Film Notes: Leon Bridges’ “River” in HBO’s ‘Big Little Lies’

Big Little Lies © HBO
Big Little Lies © HBO

Atwood Magazine is excited to announce Film Notes, a column in which we feature moments from current television and film and how they 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.

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HBO’s newest mini-series Big Little Lies, based on the New York Times number-one bestseller by Liane Moriarty, is a “Subversive, darkly comedic drama that weaves a tale of murder and mischief as it explores society’s myth of perfection.” (HBO). Sue Jacobs, whose resume includes Little Miss Sunshine, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Mozart In The Jungle amongst many more is the music supervisor for this series. A recent Vulture article states, “Music supervisor Sue Jacobs and director Jean-Marc Vallée approached the soundtrack [to Big Little Lies] with the intent of starkly juxtaposing gorgeous, sunny Monterey Bay with the series’ dark narrative, which ultimately led to a hearty mix of soul and blues tunes” (Ivie).  That being said, it comes to no surprise that Leon Bridges soulful ballad “River” is heavily featured in Episode 2, “Serious Mothering.” “River” is woven through the second episode of HBO’s Big Little Lies, acting as a calming guide through an anxiety-ridden story, while also sporadically proving that music is the universal language that has the power to bring people together.

Big Little Lies © HBO
Big Little Lies © HBO

The show is told through the eyes of three mothers Madeline, Celeste, and Jane as they navigate the “rough” waters of Monterey in order to maintain the façade of the perfect life. “River” a song heavily based on redemption and forgiveness, is perfectly placed in a scene that is exploring just that; redemption and forgiveness. Jane’s son, Ziggy, and his first grade classmate Amabella have a poor relationship after a bullying situation that is still a mystery to viewers. Madeline’s Daughter, Chloe, decides to try to fix Ziggy and Amabella’s relationship. She does this by playing the song “River” during their free in class and encouraging Ziggy to approach Amabella with a hug and a kiss to make up, just as she sees adults do all the time. We don’t actually hear the song at this moment in the episode, but we do see Chloe methodically select it from within her music library and play it out loud for all to hear on her IPhone. (Unsure why a first grader has an IPhone, but that’s another story) As soon as she does this, the moods shift between Ziggy and Amabella as they smile at each other and welcome redemption and forgiveness. Obviously, this embrace of two first graders does not go over well with the teachers. Adults are summoned, words are exchanged, and ultimately the kids settle more than the parents are even close to resolving.

The first time we actually hear “River” play in the episode is as Madeline is driving Chloe home from school, trying (and failing) to understand why she would encourage Ziggy and Amabella’s actions. Slow and deep, a rhythmic guitar accompanied by a tapping tambourine sets the tone as Leon Bridges silky smooth voice starts to sing,

In my darkness I remember
Momma’s word reoccur to me:
“Surrender to the good Lord
And he’ll wipe your slate clean”
Listen: “River” – Leon Bridges

As the song begins Chloe begs the questions, “How can you not want to make up on this song?” “Make up, yes. Make out? No, silly!” States Madeline. “It’s what you guys do when you get mad at each other. Big hug, kiss, and everything’s better.” Chloe says matter-of-factly before Madeline interjects, “Its just different with married people.” Chloe responds, “Why?” Slightly agitated, Madeline snaps back as mothers do, “I don’t know it just is – don’t start with me.” The conversation falls to silence as the song continues to play mesmerizing both Madeline and Chloe. They look out the window at the blue hues of the Pacific Ocean and the cliffs that surround it as Bridges accompanied by a gospel like harmonization’s sing,

Take me to your river
I wanna go
Take me to your river
I wanna know
Coming Home - Leon Bridges
Coming Home – Leon Bridges

Madeline’s face is shifts from tense to relaxed. She softly looks at her daughter through the rear view mirror and admits, “This is a beautiful song, honey.” Emphasis on is. Chloe smiles. Her mother has now confirmed for her that she understands why she did what she did. That while her actions may have been slightly off base, her intentions meant well, and that’s all that matters.

In episode two “River” steals the show, claiming all who hear it as its own. It turns foe to friend and acts as the universal language that facilitates an understanding between mother and daughter. An understanding that would be non-existent had it not been for the song. And isn’t that the power of music? Big Little Lies brilliantly uses “River” by Leon Bridges to show the influence music has in changing perspective and bringing even the most unlikely of pairs together. And lets face it; they also likely chose it because it is, after all, a beautiful song.

Big Little Lies airs Sundays at 9pm EST. Leon Bridges’ album, Coming Home featuring “River” is available on all streaming services.

:: Watch Big Little Lies on HBO here ::

— — — —Coming Home - Leon Bridges

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