfort and control for Vic.
There is no splitter on hand in underappreciated Mexican film Güeros. Instead, the characters huddle around one set of headphones to catch the sound of enigmatic rock singer Epigmenio Cruz.
Interestingly, the audience is excluded from hearing the music. The silence we are left with fuels the mystery behind Cruz and forces us to focus on the characters’ wonder-filled facial expressions.
Headphones can also signal internal turmoil. Take Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. At work, he plays jovial tunes such as Katrina and the Wave’s Walking on Sunshine and Chris De Burgh’s Lady In Red. Yet no amount of cheerful music can cover sick thoughts we know run through his monstrous mind.
In Joseph Ruben’s horror flick Step Father (1987), Stephanie (Jill Schoelen) puts on big blood red headphones to mask the sounds of her mother and Jerry – whom she suspects of being a murderer – having sex upstairs. In this way, headphones can be a way to pull the plug on the world outside.
But just as headphones can be used to block out they can be used to listen in. Stasi officer Gerd (Ulrich Muhe) is hired to do this in thriller The Lives of Others as he spies on suspected Communist traitor and playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Likewise, surveillance police officers are rarely without headphones in Hong Kong crime thriller series Overheard.
The isolation that headphones provide can give space for creative thinking. In 8 Mile, headphones allow B-Rabbit (Eminem) to write raps on the bus. As he does so, the camera cuts back and forth between Marshall scribbling away and the decayed streets of Detroit which help fuel his lyrics.
In the more sanitary setting of Pitch Perfect 2, Beca (Anna Kendrick) dons Beats headphones to work on new music and arrangements. The Beats are a sign of her extra responsibilities and, perhaps, an individual and burgeoning talent that goes beyond the Bellas.
Fellow music lover Rob (John Cusack) talks about the influencing capability of music in the opening scene of High Fidelity. The big headphones he wears and the spinning vinyl record are immediate indicators that Rob is connected to his music
The liberating effect of headphones can sometimes result in comical moments. In Demolition, Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), like Baby, unleashes some extravagant dance moves on his commute to work. When he arrives at the investment bank, his aura has seemingly changed so much that an employee does not recognise him at first.
Both Vivian (Julia Roberts), in Pretty Woman, and Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), in About a Boy, get caught singing aloud with their headphones on. Tellingly, neither gets particularly embarrassed by these amusing situations.
In Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski, the Dude (Jeff Bridges) lays on his rug (which really ties the room together) relaxing to the sounds of a 1987 Venice Beach ten pin bowling play-off. He opens his eyes to Maude (Julianne Moore) and two goons standing over him, one of which knocks him out with a punch.
An elaborate and brilliantly choreographed dream sequence ensues that involves bowling – the sounds of which were playing on his headphones when he got knocked out – and Bob Dylan’s Man In Me which is playing when he wakes up. In some ways, this iconic sequence is grounded in the Dude’s use of headphones.
Even in 1963’s Charade, headphones could help set up a joke. As Reggie (Audrey Hepburn) is in the midst of translating a meeting for political leaders, she gets distracted by a kiss from Peter (Cary Grant). The room of politicians, all reliant on Reggie’s words through their headphones, turn around simultaneously to see what is happening.
As seen in Spike Jonze’s Her, we may all soon be wearing wireless headphones. More freedom or more detachment?
Headphones. Big in my life – and a musical tool used in many a film to brilliant effect.
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