by Christopher Fraser
I started working for The Savoy Cinema in February 2008. I was seventeen. The Savoy was a rundown old place in Stockport, England – one of two remaining independent cinemas in the town where I grew up, and a ten-minute walk from my house. Before I started working there, my friends and I had made something of a ritual of going to see whatever they were showing each week. There was already familiarity embedded in the fraying fabric seats, last reupholstered in the late sixties: before every screening, the same album—Hank Marvin’s Marvin at the Movies—would play, apart from around Christmas, when an album of instrumental Christmas carols took its place.
2008 is a year that stands out in my mind, even six years later: it has something to do with the force of the experiences I had around that time. I had my first breakup at the end of the preceding year, my first drink shortly thereafter, and everything was racing headlong to a point where I’d be leaving my hometown for university. This is all weighty, emotional, utterly typical stuff for a teenager to be going through.
Standing in stark contrast to all this weighty, emotional, and utterly typical teenager stuff, there’s Mamma Mia!, the 2008 musical adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Dominic Cooper, Amanda Seyfried and a barking seal wearing a Pierce Brosnan skin-suit. But somehow, I remember every single beat, every single lyric, and everything I was doing around the time The Savoy started screening it. (I had just come back from a French exchange. I had started a blog. I was writing my personal statement for university applications.)
Mamma Mia! was remarkable in a lot of ways, especially in terms of the impact it had on our little suburban community. The Savoy was always on the verge of bankruptcy due to low sales, but the week Mamma Mia! came out, we packed 340 people into the first screening, and those numbers didn’t dwindle for the next fortnight. Since someone had to be on duty in the cinema itself during each screening, I have seen Mamma Mia! over a dozen times. Sometimes, I still catch myself humming "The Winner Takes It All".
The other huge movie of 2008 was Slumdog Millionaire, which also made The Savoy enough money to keep operating over winter. At the end of the film, there’s a Bollywood dance number set to the song "Jai Ho" by A.R. Rahman. It’s a nice nod to the film’s Indian setting and filmic influences, but it’s not meant to be watched every night for 21 days. When they started playing the reworked version by the Pussycat Dolls over the radio in the foyer, we all groaned with exasperation.
This doesn’t even begin to touch on the music that plays over the end credits of movies, when my colleagues and I would begin to clean the auditorium. If we were lucky, this would usually be a piece by the film’s composer. "A Dark Knight", Hans Zimmer’s 16-minute closing suite of the similarly-titled Batman film, is an impressive piece of work, and made us feel like we were doing more important work than picking up trash. A Black Sabbath song plays over the end credits of Iron Man, and it’s great. There’s a nice little Peter Gabriel number that plays at the end of WALL•E—in fact, the whole Thomas Newman score is lovely, understated stuff.
However, at the end of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, will.i.am subjected us to a cover of "I Like To Move It" that, impossibly, managed to make the original sound good. Regina Spektor and Switchfoot perform a couple of charmless songs in the 9-minute credit sequence that follows Prince Caspian. And, at the end ofKung Fu Panda, Cee-Lo Green and Jack Black cover "Kung Fu Fighting", which is every bit as cringe-worthy as it sounds.
Why do I remember all of this? At the time, I resented it: these films were fun the first time we saw them, but even the best ones started to lose their shine a few weeks in. The logical part of me says it’s thanks to repetition, but that explanation falls short. The key, I think, is that I remember my life outside the cinema just as powerfully. 2008 was really the first year that I felt like my life was being soundtracked, so much so that I can listen to those albums now and remember things as though they happened last week.
For example: on November 5th, 2008, I’d gone to work. We were playing Max Payne, a film starring Mark Wahlberg and featuring a score by Marco Beltrami that was full of detuned pianos and jump-scare chords, exactly the kind of music you’d expect in a very silly film about a far-too-serious man. As I stood in the cinema lobby, I saw the fireworks for Guy Fawkes Day going off at a nearby rugby club and in a handful of backyards. After work, I was invited out by a few friends, but I said no.
Later that night, I woke up to the sound of my phone vibrating. One of my friends was calling me. This wasn’t exactly unexpected–I had more than a couple of friends who thought that drunk-dialing me was the height of entertainment—but it was certainly unwelcome, especially at 2am on a school night. I silenced my phone and fell back asleep.
When I woke up the next morning, I had six missed calls from the same friend. I called him, but there was no answer. A little concerned—though, I should add, more annoyed than anything else—I called his landline. His mother answered. She told me that the night before, one of my closest friends had taken six tabs of LSD, stripped naked in the middle of a field, and crawled around on all fours for three hours while two of his friends, also on acid, looked on. Eventually, because he was naked and it was 32°F outside, he keeled over and the two with him finally had the sense to call for an ambulance. His heart rate was dangerously low, he was experiencing the early stages of hypothermia, and the doctors said that he would have likely had a fatal heart attack if he’d been outside for another half-hour. He was still coming down from the trip as I spoke to his parents.
Obviously, when one of your closest friends has a near-death experience, it’s not something you forget easily, and I’m not surprised that I haven’t. It’s strange, though, that when I remember it, the event is tied to the music of the film that preceded it all. Max Payne, like any other movie adapted from a video game, is hardly a modern classic, but because of what happened that night, its soundtrack is still vivid in my mind.
Music amplifies our memories. Although there are other harrowing and absurd moments in my past, when they aren’t associated with any musical cues, they eventually become pencil sketches, rough ideas that work as pithy anecdotes but have lost most of their emotional force.
But the music of Max Payne helps me remember even minute details, like trying to contain my laughter on the phone (hearing that your best friend explained to the extraordinarily patient paramedics that he was okay because he’d spoken to and subsequently eaten God during his trip is just funny), and being yelled at for staring into space and trying not to worry during my French class the next day. The memory has absorbed a strange, discordant tone that sharpens its edges. Just as music becomes meaningless without a listener, life loses some of its texture when you take music away.
I’ve long since stopped caring that Johnny Depp sounds like a rock star past his prime in theSweeney Todd soundtrack; more important to me is the fact that I can put it on and instantly remember taking walks through the snow with my best friend on the days we weren’t working. All the saccharine, upbeat songs from those kids’ summer blockbusters remind me of the times I would go to the park and scribble down ideas for what would, a year later, become my first book. I remember that we spent our free periods before sixth form philosophy classes at the pub, with the vaguely-plausible excuse that a couple of measures of Scotch make you a better philosopher. There’s a color to that year that’s lacking in the years that followed.
Recently, I passed my one-year anniversary of moving to the United States, so these memories have become even more important to me. Sometimes, Stockport—now an eight-hour flight away—feels impossibly distant. By the time I left, most of the friends I knew in 2008 had already drifted away, but I still felt a tug as I boarded the flight to Massachusetts.
Memory fades. As I get older, that scares me. I want to be the sum of my experiences; I want to be able to look at the person I was when I was seventeen and understand his thoughts and motivations, even if that clarity of perception comes with a little guilt and shame. Hell, sometimes I just want to feel my heart swell with nostalgia. That’s why I don’t mind Pierce Brosnan yell-singing the lyrics to “SOS,” or remembering Dev Patel’s impossibly exuberant face at the end of Slumdog Millionaire, or even—yes—Jack Black singing weird backup vocals on "Kung Fu Fighting".
The Savoy quietly closed a few months ago when the projector finally gave up and died. It had been struggling for years—owned, but not run by a family who took little interest in keeping it alive—but when it closed, I felt sadder than I expected. It’s the quiet silencing of an institution that’s forever bound up in my adolescence, the severing of a clean through-line from who I was then to where I am now. Now there are only the memories, buoying me along.
Christopher Fraser is the Operations Manager for Bright Wall/Dark Room and the author of two books. He lives and works in Massachusetts.