Diegetics: Not A Creepy Religion

Character Select concerns moments in film, television and gaming where music had such a significant impact that, for better or worse, it became a character in its own right. Rob Ó Conchúir casts a wary eye over some of the more out-there musical cameos to hit screens… 

When you hear the word ‘diegetic’ you might assume it’s an aspect of some creepy new religion (read: cult) that some hot young thing is championing while jumping on Oprah’s couch cushions. Diegesis actually refers to “the sphere or world in which these narrated events and other elements occur”. Basically, diegetic sounds in a movie or TV show or other piece of presented fiction is sounds that the characters can hear. Whereas 90% of TV and movies contain non-diegetic music (soundtrack score, etc), it’s interesting to count the amount of times diegetic music pops up.

The most common examples of this are when a pivotal scene or an entire movie revolves around a character playing or hearing a song. We’ve seen John Cusack raise a stereo over his head, we remember Humphrey Bogart asking Sam to play it again (trivia: No one actually says ‘Play it again, Sam’ in Casablanca) and everyone knows Marty McFly mends a hole in the space-time continuum with a bitchin’ rendition of Johnny B. Goode. There are some far stranger and less mentioned examples of diegetic music in film, though.

It’s always struck me as strange when a high-profile band appears in the background of an American teen drama (go on and pretend you’ve never watched one week after week). Imagine going to your local and having the latest snivelling pop band turn up, introduce themselves (as if you’ve never heard of them) and then have to listen to them spew their latest automatically tuned aural despair, while you’re forced to smile and nod along like it’s the hippest new sound you’ve heard in a while. The original Beverly Hills 90210 was repeatedly guilty of this, with some of the most forgotten New Kids on the Block-rejects turning up at the Peach Pit After Dark (“The 1990s”) week after week. The recent revival of the show wasn’t much better.


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In movies it gets even odder. 2002’s Spider-Man isn’t perfect, but it’s a wonderfully lively, well-intentioned superhero romp for a new millennium and unlike so many of the superhero films churned out year after year nowadays, it actually did seem to have its heart on its sleeve in the right place. But anytime I watch it, I’m completely taken out of the film when in the second act during a parade scene, an announcer heralds the arrival of Columbia Records’ hit new star “Maaaacy Graaaaay!!” reminding you to purchase the soundtrack album containing her fresh new track “Nutmeg Phantasy”.

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The worst and greatest example of music remaining firmly within a movie’s four walls however takes place in the seminal classic churned-out sequel Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (just rolls right off the shell).  The Hero Turtles (if you’re from the UK or Ireland) are busy battling Shredder’s monstrous goons on the grounds of his grungy scrapyard hideout. As the fight escalates, the Turtles suddenly find themselves thrown into a nearby building which turns out to be a nightclub where none other than future Jedward co-conspirator Vanilla Ice himself is playing a live gig. If the idea of a swanky 1990s dance club being situated right beside a seedy scrapyard isn’t enough lunacy for you; Ice, clearly shocked into a higher form of being by the Mutant Ninja events transpiring in front of him, proceeds to  freestyle a “Ninja Rap” right there and then. Of course the Turtles then join him onstage in a perfectly choreographed ninja-dance. Cinema ecstasy.

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So moved by the events of the film was Vanilla Ice, that to this day he tries to remind people of it, going as far as to proclaim that  it was ‘the highlight of [h[his]�life’  and that he ‘s still very much a Ninja at heart. Who knows? Maybe Macy Gray’s ‘Nutmeg Phantasy’ really meant something to her as well and it came from a place of pure affinity for the legend of Spider-Man.