Science in Storytelling: Interstellar and ’39

Both Queen and Christopher Nolan have used the theory of relativity as a foundation for storytelling in surprisingly similar ways. Their ventures show how science can be used to tell human stories.

By Sadie MacDonald

I don’t think that everyone is aware of the song “39” by Queen. This underrated gem sounds like a folksy shanty with its lyrics about ships and seas, but it’s not what it seems.

“39” was penned by Brian May, who put his astrophysics studies on hold to pursue his career as lead guitarist of Queen (as one does). With that fact in mind, the song becomes very different from what its genre initially implies it to be.

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Dr. Brian May eventually did finish his Ph.D in astrophysics thirty years after starting it! Photo: HuffPost

The song’s “ship” is a spaceship, and the “milky seas” refers to the Milky Way. The “world so newly born” is another planet that offers hope for an “old and grey” Earth. Some lyrics in the song are strange: the chorus mentions “the land that our grandchildren knew” and the narrator observes in the final verse that “so many years have gone though I’m older but a year.” He addresses someone mournfully, saying “your mother’s eyes from your eyes cry to me.”

May once explained “39” in an interview:

It’s a science fiction story. It’s the story about someone who goes away and leaves his family and because of the time dilation effect, when you go away, the people on earth have aged a lot more than he has when he comes home. He’s aged a year and they’ve aged 100 years so, instead of coming back to his wife, he comes back to his daughter and he can see his wife in his daughter, a strange story.

Essentially, “39” is about the human effects of the theory of relativity. I had too much of an arts education to explain relativity properly, but what’s important to this discussion is that time is relative; it will not pass at the same rate for all observers, and can be distorted. Some causes for extreme time dilation include black holes, which can distort the fabric of space-time itself, and light-speed travel (the closer something gets to the speed of light, the slower time will pass for it). For the traveller in “39,” only a year has gone by, but much more time has passed back on Earth, and the person who wrote him “letters in the sand” is no longer alive when he returns.

If you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar, this might sound a little familiar.

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Matthew McConaughey as Joseph Cooper in Interstellar. Photo: FilmGrab

To sum up (and spoil) Interstellar: the film is set in a future where the Earth is a dying dust bowl and its population is at risk of extinction. NASA sends explorers into space to find a planet to serve as a new home. Protagonist Cooper is one reluctant explorer, leaving his children in hopes of giving them a future. Near the midpoint of the film, Cooper arrives on a planet where time is so dilated that while a few hours pass for him, 23 Earth years go by, as he discovers when he returns to the ship to find recorded messages left by his aging children. By the end of the film, his daughter Murphy is an old woman, and Cooper reunites with her on her deathbed.

When I saw Interstellar’s trailers, I wondered if it was connected to “39”, and after watching the film, I felt certain of it. As far as I’m aware, though, Nolan never confirmed if “39” inspired Interstellar. There are several key similarities. Both feature explorers leaving a failing Earth in a spaceship in search of a new world. Their quest is ultimately successful, but at huge personal – and temporal – cost to the explorers and their loved ones. Time acts as a destructive force that irrevocably disrupts the natural lifespans of those involved, but it is also a precious resource for the protagonist, who gets to see his daughter in her old age.

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Cooper saying goodbye to his daughter Murphy as he leaves for his mission. Photo: FilmGrab

These stories show that science fiction can be intimately human. Both “39” and Interstellar use physics to tell stories of love, loss, and hope. Cooper realizes that his and Murphy’s love for each other is “the key” to transmitting the data that will save humanity, and the narrator of “39” promises his partner he will return to Earth. Interstellar ends optimistically, but the narrator of “39” laments that “all your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand / for my life still ahead, pity me.” Scientific discoveries and saving Earth’s population is not enough to make up for what was lost on a personal scale, but love endures nonetheless.

Science fiction, though often maligned, offers unique opportunities to explore human relationships and emotions in technologically fantastic settings. These elements have been tied to the genre since its beginnings in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and have endured up through Star Trek and Carl Sagan’s Contact. We could use more marriages between science and storytelling. As Dr. Brian May himself says, “I think we all realize ourselves best by opening up both sides of our intellect… artistic and scientific.”

You Can’t Repeat the Past

Why, of course you can! Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) demonstrates that while it may seem unorthodox to decide against a by-the-book 1920s soundtrack, the choice to incorporate contemporary artists worked.

By Serena Ypelaar

When a new adaptation of The Great Gatsby got the green light (pun intended), I was over the moon. High School Me was obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, despite never being assigned to read it (or perhaps that’s why I actually liked it: it wasn’t just schoolwork).

Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Photo: The Gentleman’s Journal

Leonardo DiCaprio was cast as Jay Gatsby, Tobey Maguire was to play narrator Nick Carraway, and Carey Mulligan was Daisy; matches made in heaven, basically. But one thing I just wasn’t sure about was the soundtrack. When I saw a couple of early trailers for the film, I was mildly indignant. Eager as I was, I was a purist and had expected authentic 1920s music to furnish the lavish Baz Luhrmann film. But that’s the understanding I lacked: I hadn’t seen Moulin Rouge or any of Luhrmann’s other films at that time, so his style was unknown to me. What do you mean, they’re using modern music in such a sacred film, one rooted so inextricably in the Jazz Age? I was positively affronted. How would that ever work?

But then came May, and I saw the movie. And it worked; by God, did it ever work. I don’t know how, but I finally understood the vision and appreciated the 1920s flair added to each track, as produced by Jay-Z. Joining him were Kanye West, Beyoncé and André 3000, Lana Del Rey, will.i.am, Fergie, Gotye, Sia, Florence + the Machine,
Emeli Sandé, Bryan Ferry, The xx, and Jack White. In other words, a gilded lineup if I ever saw (or heard) one.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and Jay Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio) in New York. Photo: Pinterest

Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” is achingly wistful; The xx’s “Together” is languid and romantic. On the flip side, Fergie and will.i.am’s tracks brought the party to life, and Jay-Z, Kanye, and Beyoncé capture the enigmatic allure of both Gatsby and New York City. Jay-Z and Kanye’s “No Church in the Wild” overlaid a city montage so memorably that I picture the scene whenever I hear the track.

The soundtrack is used (in conjunction with original novel quotes) to great effect at Gatsby’s party, seen here.

As seen through Nick’s eyes, Gatsby’s party is a perfect example of the soundtrack at play. In my reading of the novel, Fitzgerald knew exactly the right balance to strike between well-placed pithiness and sprawlingly eloquent description. The film soundtrack is the perfect complement: opulence, combined with Fitzgerald’s judicious prose, creates a picture of how the party might look and sound.

The Buchanans, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and Tom (Joel Edgerton). Photo: Pinterest

Surrendering my preconceived notions was easy once swept up by the film in its totality. I appreciate how the soundtrack was able to unseat my stubborn misgivings, and I think creatively, it was a phenomenal success. When I imagine the alternative, my originally preferred 1920s jazz, I can admit that the film might then have come across as static compared to this adaptation, which lies fluidly between Fitzgerald’s era and ours. It’s a bridge to audiences, who can relate to these familiar musicians in a setting that may be largely unfamiliar. In less capable hands, it could have been a disaster. But elements of each song nod to the novel, from Florence’s “green light” in “Over the Love” to Gatsby’s ultimate fate, tacitly referenced in will.i.am’s “Bang Bang”. Interspersed with Craig Armstrong’s alternately bubbly and haunting score, the soundtrack represents all the warring interests and desires of the film, looping backstory into the ominous plot progression.

Some people didn’t even like this film. But Luhrmann’s Gatsby is staunchly faithful to the source material as far as the screenplay goes. The characters spoke many lines verbatim from the book, which warmed my purist heart; the costumes were wonderfully executed. Any liberality had to be assigned elsewhere, and I’m actually glad it was the music. This soundtrack might not have thrived with a direct repeat of past music. Instead, it acknowledges history and moves forward with it to inform something new, which the misguided Gatsby failed to do as he tried to reconstruct the past.

Gatsby (DiCaprio) reaches for the green light across the bay, obsessed with getting back to Daisy as if nothing had changed. Photo: Odyssey

This soundtrack will always be relevant to me as a reminder that our fixation on what things should be isn’t always what’s best – there are so many new and daring possibilities out there.

At the Movies, Music is the New Sports

The recent proliferation of superhero movies leaves us with specific associations regarding blockbusters. Sports films had their heyday in the 1990s, but does the imminent release of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman signal a resurgence of music biopics?

By Serena Ypelaar

Is there a sports team that everybody likes? No way.

Are there bands/musicians that (nearly) everybody likes? I think so!

Why am I asking these questions? Mainly to posit a recent theory of mine that music biopics are the future of the film industry. The upcoming release of movies like Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), in which Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury of the rock band Queen, and Rocketman (2019), starring Taron Egerton as Elton John, got me thinking about the marketability of popular cinema genres these days.

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Rami Malek as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). Photo: YouTube

Ever since the Harry Potter films were finished (which in my completely unbiased opinion set the standard for franchise/adaptation blockbusters), I’ve felt like there haven’t been as many blockbusters that don’t wear thin. The creative industry of Hollywood seems increasingly stale with its endless superhero reboots. I feel sorry for the dead horse that is the Marvel franchise – it’s taken so many beatings over the last few years (Infinity War is aptly named). Just when you think nobody wants another superhero flick, people still flock to the theatres without fail.

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Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman (2019). Photo: IMDb

Marvel keeps making the movies because people keep watching. Movies are creative, but they also have to sell, which is where formulas come in. With the ever-pressing need to make more high-grossing films, it looks like we might be in for an oncoming surge in music biopics.

Why do I think music flicks are so universally marketable compared to, say, sports? Well, for starters, I know from experience that sports are highly emotional, and at times, controversial.

  1. Not everyone likes sports. Nearly everyone likes music of some kind (correct me if I’m wrong).
  2. Of those who do like sports, they have a team/athlete they love, and teams/athletes they HATE. Just look around during the World Cup or the NHL – people are at each other’s throats over sports teams.
  3. The competitive nature of sports (win/draw/lose) is much different than the non-discrete, creative nature of music – it’s possible to like many genres without needing to “beat” others (award shows aside).

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Sports disagreements can loom large; there’s a deep sense of loyalty to one’s team that doesn’t hold as much emotional tension in music preferences. Unless you are Nickelback. Photo: Gifer

Maybe my evidence is anecdotal, but there’s a certain type of community that comes from music. There are songs that seem exempt from hatred, and it’s this phenomenon that I think makes music flicks much more viable than sport flicks. Not that there can’t be good sport films, but in terms of mass marketing, making a film about a timeless and popular band has a higher chance of box office success than a movie about a given sport, team, or athlete who has a smaller group of fans.

For instance: one of the most timeless songs of the twenty-first century so far is The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside”. I’d be hard-pressed to find a single person in my generation who couldn’t/wouldn’t belt out the lyrics at a moment’s notice (COMIN’ OUT OF MY CAGE AND I’VE BEEN DOING JUST FINE) upon hearing the opening chords. I wholeheartedly expect a Killers biopic in thirty years’ time titled Mr. Brightside, because what better way to bring in the masses than by using a tune that’s instantly recognizable and which personifies the band itself?

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Swimming through sick lullabies, choking on your alibis… Photo: WeHeartIt

It certainly seems to be the strategy that the teams behind Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman have employed. Based on the widespread popularity of both these musical acts, I almost wonder if the storyline even needs to be stellar, as long as the cast puts on a good show musically (just ask Mamma Mia!). The film industry is under pressure to deliver some fresh takes, but that doesn’t mean it won’t draw upon timeless old classics in a new light. After all, classics are guaranteed popularity.

Perhaps, based on the success of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, music flicks will take off – I certainly wouldn’t mind. May they pack a more satisfying punch than the exhausted superheroes can muster.

“Canadian” is not a genre

As we near Canada Day, we question Canadian content standards and come up with some top playlist picks for the long weekend.

By Serena Ypelaar

I didn’t come up with the title for this post myself – it’s a slogan coined by Dine Alone Records, the Canadian independent record label based here in Toronto.

We can take some pointers from its message, as Canadian art is often dismissed – from literature, to visual arts, to music, and more. It’d be interesting to see what percentage of music in our libraries is Canadian – I’d wager most Canadians have 15% or less. But the fact is that there is so much Canadian music out there – and it’s good. 

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Canadian Indigenous singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. Photo: Flickr

What is it about being Canadian that automatically garners less attention? We even have poorer-quality versions of American reality TV shows, and a terrible Netflix selection compared to our southern neighbours to show for it.

In our current political climate, feat. a tariff war with the United States (which, let’s be honest, flares up every so often like a chronic wound), why not support Canadian musicians and invest in some local talent?

Here are some concise, but by no means comprehensive, top picks for quintessential Canadian listening. Enjoy my quick recs below.

A Tribe Called Red: Essential Indigenous electronic/hip-hop; mandatory listening. Songs to Start With: “R.E.D.,” “How I Feel”, “Bread & Cheese”

Billy Talent: Political commentary & punk rock all in one. Crisp guitars; crisper lyrics. Songs to Start With: “Try Honesty”, “Devil in a Midnight Mass”, “White Sparrows”

July Talk: Jarring juxtaposition of vocals – guttural/masculine vs. soft/feminine. Songs to Start With: “Headsick”, “Blood + Honey”, “Picturing Love”

Alexisonfire: “The sound of two Catholic high-school girls mid-knife-fight”.* Songs to Start With: “Boiled Frogs”, “Get Fighted”, “Midnight Regulations”

*I can’t describe it any better than they already have…

City and Colour: Mournful lamentations nursed by Dallas Green’s voice. Songs to Start With: “Casey’s Song”, “Waiting…”, “The Lonely Life”

Arkells: Anthemic, buoyant daytime rock with a touch of motown. Songs to Start With: “Where U Goin”, “Cynical Bastards”, “John Lennon”

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Mike DeAngelis and Max Kerman of Hamilton band Arkells, at WayHome Music and Arts Festival 2016. Photo: Flickr

Death From Above: Industrious duo at the junction of bass & drums. Songs to Start With: “All I C is U and Me”, “Crystal Ball”, “Romantic Rights”

Tanya Tagaq: Daring, innovative, and traditional Inuit throat-singing. Songs to Start With: “Uja”, “Sila”, “Retribution”

Mother Mother: Three-layered high-pitched vocals on a base of synth and strings. Songs to Start With: “Ghosting”, “The Stand”, “Infinitesimal”

Sum 41: Sprawling spitfire of classic punk rock with heavyweight choruses. Songs to Start With: “Still Waiting”, “Open Your Eyes”, “With Me”

USS (Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker): Lucid, lively electronica fuelled by lyrical emotion. Songs to Start With: “Damini”, “Vulcan”, “Freakquency”

Arcade Fire: A convergence of 6+ hipsters producing indie rock with accordion and keyboard at the fore. Songs to Start With: “Ready to Start”, “The Suburbs”, “No Cars Go”

Monster Truck: 70s style blues rock backed by organs. Long hair & denim required.   Songs to Start With: “Don’t Tell Me How to Live”, “Old Train”, “For the People”

Hollerado: Personable indie rock with a genuine sound and hard-hitting beats. Songs to Start With: “Too Much to Handle”, “So It Goes”, “Got to Lose”

Drake: No description needed for Toronto’s resident rapper… Songs to Start With: “Passionfruit”, “Over”, “God’s Plan”

Our Lady Peace: Low, crooning vocals replete with reassuring lyrics. Songs to Start With: “Innocent”, “All You Did Was Save My Life”, “Angels/Losing/Sleep”

Avril Lavigne: Do I even need to explain this? Songs to Start With: “Complicated”, “Sk8er Boi”, “I’m With You”

Cancer Bats: Gritty underground metal; shredding, cymbal-smashing oblivion. Songs to Start With: “Hail Destroyer”, “Beelzebub”, “Gatekeeper”

Three Days Grace: Bass-heavy garage-rock with brutally honest insights. Songs to Start With: “Just Like You”, “Never Too Late”, “Last to Know”

Sam Roberts Band: Even-paced alternative rock with laid-back guitars. Songs to Start With: “Brother Down”, “Them Kids”, “If You Want It”

Half Moon Run: Serene assertions on the human condition, featuring folksy acoustics. Songs to Start With: “Nerve”, “Trust”, “Narrow Margins”

Wintersleep: Guitars, synth, and experimental riffs with a sprightly rhythm. Songs to Start With: “Lifting Cure”, “Metropolis”, “Santa Fe”

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Alanis Morissette. Photo: Wikimedia

Of course, there are also the Canadian classics, which you might consider revisiting for the long weekend. I’ve created a track-by-track vignette of essential Canadiana:

  • Rush – “YYZ”
  • Buffy Sainte-Marie – “Working for the Government”
  • Bryan Adams – “Summer of ’69”
  • The Guess Who – “American Woman”
  • Gordon Lightfoot – “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”
  • Shania Twain – “Man! I Feel Like A Woman”
  • Alanis Morissette – “Thank U”
  • Sarah McLachlan – “Building A Mystery”
  • Great Big Sea – “The Chemical Worker’s Song”
  • Neil Young – “Heart of Gold”
  • Joni Mitchell – “Big Yellow Taxi”
  • Leonard Cohen – “Treaty”
  • k.d. lang – “Constant Craving”
  • Celine Dion – “My Heart Will Go On”
  • Barenaked Ladies – “Canada Dry”
  • The Tragically Hip – “Bobcaygeon”

Obviously I omitted a bunch of bands/artists, mainly because I don’t listen to them enough to consider myself worthy of making thoughtful recommendations. Other Canadian artists are included below.

Shad, Lights, The Dirty Nil, Anne Murray, The Jerry Cans, Shawn Mendes, Sloan, Tegan and Sara, Michael Buble, Metric, Simple Plan, Young Empires, Joni Mitchell, Nelly Furtado, Bruce Cockburn, Jann Arden, The Trews, Corey Hart, Alessia Cara, Ron Sexsmith, Diana Krall, Stan Rogers, BROS, Feist, The Beaches, Moneen, The Darcys, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, Said the Whale, Constantines, Marianas Trench, Silverstein, Broken Social Scene, Big Wreck, Nickelback, PUP, Dear Rouge, Blue Rodeo, Hedley, Fucked Up, Toronto, Great Lake Swimmers, The Rural Alberta Advantage, Teenage Head, Down With Webster, Thousand Foot Krutch, Matt Good Band, The Tea Party, The Sheepdogs, Hey Rosetta!, The Elwins, IllScarlett, Prism, I Mother Earth, Black Lungs, Chromeo, Japandroids, Whitehorse, Protest the Hero, The New Pornographers, Joel Plaskett, Northern Voice, Serena Ryder, Lost Cousins, Moist, Neverending White Lights, Platinum Blonde, Stabilo, Saint Asonia, Finger Eleven, Templar, Theory of a Deadman, Wolf Parade, Yukon Blonde, Born Ruffians, Black Bear.

Over the years, so much of Canadian identity has been built on what we’re not (namely, American). Let’s talk about what we are, for a change. It’s something Canadian music does well, if we only listen.