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Sound It Out

By Matt Strachan

Sound It OutMusic appears to be particularly fertile ground for film these days. With more and more film festivals moving towards live performances alongside screenings – be it orchestral scores to silent films or bands playing after a film that relates in some way – and an increasing reliance on popular musicians as composers (Jonny Greenwood, Nick Cave, Alex Turner, and so on), there seems no limit to the ways in which music and film find themselves able to prop one another up as the wolves of piracy and home entertainment scratch at the door of their more traditional revenue streams.

Whether you’re a fan of this cross-pollination or not, it’s hard to deny that the two go hand in glove as far as cinematic content is concerned. From the spine-tingle that comes from a perfect pairing of soundtrack and visual sequence (Propellerheads’ Spybreak! in The Matrix for example, or The Kinks’ contribution to The Darjeeling Limited), right through to the rock-doc, its mock-rock-doc cousin, the music biopic and everything in between, music – when used correctly – can lie at the heart of what makes great cinema so powerful.

Jeanie Finlay’s Sound It Out certainly taps into this vein, albeit without ever getting arterially close enough to the heart itself. Her documentary portrait of the last surviving vinyl record shop in the North East of England (the titular Sound It Out in Stockton-on-Tees) explores the breadth and depth of music and its relationship with listeners. From its most obvious functions as a mechanism for escape and creative expression, through to its ability to “hold memories” (as the shop’s owner, Tom, so eloquently puts it) and unearth emotions, music is revealed in all its glory by the inevitable array of charming freaks and geeks that are the record shop’s regulars (both in front of, and behind, the counter). Through a mosaic of numerous interviews they find ways to connect the severity of life with the extremities of music (hard dance and heavy metal are particularly popular amongst those living hard lives locally), to explore the male-female divide and its musical manifestations, and to comment upon the decline of Stockton-on-Tees and towns all over the country just like it.

But there is also a sense of lost opportunity that comes with the film. Such unfettered access to a shop full of retro aesthetics and idiosyncratic individuals could (and arguably should) have led to an almost perfect documentary – beautifully shot, visually arresting, a deep digger that’s insightful above and beyond the surface-level responses of its subjects. As it stands Finlay reaps the obvious rewards of the shop and its cast of characters by what seems to be an almost plodding approach to production – plenty of workaday shots of the shop and its wares, plenty of interviews full of ordinary (and a few too many closed) questions, and therefore plenty of underutilised potential.

The film’s tag line is ‘High Fidelity with a Northern accent’, and it certainly strikes – almost immediately – as the documentary version of Stephen Frears’ film. Sean Dunne’s short The Archive also springs to mind. If anything Sound It Out might’ve been much stronger in short form, avoiding the pitfalls of shop floor shot fodder (too many record sleeves at funky angles) and interview fatigue (too many people saying similar things) whilst strengthening its funny moments and emotional resonance by sheer brevity. However, those moments – and that resonance – still ultimately shine through at feature length, and the film is able to enjoy its dip in the fertile ground where music and cinema meet. No doubt audiences will too – it’s just a shame that dip couldn’t be deeper.

Sound It Out is currently screening at festivals worldwide. View the film's trailer or visit sounditoutdoc.com to find out more.

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