The Song In The Scene

Let’s compare two songs.

First, from The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, the narrated piece, The Bells of Notre Dame.

Second, from Moana, Jermaine Clement’s song, Shiny:

Now, these songs don’t have a lot of similarity between one another, really. Shiny is a comedy piece, a sort of mid-stage development point for the characterisation of Maui and Moana, and Bells is the introductory piece for Judge Frollo, Quasimodo, the Priest, and Notre Dame itself.

These two songs, however, show to me a distinct difference in how Disney does things these days versus how they did. First of all, let me clear up that Shiny is a straight-up comedy song. It’s definitely funny – Tamatoa breaks the fourth wall, he tells jokes, he’s very big and exaggerated. It’d be pretty easy to file it as the comedy number with just some details in it.

The thing is, I see these two songs as being startlingly similar and also extremely different. The main thing about them that’s similar is that they’re both songs that tell you about the setting, tell you about the characters involved, incorporate narrative, and reveal a backstory element of a character. Shiny’s a jokey song but it’s a song that does as much as Bells.

The thing they do, however, that’s both songs have a component of the movie’s story happen in the middle of them: In Bells, that component is part of the song, and is implemented as such, but in Shiny, it interrupts the song, and is unrelated to the song: This is particularly interesting because the singing in Disney movies is usually diegetic but also nondiegetic: Nobody really explains that a character is actually singing in any given scene. Moana even uses its diegetic music to convey the transition between languages you saw in We Know The Way:

See that? The way the people of the tribe are singing the song when it’s in their native language, but they’re not shown singing it when the song transitions to English? Wonderful stuff, ingenious.

Now, the thing that prompted this whole idea, though, is something I don’t like that much: These songs are of their space in this story – inextricably. The songs in Moana cannot be easily removed from the movie to listen to as a song, which I think, emperically is kinda harder and more impressive? It means that those songs exist as pieces of the whole, that there’s more work and difficulty involved in constructing the musical.

But at the same time, there’s still something of me that admires and respects the difficulty in the song being the song; that you have 3 minutes to convey what the song’s doing, that it is a discrete piece of media, and the movie implements it – in the same way that a good piece of dialogue can be removed from a scene, and still implies the rest of it.

Anyway, that’s a really minor, aesthetic point and just something I think is interesting, particularly since this habit of breaking structure – of using music to build a structure then breaking out of it by the use of diegesis – is a very hip-hop thing to do.

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