How Aretha Makes Me Cry

Sting is on stage, in front of a full house. He explains that Luciano Pavarotti is unable to make it for his performance, a delay which was later revealed to be caused by a mix-up at the airport. He says that another singer has agreed to take his place at a moment’s notice, to sing the song he was originally going to perform, Nessun Dorma.

That performer is Aretha Franklin.

This is one of the most unlikely alternatives. Sure, she had a good voice but was it enough to perform something that required so much consistency and discipline? Sting throws to her and looks visibly anxious. So does Aretha. When the spotlight hits her you can see something that has not been in display for a long time; doubt. You can see that single mother with a brash and stubborn attitude from her early performances, 30 years prior. You see someone who is not sure if they belong but will try regardless. You see someone with something to lose.

As the performance starts the camera cuts to Sting who has both of his hands covering his mouth, like a prayer motion, in anticipation. Aretha starts singing, and a few seconds later you realise that she is nailing it. The audience listens in awe. Time stops. Everyone knows they are hearing something special.

I get goose bumps every time I watch that video. All the elements come together in such a way that I can’t help but to be fundamentally touched. The anticipation, presentation, lighting, instruments, voice and even her life story all merge together into art. It hits me like a giant wave of feeling and synchronicity.

Film banks on that feeling. When certain elements are brought together in a very specific way, they can click together in the audiences’ mind as a force that cannot be stopped. Think of the first 5 minutes of Pixar’s UP; piano music, bright colours, cute drawings, editing, recognition of these themes in real life all come together and impact the audience in a way that is bigger than the sum of its parts. No one is watching UP and complementing the edited cross-dissolve between two frames in the montage. Instead, they are reminiscing about love, life and loss. Film brings different elements together so that you can no longer distinguish the borderlines between them.

My practice focuses on documentary filmmaking which, I would argue, does exactly the opposite. Non-fiction narratives attempt to deconstruct, they take something we all know and have set feelings towards and break it apart in order to create that moment of insight and emotion. Documentary takes a massive picture and says ‘ok, now look at this detail, and this other one, and one more over here’. Eventually you are seeing this very familiar scene in a completely new way. You see the parts that make the whole.

This was my intention with ‘The Lifespan of Utopias’, my degree show piece. We all know most of the elements this film sets up at the start; Dundee, Hilltown, Tay Bridge, Multi-Storey residencies, V&A, the Waterfront, the history of the city, etc… These are merged together in our mind, we all have a rough understanding of their place and journey in history. What I have attempted to do is pick that apart, look at elements we didn’t think of putting together or didn’t know applied to this situation. I hope the audience can find that moment of insight once things have been picked apart, once they see those familiar scenes with slightly different eyes.

Fiction masterfully builds in the hope of insight and recognition. Documentary dismantles with the practice of research and subversion.