Atwood Magazine’s Sound Tracks column explores how moments from current television and film are heavily impacted and elevated by music. We all have those moments when watching our favorite movie or TV show: The ones where you find yourself unexpectedly wiping a tear from your cheek, or realizing your heart is racing just a little too fast, or even experiencing extreme yet irrational joy. This is due in part to the story and the characters, but also to the music. Music plays perhaps the largest role in actually making us feel so intensely for what we see on screen. There’s a science as to how and why certain songs are placed within specific moments of a story; they exist to elevate the scene in a way that can only be done by music.
Much has been said about Luca Guadagnino’s film Call Me By Your Name. Having been nominated in four categories at the 2018 Academy Awards as well as for a slew of other film awards, and judging by the enthusiasm surrounding its release, the riveting movie has undoubtedly resonated with audiences around the world.
Adapted from André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, the film is set “somewhere in northern Italy” in the summer of 1983, and tells the story of Elio Pearlman (played by Timothée Chalamet), a precocious 17-year-old who falls in love with a visiting graduate student named Oliver (played by Armie Hammer). The film is equal parts about self-discovery and first love, and we watch Elio’s feelings for Oliver develop in a hormone-fueled haze over the course of the movie.
Call Me By Your Name is also a love letter to Italy. With long shots of peach trees and idyllic countryside lanes, you can almost feel the heat of the sun on your skin and the grass underneath your toes while watching the movie. The attention to detail in depicting those languorous summer days creates a thoroughly believable microcosm, and watching the film almost feels like spying on the intimate moments between two people falling in love.
Watch: “Call Me By Your Name” – Official Trailer
An equally painstaking amount of care was taken in curating the soundtrack of the film. From instrumental piano pieces to ’80s synth pop tracks, the music serves to heighten the emotions playing out on screen, and strays far from cheesy pastiche or nostalgic trips down memory lane.
In an interview with Pitchfork, director Luca Guadagnino explained his process of selecting the music, saying “I go through music in a way that has to do with my instinct, by the way. I like the concept of piano as a dialogue… In fact, in Call Me By Your Name, we have extensive usage of piano because those notes, in a way, are the interior and exterior dialogue between Elio and himself, and Elio and Oliver.”
The presence of music in the film never seems like an afterthought. It is often written into the scenes as if it was an essential character. Both in the novel and in the film, Elio is depicted as a talented musician, adept at transcribing music and playing the piano. The piano becomes an integral part of a scene early on in the movie, as Elio coyly flirts with Oliver while playing a Bach piece in the living room.
“Call Me By Your Name” – “Play That Again” Movie Clip
While the use of instrumental piano pieces is a prominent part of the soundtrack, the film is also interspersed with ’80s music, firmly grounding the story in that decade. In the film, Elio is seen wearing a Talking Heads t-shirt, and a scene in a discotheque distinctly features the cast dancing to “Love My Way” by The Psychedelic Furs.
“Call Me By Your Name” – Dance Party Movie Clip
The Call Me By Your Name soundtrack includes two original songs by Sufjan Stevens, “Visions of Gideon” and “Mystery of Love,” the latter of which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The film also features a piano-centric remix of Stevens’ “Futile Devices,” a track which originally appeared on the album The Age of Adz. All three of Stevens’ songs play during scenes with little to no dialogue, in effect expressing everything the characters fail to verbalize themselves.
In the third act of the movie, Elio and Oliver travel to Bergamo while “Mystery of Love” plays over the film. Stevens’ breathy voice floats over deftly plucked guitar and mandolin strings; at times his singing barely rises above a whisper. The lyrics of the song read like Elio’s internal monologue, capturing the depths of his desire. Both the scene and song are imbued with a tinge of bittersweetness however, because both characters know their time together is ending, and that the summer can’t last forever.
Watch: “Mystery of Love” – Sufjan Stevens
Likewise, the song “Visions of Gideon” soundtracks the heartbreaking last scene in the movie, as Elio stares into the fireplace reflecting on everything that happened over the summer, and how meeting Oliver had altered his life immeasurably.
Guadagnino, who originally approached Stevens to be the narrator in the film, explained that he “wanted to envelop the movie in the voice of Sufjan Stevens.” Stevens’ three songs used in the film represent three distinct phases of the relationship between Elio and Oliver: “Futile Devices,” hesitant and full of longing, plays before Elio expresses his true feelings towards Oliver; “Mystery of Love” soundtracks their joyful trip to Bergamo; while “Visions of Gideon” plays over the final scene, signaling the end of a chapter in Elio’s life.
In an interview with Deadline, Stevens voiced his admiration for the Guadagnino, saying “he’s one of those rare directors who uses music and sound so fiercely and with such mastery that you cannot imagine the films without the music.” Like the best soundtracks, the music of Call Me By Your Name will always be intertwined with the film, creating a work of art greater than the sum of its parts.
Every sensual detail in the film works in tandem to create a seamless cinematic experience. The deliberate use of music is thoroughly compelling throughout Call Me By Your Name, amplifying its emotional impact in key scenes and acting as a conduit for the characters’ deepest emotions and thoughts. As the lush scenes wash over you, you can’t help but feel transported to 1980s Italy. The movie ensnares you, lingering in your mind long after the credits roll and the screen fades to black.
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