Melody (1971)

Also known as S.W.A.L.K., Waris Hussein’s adaptation of Alan Parker’s script, Melody is a film that belongs to a tradition of films that are just ripe for cheap jokes from film critics. It has been seen countless times before when films have a title that allows a cut-rate swipe at the quality of the picture. And even though this is named after a character, in this case, it is still a word that has a lot of relevance with the soundtrack coming from 1970s pop favourite the Bee Gees. Music is a very personal thing, unfortunately, this was the main thing that I struggled with in this otherwise wonderful film – the sound they employ is comparable to early Beatles only with some of the most obvious sing what you see lyrics imaginable. Each new song draws far too much attention to itself, a major problem when using a band that has entered in the cultural discourse.

This 1971 film is the best sort of hangover from the uncharacteristic 1960s British film, a fact made evident by the anarchic final scene but more on that later. Besides the inclusion of the Bee Gees, the most immediate takeaway is Melody’s significant influence on Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Mark Lester (Oliver!) and Jack Wild (also Oliver!) are best friends at a public school, even though one is from a well-to-do middle-class suburban family (Lester) and the other appears to live independently with little in the way of parental care. For much of the first hour, the film occupies a leisurely and nostalgic space where Parker’s script constructs a school hierarchy and the boys largely play pranks on one another. There isn’t really much in the sense of direction, however, the tone will be a comfortable one to anyone who went through the British school system before the turn of the 21st century. Think Lindsay Anderson’s If only without its fangs bared.

Hussein doesn’t solely focus on the boy’s friendship, he does spend some time with the girls in Melody (Tracy Hyde) and her social circle. A time that is spent depicting the conflict between the worldliness they use to show off to their friends and the real naivete that lurks beneath – same for the boys too. The film is comforting and warm in the same way that a lot of Ealing’s standout work was in that it eloquently and charmingly evokes pleasures of a simpler time, albeit with a slight sense of danger to keep the pulse thumping. Personally, I could’ve watched this for the full two hours using the discourse of it being a notable inspiration of TV institutions like Grange Hill and company.

Daniel (Lester) and Melody (Hyde) have a few exchanged glances packed with prepubescent romantic tension during the first half, but that’s about it. Then around the hour mark, the film changes its tact turning into an endearing romantic picture in which the two fall in love before they really have any notion for what love is – a far better way to tell this story than the unnecessary sexualisation that Wes Anderson instilled into Moonrise Kingdom. This all starts after Melody waits for Daniel after he is subject to after school corporal punishment, a meeting that leads to the two to having a meal with her family, taking an unannounced day off school to go to the beach before eventually deciding that the two aren’t going to wait till they are adults they are going to get married there and then. It’s in that latter scene that the rambunctiousness of 1960s British cinema is present with a big cathartic blowout for kids of all shapes and sizes to get their own back on teachers that tortured them years before. Such potent wish fulfillment draws an awful lot of parallels to the legendarily subversive Lindsay Anderson public school satire.

If you know where to look, cinema is packed with examples that show the romantic comedy is a more nourishing genre than the mess of derivative star vehicles that America is subjecting on modern audiences. Melody is a simple film and that is perfectly fine. With that simplicity, it develops a relationship patiently and provides countless memorable scenes that are as equally funny as they are adorable. Look no further than the scene in which a devastated Melody is questioning her parents why nobody believes or will allow her young love with Daniel. One line of dialogue shared between the young duo expresses this beautifully, the two are talking about being married for 50 years a length which puzzles Melody. Daniel dispells that confusion by saying, “it’s easy, I’ve already loved you for a week”. That innocent way of processing the big questions is a joy, likewise, there is another exchange between Daniel and Ornshaw (Wild) in which the latter presents his feelings on the winners and losers of life at the school’s sports day with a clarity that makes Richard Linklater’s scripts look absolutely leaden.

Even with it having some of the clunkiest montages scored by the most literal of Bee Gees scores, Melody has been a little forgotten in the near 60 years since its release so credit where it is due to Studio Canal for reintroducing it to the world. British film is in a comatose state as we speak, so just like Waris Hussein inspirational and upliftingly cathartic romantic comedy can be dragged out of the past for a whole new generation, it also serves as a forever timely reminder that us Brits can make films every bit as timeless and enjoyable as the rest of the world even if you wouldn’t know it to look at the absolute lack of homegrown movies playing in our cinemas.


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