MUSIC MOVIES & ME: The Patriarchal Rom Com & MUSIC AND LYRICS
This article is the second in a series by Sarah Jae Leiber exploring "music movies" and all the beauty and frustration that comes with them! Read last week's column here.
There is a version of me that loves this movie. She's about 14 years old. She's grooving to the hypnotic rhythms of "PoP! Goes My Heart," and she's super charmed by Hugh Grant, and she, like Drew Barrymore, is a young writer looking anywhere for her big break. She thinks grand gestures are super romantic, especially if they're musical grand gestures, and she's obsessed with 80s Pop music. All of the pieces are here for an instant classic, for a movie that I would defend to the end of my life.
Unfortunately, I did not see this movie when I was 14 years old. I just watched it for the first time last week, and Sarah-of-last-week has much less capacity for nonsense than her 14 year old counterpart. Sarah-of-last-week was frankly exhausted by "Music and Lyrics."
Romantic comedy is a perfect genre and if you question that you're wrong and also dumb. With that said, not all romantic comedies are created equal-just like any other genre of film, you have your classics and you have your duds. In my experience, most rom com duds fall into a category I've been thinking about for a really long time. I'm going to classify them as Dick Flicks (so named for the genre of jerk, not for the genitalia) (I am also not affiliated with the awesome podcast of the same name).
A Dick Flick is a very particular but very common flavor of rom com. A Dick Flick, put plainly, is a romantic comedy written and directed by a straight cis-gender white man who co-opts the genre and writes a male wish fulfillment story disguised and marketed almost exclusively to women. Your boyfriend who loves "Fight Club" and won't touch "Music and Lyrics" should really give it try; a lot of the time, romantic comedies have no interest in empowering their female characters, in showing them as whole people.
Richard Curtis is the worst offender. Richard Curtis wrote "Love Actually," which convinced a generation that it's really romantic to stalk your best friend's wife, and that it's okay for Alan Rickman to do Emma Thompson like that. Richard Curtis also wrote "Notting Hill," which is a story about an ordinary (read: Hugh Grant-level handsome) man who gets to live his sexiest dreams and hook up with the biggest movie star in the world. Over and over again, Curtis' films perpetuate the worst kinds of sexual stereotypes about women while centering capital-n Nice guys who all exhibit red-flag-level inappropriate behavior. They're also consistently fatphobic (there's a whole other article to be written about "Fat Natalie" in "Love Actually"). They want us to think mind-blowingly conventionally attractive white women like Rachel McAdams or Lily James are frumpy and awkward just because Richard Curtis gave them bangs.
And we just keep letting him do that! Even though we all deserve better!
"Music and Lyrics," written and directed by Marc Lawrence (clearly a protegee of Curtis), is a Dick Flick about an aging male Pop star who takes advantage of a young woman's talent, kindness, and energy. It can't hide behind its awesome original soundtrack (by Adam Schlesinger!) and its charming leads. I'm on to you, Marc Lawrence. You can't hide from me.
There was a moment about an hour into this movie where I turned to my friend and said, "Oh. I get it. He's a MAN and he's MUSIC, and she's a WOMAN and she's LYRICS." There are real "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" vibes here and throughout. A romantic wearing the rosiest ever colored glasses would say these people complete each other. I am not wearing those glasses-Hugh Grant needs Drew Barrymore. He needs her in a way that is not romantic but predatory. He's not her partner; he's her parasite.
Drew Barrymore canonically exists as a manic pixie dream girl in someone else's story; she used to date her much-older writing professor (yikes). When they broke up, he wrote their relationship into a best-selling novel (BIG yikes).
This would be traumatic enough if it weren't exploited at every turn by Hugh Grant. Every time he needs her to focus, or to work for him specifically, or to even just be at the center of her attention, he brings up this old-time relationship. At one point, when he's mad, he tells her the old guy was right to exploit her in his own writing, and that she isn't good enough or smart enough to be a writer on her own.
The movie really does want us to believe that Drew Barrymore can only work well if she's being supervised by a much older man who's bending her to his own will-sexually and professionally. But we're supposed to forget all about "unfortunate repeated power dynamics" and "older men who prey on much younger women" because Hugh Grant surprises Drew Barrymore in the end with a big grand gesture.
In Dick Flicks, romance means doing for someone else even if they haven't asked for it-even if they've specifically asked you not to. At the end of this movie, Hugh Grant wins Drew Barrymore by playing her a song in front of a stadium full of people-a new song, with ORIGINAL LYRICS!
Hugh Grant finally felt feelings, we're told, as a result of Drew Barrymore's great influence on his artistic life. Feeling feelings means he can write lyrics just as good as she can! Drew Barrymore is so moved by his apparent change of heart that she rushes the stage and kisses him, forgetting every insult he'd ever thrown at her, every time he'd told her she was not enough.
Setting aside how selfish it is to put someone on blast like that in front of thousands and thousands of people who are more interested in a good story than the troubling reality of the relationship, "Music and Lyrics" prioritizes a guy learning something over a woman's health and safety. Hugh Grant uses his fame and talent and influence to prey on a young, impressionable girl at the beginning of her career-and then abruptly stops that career in its tracks in service of himself.
"Music and Lyrics" came out twelve years ago. That's a whole lifespan in terms of the progress that's been made towards equitable representation on screen-and we still have a long way to go. We're in somewhat of a rom com renaissance right now, and a lot of that has to do with the diverse voices bringing those movies to life. But it's important not to forget from whence we came. For a long time, Hollywood's collective thesis statement was "women will like what I tell them to like"-we get movies like "Music and Lyrics" because producers recognized a market in women and decided to saturate it with stories by men.
"PoP! Goes My Heart" does slap, though.
"Music and Lyrics" is available to stream on Netflix. Watch the trailer below: