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Credit: R.E.M.

Music

The progressive 1950s film behind one of R.E.M.’s finest works

@TomTaylorFO

Since the birth of the silver screen in 1895, movies and music have formed an inseparable marriage. The earliest ‘Player Pianos’ proved that without a soundtrack a film might be left feeling flatter than a hammered pancake, but this relationship does not just flow one way—and I don’t just mean Bowie starring in Labyrinth or the masterful Tom Waits cropping up in his latest curmudgeonly guise. 

For all intents and purposes, the desired outcome of movies and music is very much the same. They either transport us from reality in one way or another or else make a cloudy reality all the clearer to see. This crossover has never been lost on songwriters, many of which seek refuge from the insular world of the studio in darkened big screen escapism, but clearly, their fevered imagination doesn’t just switch off when the curtain parts and the trailers begin. 

However, when it comes to the R.E.M. classic ‘Imitation Of Life’, the band didn’t even have to nestle into a popcorn crusted seat to be inspired. In fact, the anthem was spawned from the title and a vague notion of the plot alone. I suppose it doesn’t take too much to move the band, after all, Michael Stipe even once commented: “I cried over a St. Bernard movie once on a plane. That was really embarrassing.” 

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That might have been a soppy affair, but it was a serious simple profundity that stirred the classic 2001 Revealtrack into existence. ‘Imitation of Life’ is a reference to the 1959 movie of the same name, but as Peter Buck explains in the liner notes for the In Time LP, none of the band had actually seen the film, adding, “I thought at the time that the title was a perfect metaphor for adolescence. Unfortunately, I have come to believe that it is a perfect metaphor for adulthood, too. But that’s another story.”

The film chronicles the journey of a young mixed-race girl’s struggle as she abandons her family to try and pass as Caucasian in the ‘50s American South so that she can succeed as an aspiring film star. The film points a finger at abhorrent race relations at the time and the song likewise takes a modernised wider scope and looks at the skin-deep facetiousness of many circles of life. The glowing pop arrangement makes this sombre soliloquy soar like all of R.E.M’s best with sing-along chorus mastery. Has any other band paired as much profundity with seamless pop structure?

It is an earworm of the most pleasant order, and it imparts a serious message as it makes acquaintances with your auditory canal for the umpteenth time that day. It might have been inspired by a movie, but it is reflective of a worldview that band share in which Stipe elucidated in a quote when he stated: “My feeling is that labels are for canned food.”

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