Call Me By Your Name: A Musical Appreciation

This is an article for music lovers, film fanatics, and of course, the gays.

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It is August 2017. The trailer for a brand new movie has just surfaced the internet, and millions around the world are sharing it, making gifs and memes of it, and gushing over it. What is this film that the young’uns are hyping up anyway? 

 

Call Me By Your Name became a bit of a household name in early 2018, following its 4 Oscar nominations. Set in northern Italy during the summer of 1983, the film centres on a forbidden gay romance between two Jewish-American males: 17-year-old Elio and 24-year-old Oliver. Whilst on a family vacation, the two develop a warm friendship that blossoms into an intimate romance and the heartbreak that inevitably follows. I’m always taken back to the 80s when I think of this story (even though I was born in ’99!). This fictional romance was adapted for the screen from André Aciman’s original novel of the same name, for which James Ivory won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

 

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Pride month exists to celebrate and commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City which were a landmark point in the modern fight for LGBTQ+ rights and equality. June is the celebratory month adopted in the USA to coincide with the Stonewall riots. Although the UK (and us CUB writers) celebrated Pride earlier this year in February, the UK hosts much of their annual events between June and July as well. 

 

Hence it comes as no surprise that this little indie film was instantly adored. It portrays a gay relationship not in a hyper-sexualised or hyper-stigmatised light, but rather in a calmer, more realistic hue. It struck a chord with the many that are and have been incessantly vying for normalcy. Many elements work to undo any notion of homosexuality as immoral. For instance, Elio’s parents’ acceptance the principal characters’ self-acceptance of these sexualities, and simultaneously portrayals of other characters as untroubled by the suspicion of a gay relationship. Films focusing on LGBTQ+ issues have come before. However this one has a uniquely sacred aura that captures the innocence of young love through every artistic aspect, despite contemporaneous societal conventions.

 

Director Luca Guadagnino usually formulates his soundtracks by using pre-existing music rather than having compositions made as many do — a sensible choice in terms of budgeting expenses and promoting hidden gems. The Call Me By Your Name soundtrack is accordingly a compilation album of spectacular pieces of classical and pop music, with the exception of 2 compositions from Sufjan Stevens created specifically for the film. The musical soundtrack serves to solidify the purity of their romance, sweetening each scene with an added layer of significance, that transcends them into the realm of heavenliness. The remarkable point to note here is that although many were pulled into the cinema by the dramatic content itself, everyone walked out with a sentimental attachment to the film. An attachment was produced and preserved by the musical accompaniment. A deep attachment to the universal themes resonated to connect audience members to one another. I do not believe that Call Me By Your Name would have become the masterpiece it is without the music.

 

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This is an article for music lovers, film fanatics, and of course, the gays.

Let’s get into it.

 

  1. ‘Hallelujah Junction: 1st Movement’ — John Adams 

Preluding the film in the opening credits is an excerpt from the first of three movements of John Adams’ ‘Hallelujah Junction’. Composed as a duet for two pianos in 1998, this 7-minute piece takes listeners on an auditory adventure; one may feel emotions of comfort, amusement, liveliness, harmony, anger, and/or confusion when listening to this piece. Adams says of the song, “The ‘junction’ being the interlocking style of two-piano writing which features short, highly rhythmicized motives bouncing back and forth between the two pianos in tightly phased sequences.” The pianos complement each other in harmonic accordance throughout the piece, representing the adventurous nature of Elio and Oliver.

 

  1. ‘M.A.Y. in the Backyard’ – Ryuichi Sakamoto

This classical piece composed for a standard piano trio (piano and two other instruments, usually the violin and cello) truly marks Call Me By Your Name as excerpts are dotted in multiple parts of the film. Multiple motifs are present in the 1984 ‘M.A.Y. in the Backyard’. The lively opening motif adds a memorable character to the scenes; a monophonic violin texture prominently descends in pitch whilst ascending feelings of tension; the listener is confronted with a surprise attack from stabbing block chords. A beautiful and mildly confusing section where piano sequences are permeated by an eerily dissonant violin accompaniment — giving off very subtle Alfred Hitchcock ‘Psycho’ vibes. Ryuichi Sakamoto sure knows how to instil fear.

 

  1. ‘J’adore Venise’ – Loredana Bertè

Loredana Bertè’s covers ‘J’adore Venise’ here, originally written and sung by Ivano Fossati in 1981. First used in the afternoon café scene where people smoke and play cards, this song injects funky Italian pop vibes into the film. The title emphasises an individual location, as the singer recounts a past experience at a bar of eyeing and (probably) meeting a lover who reciprocated his or her interest, and they identify Venice as the admirable cause of this encounter. Likewise in a subtler and lengthier manner, something similar occurs with Elio and Oliver’s friendship in Bordighera, the town in Aciman’s novel — although the film vaguely sets the story “somewhere in northern Italy”.

 

  1. ‘Paris Latino – Bandolero

This is probably the best song on the soundtrack to dance or jam out to, and the most likely to give you an ear-worm. Bandolero’s ‘Paris Latino’ in French and Italian became a dance hit in 1983 with its fusions of pop, funk, and rap genres. This record is strong in beat, rhythm, music, and vocals with a notable “Miss Cha Cha Cha” that cheerily pumps you up. Unsurprisingly enough it continued to top charts in the 21st century, hitting #1 on the French SNEP Singles Chart in 2002.

 

  1. ‘Sonatine bureaucratique’ – Frank Glazer

 

Frank Glazer performs a 1917 piano composition by Eric Satie. This piece is a pastiche of Sonatina Op. 36 N° 1 (1797) by Muzio Clementi. It is his only comprehensive parody of a single musical work and it forms part of his “humouristic” music of the early 20th century. It is considered so as the sheet music contains humorous remarks, such as puns. For example, the common Italian musical term ‘vivace’ (lively) is replaced by ‘vivache’, as ‘Vache’ means ‘cow’ in French. 

 

Satie’s modern, irreverent reinterpretations of 18th Century music in this little pastiche have been hailed as a notable forerunner of Neoclassicism, a trend that would dominate Western concert hall music in the years between the World Wars.” – Pierre Daniel Templier

 

If you listen to this piece, you are guaranteed to absorb a multitude of musician interpretations — the Sonatine here is Glazer’s performance of Satie’s pastiche of Clementi’s Sonatina. Glazer faithfully does both of them justice.

 

 

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  1. ‘Zion hört die Wächter singen’ — Alessio Bax

Translated as ‘Zion hears the watchmen singing’, Alessio Bax performs the fourth movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s church Cantata BWV 140 (1731) called ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’ (‘Awake, the voice is calling us’) as a piano piece in 2009. The melodies are wonderfully ornamented — typical of the Baroque era, and Bax plays through several key modulations that propels one through a rejuvenating experience — the calm after the storm, you could say. Following the peacefulness and serenity of the record up until the end, the energetic climax encapsulates the intensities of love, impassioning listeners of the piece and viewers of the film.

 

  1. ‘Lady Lady Lady’ – Giorgio Moroder & Joe Esposito

The title is definitely straighter than what the film offers. Here we have another dance track written by Giorgio Moroder and Keith Forsey and performed by Joe Esposito. Although not as striking in Call Me By Your Name, the lyrics offer an interpretation of the principal relationship: 

‘Dancing behind masks, Just sort of pantomime […] Whatever lonely hearts can hide’. 

These lines describe precisely the façade that LGBTQ+ folk in the past were pressured into hiding behind, the façade of heterosexuality and straight-passing. This song reels in a slight inter-film reference as it was originally composed for the 1983 film Flashdance.

 

 

  1. ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ – Andre Laplante

This instrumental is the longest piece on the soundtrack, ringing in at over 7 minutes. It is the third of five movements in the suite Miroirs, composed by Maurice Ravel for solo piano in 1905. Translated as ‘A boat on the ocean’, the music truly reflects the title. The continuous presence of rising and falling chords, arpeggios, and scales throughout the piece feels like the perpetual waves on the seashore, maintaining satisfying tranquillity. Wistfulness charges Andre Laplante’s entire rendition. Blends of assonance and dissonance, tinkling high and smothering low voices, and countermelodies adorn the piece, simultaneously creating the wistfulness as well as amplifying it. The ending has a dark melancholy that perhaps signifies the night.

 

 

  1. Futile Devices (Doveman Remix)’ – Sufjan Stevens

Doveman’s 2017 remix of ‘Futile Devices’ by Sufjan Stevens is not as different from the original; it was simply adapted for the cinematic experience. This alternative indie track infuses ethereal emotions through its endearing lyrics and instrumentals, whilst perfectly depicting the feeling of love, and, in particular, the forbidden feeling of homosexual love. When listened to along with the film, it paints aesthetically pleasing images and extends the storyline by spotlighting Elio’s loneliness after his first intimate experience with Oliver. The lyrics “words are futile devices” say it all: words are simply a medium of communication — and heavily vary between languages as we witness in the characters’ usage of Italian, English, French, German, and Arabic — especially when it comes to love where actions, body language, and emotions dominate. Their lack of verbal communication is no problem at all. Quite honestly, I barely know my own feelings when listening, other than loneliness and heartbreak on top of bouts of love.

 

  1. ‘Germination’ – Ryuichi Sakamoto

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s piano piece, ‘Germination’ was originally composed for the 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. This short experimental record has two distinctive segments, one a contrapuntal flow of contemplative music and the other determined block chords. Both segments are held together by the rhythmic structure. The block chords serve to stab surprise into a painful moment in the film. Listeners of the soundtrack alone might feel an emotional development from the previous track, yet perhaps still confusion as I do.

 

 

  1. ‘Words’ – F.R. David

Building on the theme of the futility of language is F.R. David. This electro-pop track from 1982 brings back the 80s pop vibe. David’s high pitched vocals and the synth-lead beats provide a catchy alternative to the classical music from earlier. Although the pop genre makes you want to sing and dance, there still remains a mildly plaintive mood when you consider the main subject matter being that “words don’t come easy to [him]”. This is the type of song you can sing (horribly) to serenade your crush under their window or balcony.

 

  1. ‘È la vita’ – Marco Armani

Singer-songwriter Marco Armani gives us more Italian pop goodness with this 1983 track. Opening with a curious instrumental introduction, Armani calmly sings the verses before proceeding into the soulful chorus. His powerfully resonant chest voice dons him an impressive male voice. Also translated as ‘It’s Life’, it evokes Southern European summer vibes and the will to revive and relive those cherished memories. 

 

  1. ‘Mystery of Love’ – Sufjan Stevens

This is arguably the most well-known on the soundtrack to listeners, and very familiar amongst Gen Z. Guadagnino approached Sufjan Stevens to compose a song specifically for Call Me By Your Name, and the result was that Stevens composed two! This 2017 acoustic track, utterly inexpressible in words, was nominated for a Grammy music award and an Oscar film award. If you haven’t already watched the movie, listen to this song first. Once you’ve watched it come back and listen to it again as few or as many times as needed, paying close attention to the lyrics…(warning: you might cry). Stevens magnificently depicts the innocence, spirituality, sanctity, and unattainability of love — for certain someones. Guadagnino says, 

“An artist for whom I have enormous admiration is Sufjan. His voice is fantastic and angelic, and his lyrics are so sharp and deep and full of sorrow and beauty. The music is so haunting. All these elements were the ones I wanted to envision in the film.” 

These elements certainly seep into ‘Mystery of Love’. 

 

  1. ‘Radio Varsavia’ – Franco Battiato

Commencing with a bomb-like intonation is the pop ‘Radio Varsavia’ (Warsaw Radio). Franco Battiato’s Italian pop track from 1982 combines an array of musical elements, not exhaustive of synthesisers, rhythmic instrumental, and classical opera vocals. It intelligently injects a socio-political message into the soundtrack. It’s also used in the infamous peach scene.

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  1. ‘Love My Way’ – The Psychedelic Furs

Our last dance number is ‘Love My Way’. The Psychedelic Furs bring us 80s English pop with a fusion of pop-rock, post-punk, and new wave genres. A year following its release, Richard Butler said for CREEM, “It’s basically addressed to people who are fucked up about their sexuality, and says ‘Don’t worry about it.’ It was originally written for gay people.” The title addresses the act of loving and accepting oneself for who they are, which in the context of Call Me By Your Name refers to accepting one’s homosexual, bisexual, and other non-heterosexual tendencies. It refers to straying away from societal norms of heteronormativity purely for the sake of appearance. This dance track makes me want to dance myself to freedom by dancing my problems away — one potential reason for the artistic choice of this song. It is used twice in two dance scenes, first in the scene of the iconic open-air dance floor — used in a 40-second teaser snippet on YouTube — and again when Oliver dances with strangers in Rome.

 

  1. ‘Le jardin féerique’ — Valéria Szervánsky & Ronald Cavaye

Here we have a piano composition, the fifth of five movements, from Maurice Ravel’s 1911 suite Ma mére l’Oye written for one piano and four hands. Translated as ‘The fairy garden’, Ravel wrote it as a ballet suite meaning it was written for ballet performance but is also suitable for chamber performance alone. Performed by Valéria Szervánsky & Ronald Cavaye, this composition is by far the most peaceful of the classical pieces. It is used as sombre music in the scene of a rainy day where Elio and his parents read a fictional story together. Cascading rises and falls, or glissandos, dramatically end the piece whilst upholding the composition’s fiery simplicity.

 

  1. ‘Visions of Gideon’ – Sufjan Stevens

To conclude the soundtrack is Stevens with the second original for the film. His 2017 ballad is a continuation of the lyrical narrative in track 13, ‘Mystery of Love’. Upon Elio’s discovery of the fact that the two’s tragic fate is officially sealed, comes the suffocating impalement of heartbreak. The movie ends with a 4-minute clip of Elio kneeling and staring into a fireplace as ‘Visions of Gideon’ plays on top and later the final credits roll. The lyrics notably in repetition, “I have loved you for the last time / Is it a video? Is it a video?…”, inform us that he replays the memories in his mind, realising his inevitable resignation to fate. Perhaps he is unable to differentiate imagination from reality, as “video” suggests an awake dream — the universal theme of being blinded by love. I know the feeling, Elio. It has been interpreted that besides being a reference to Elio and Oliver’s Jewish faith, ‘Visions of Gideon’ is symbolic of Elio’s conquest for Oliver’s love and for the liberation of his sexuality.

 

 

Guadagnino’s utilisation of mostly piano or popular compositions truly bolsters the coherence of all the artistic elements audiences are paying to watch. The early 80s popular tracks in Italian, French, and English languages successfully establish the time period and geographical setting, whilst the piano music signifies the purity and youthfulness of the romance between Elio and Oliver. It is no wonder that of the 254 nominations Call Me By Your Name received, they nabbed a staggering 42% of the accolades.

 

I don’t see it as a gay movie. I see it purely as a romance between two lovers.

 

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