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An Analysis of The Saddest Music in the World

Rami Ibrahim



The saddest music in the world by Guy Maddin is a very controversal movie as it gives very little details to ascertain its message  and a lot to speculate about it like most of the works that handle universal issues. It tackles one of the vicissitudes of the sycle of human progress – the Great Depression, but it its vagueness can be ascribed to its style that places it between fantasy and reality. However, this essay is devoted to give a deep insight into its message as well as its technique and seeks more understanding of it by comparing it with Picasso's Guernica with which it has alot of  things in common in respect to both the themes and the style.


The Saddest music of the world  has, as it seems to me, an iconoclastic view as some subversive anti-capitalist elements can be traced in it. It is about the ensuing consequences of World war I and the contemporaneous hardships during the Great Depression. Both of World War I and the Great Depression are the inexorable eventualities of the resurgence of imperialism even though they are plausibly ascribed respectively to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914 by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, and the sudden devastating collapse of US stock market prices on October 29, 1929, known as Black Tuesday. Nevertheless, the real reasons that stand behind recessions are related to stock market crash, inflation, loss of paper wealth and economic bubbles. The publicized contest in the film is a capitalist approach to the 'crowd behavior' which is aimed at boosting the consumer confidence in regard to her company’s product − beer. However, depression and sadness are just the adverse effects of capitalism on the poor, but they are transformed into products to entice the poor again and bring them back to the capitalist cycle because they are an integral part in it. While sadness is the psychological mood for most of the poor countries especially those who are inflicted by wars (they are represented in the film by Roderick), the chase of happiness is one of the predominant ideals for Americans who are represented in the film by Chester and both Roderick and Chester along with Fyodor, the representative of Canada,  claim to be the ambassadors of happiness, who are trying to please  the capitalist (Helen) in verified and disparate ways. Coming back to what is known in mainstream economics as “economic bubble” which is referred to in the film by beer, beer tub and the glass legs filled with beer. Moreover, Helen refers to the "economic bubble" more explicitly by saying:"Depression era dollars" or when she says: "I swear I can feel your touch, it makes me bubble".  The whole film could reflect the mechanism of the boom and the burst phases of this "bubble". As the contest is going on and more beer is being consumed, the 'bubble' is booming and reaches its maximum boom when Helen gets her beer-filled legs and dances with them reaching the apex of her happiness. The capitalist who had rigged the contest and decided on the winner in advance, felt confident and excited after getting her beer-filled legs and showed her bias apparently by taking part in the contest in favor of America, but the 'bubble' was burst when Roderick changed his song and played a very sad version of  "the song is you" which reveals the sadness and misery (that capitalism is responsible for) and which cannot be hidden by a temporary 'bubble' which is bound to burst. Capitalists will always withhold their higher position and would never love those who can encumber them, bring them down or share their wealth, so Helen realizes that the best friend of her is that whom she can hire to withstand her higher position (Tady) while others are dangerous and she will never allow them to share her wealth. Chester does not admit failure and defeat and insists on the happy mood albeit doomed. Fyodor is also defeated and frustrated as all his attempts or reconcile with Helen fail. The film favors the cause of Roderick and Narcissa, who do not hinge their salvation on Helen and recover their consolidation as a couple.



Guy Maddin is aware of the fact that viewers are not accustomed to his new style, so he introduces his film in the opening with a peculiar scene in black and white with eerie music showing Chester and Narcissa at the fortune teller's place. In this scene Chester appears as a pleasure seeker leading a life of indulgence. In the second colorful scene takes us to his childhood and he appears among his family members as a lost and miserable boy. The fortune teller's advice to look to his soul and see his misery and her questioning of the amount of happiness his money can buy does introduce and summarize the whole message in the film. Besides, the fortune teller stresses the key words in the film coming up with somehow slow and unfamiliar pronunciation: sad, happiness, misery, money, and dead. Her ominous words portend that we are going to see a tragedy, while Chester's confident and cheerful gestures suggest something comical. However, the fortune teller's last sentence sounds paradoxical as she says the impending mortal disaster can be avoided if he looks into his misery, so she  arouses the viewers' curiosity without unfolding the destiny of Chester. This long opening, which consists of several scenes and two settings, works as a good introduction of a film that combines reality with fantasy on one hand, and comedy with tragedy on the other. In addition, it gives a hint that some scenes will be presented in colors while others will be in black and white. Clearly this opening  shows the meticulous preparation and the efforts made to help the viewer both appreciate the film and get its message.  

Flashback is one of the techniques used in the film (taking the viewer back in time to an earlier accident − the scene when Helen's legs were amputated) but the film transcends this technique to much more uncanny ones which go beyond logic and normality to make an eerie fantasy out of it. We have glass legs filled with the  brewer's own beer versus a human heart preserved in a jar filled with the mourner's own tears. Furthermore, the dialogue plays more than a means of communication between characters as the viewer is meant as an addressee too. For instance, when Helen says: "If you are sad and you like beer, then I am your lady". This sentence could sound as nonsense especially that there is no definite addressee; but it does tell a lot about the character (Helen) and what she represents. It also sheds light on the way this character deals with others , and  helps explain other clues in the film and the story that brings together beer, tears, sadness, happiness, music and dance altogether.

Comparison with Picasso's Guernica

This is an avant-garde film and its uncanny style could baffle viewers who would prefer it to keep or return to some semblance of normality. I would like to draw an analogy with Picasso’s Guernica, which will not be worth seeing if we apply the credo of the classical trends in painting. On the contrary, looking at it from the point of view of its own style it turns to be a great painting.

In regard to themes both Guernica and the saddest music in the world hold political views and stand as expressions of defiance against brutality and atrocities that cause grief and misery. One of the most obtrusive features in the two works of art is the grieving parent: Guernica features a grieving mother and The saddest music in the world features a grieving father. While Guernica cries out against Fascism, the saddest music in the world tries to undermine capitalism and imperialism. Moreover, the two works talk about events that happened in the thirties of the twentieth century: the bombing of Guernica happened in1937 and the Great Depression took place the same decade. Furthermore, both  works include some cultural elements that pertain to a certain country, but they transcend that element towards a universal interest. The horse in the centre of the tapestry probably represents the Spanish people (Johnson:2007) and maybe the bull too, though Picasso says the bull stands for brutality – a universal theme. In addition to a symbol of brutality in the left, misery and  grief  predominate the tapestry, and hope which comes from the window are all universal concepts quite ubiquitous in the painting, which shows according to John Berger "no town, no aero planes, no explosion, no reference to the time of day" (Berger 1965). Moreover, Scott Johnson argues that:

Picasso’s images remove us from the specifics of the devastation of Guernica to the more general and universal suffering inflicted by war. Neither spears, nor horses, nor bulls can be found in the battlefields of Iraq, but that does not stop these images from retaining their relevance and immediacy.(Johnson:2007)

Similarly, the saddest music in the world features some cultural elements from two migration countries ( Canada and the United States of America) like the most notable song in the film the song is you, but the same song was sung and played in different versions and tunes to represent some other countries and other situations. On the other hand, different kinds of music, costumes and styles were presented to represent different countries and cultures. Chester's endeavor to synthesize one multi-cultural band working for a common goal could also refer to the universal theme in the movie. Moving to the form and style in the two works of different arts, I will refer to abstract style, vagueness and the state of being open for interpretation. In fact, many interpretation were given to understand what the light bulb, the bull and the dagger-like tongues represent in Guernica and the same can be said about the beer-filled legs, the preserved heart, and the whole plot in the saddest music in the world.  Finally, the prevalence of mute colors of grey, black and white is a common feature in the two compared pieces of art.

In conclusion, the saddest music of the world is an avant-garde film that lights a very important phase in imperialism which is still the dominating system that control people lives all over the world. Its modern and varied techniques go well with its miscellaneous nature as a fantasy lending verisimilitude to its story and a tragedy tinged with some comical elements. Clearly, it can be classified as one of the most controversial and remarkable Canadian films which aim at receiving an international acclaim.



 Berger John (1965) The Success and Failure of Picasso. New York: Pantheon Books.

Johnson, Scott (2007) Picasso’s Guernica. International Socialist Review, online edition, issue 52. ( June 14 2013).

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