Adam Curtis: using music to make sense of the world.

The right kind of musical score accompanying visuals is key to driving the right message home.


Earlier this February, BAFTA Award-winning filmmaker Adam Curtis released a six-part documentary series which attempts to make sense of the sociohistorical events that have led us to the troubled world we all live in.  Or, as Curtis put it in an interview with the i newspaper: “I’m trying to explain why we feel so helpless.”

The BBC documentaries – which cover a number of cultural and political focus points, from Ethel Boole to Jiang Qing to Michael X, almost simultaneously – are all encompassing, overwhelming, and as brilliant as they are, at times, baffling.

There is such an overload of information, Curtis uses the familiarity of pop music to mercifully offer viewers some respite as they try to take everything in.  At times, the music almost acts as a life raft for the audience to rest upon in a sea of complexity.  Though it also helps develop the narrative and connect deeper emotional concepts.

Using music in such a way is something Curtis has become well-known for.  He uses it as a tool to help create a mood – even if the song choices at times can seem somewhat incongruous.  In Bitter Lake, his 2015 film, Curtis explores footage taken from the war in Afghanistan.  He realised that, often when viewers were presented with images of a foreign country, they were given ‘foreign’ music to match.  So, he sampled a western song – Kanye West’s Runaway – as to make the victims of the war feel less distant and more familiar; thus invoking new emotions from the audience. 

Developing a story through the use of non-diegetic sound is nothing new in filmmaking.  However, within Curtis’ body of work, it also helps effectively make sense of some of the more complicated notions being proposed on screen.

The title of his new series – Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World – almost perfectly outlines the way music is used to help an audience understand his work.  The first part of the title being a reference to Kylie Minogue’s pop classic, while the second part proposes the complicated conceit of the series.


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By Hal Fish: Music Columnist.

He uses it as a tool to help create a mood – even if the song choices at times can seem somewhat incongruous.


As someone who worked for the BBC for a number of years, he noticed that a lot of journalism would fail to reach wider audiences because it was too formal in its delivery.  Imbedding pop music within his work allowed Curtis to access a crowd who usually might not be drawn in by this kind of content.

In an interview with Crack magazine, Curtis lists two pop artists – Aphex Twin and SOPHIE – whose music features in his series because their respective styles also represent the same ideas he hopes to invoke on screen.



“What I think is brilliant about Aphex Twin is that he does two things.  He combines in his lyrical work a wonderful expression of that yearning for something beyond.  But then also expresses in other pieces the fractured and uneasy mood of the present moment,” Curtis explains.


“I think that that is also what SOPHIE did beautifully as well, jumping back and forth between the two without having to bother with the old idea of transitions.”


Anyone who has watched Curtis’ latest series will recognise that he too will jump back and forth between storylines and images without caring to offer much of a gentle transition.  Curtis evidently feels these musical concepts match what he hopes to achieve emotionally and thematically with his series. It all serves as a reminder of how different art forms can be woven together to create new and complex ideas.


MACKAYAN: adam curtis. using music to make sense of the world.