Cinesonic: true teen sound in Bring It On

Philip Brophy

Teen movie energy is commonly signified yet grossly misrepresented in the cinema. Its signage is obvious—a grab-bag of whatever the art department thinks will make the film hip—yet its representation is vacuous and ingenuine. In most permutations of the genre, teen energy is thematically articulated: writ large and unimaginatively onto the screen as convincingly as a water-based tattoo transfer. ‘Youth’ is the deodorant of this cinematic corpus; teen movies accordingly stink of youth. They smell of adults remembering, redressing, inventing, and plainly, fucking with youth. Adult guilt in representing youth is typified by neurotic vacillation between cruel flippancy and maudlin yearning. Many teen movies walk a fine line between intentional expression and reactionary dismissal, squirming on their own psychiatric couch as they figure youth with wildly conflicting emotions and perspectives.

This is why teen movies are so derided: their apparent ‘celebration’ of youth is registered at the level of formal narrative construction as if designed with clear authorial guidance. The contextual reality of most teen movies is that highly problematized psychologies author their texts. Fucked-up parents are the ones making most of these movies. It would be rare for a teen movie to textually and thematically admit that it is so far removed from its subject that it cannot help but generate an invalid and suspect text. (This, for example, accounts for the last decade’s worth of ‘age-shift’ movies, where an adult suddenly inhabits a kid’s body and vice versa.) Self-loathing has been a major modulating current in 90s teen movies due to that decade’s own liveliness of pop cultural trends which, as they do each decade, mark the gaping distance between the veracity of true ephemera and the presumption with which filmmakers depict currencies and fads. Each new teen movie knows it’s dated, yet its maker wants to claim accuracy in depicting ‘what kids are really like these days’. (Larry Clark’s Kids is a sublime exception: he allows kids to be their own energy irrespective of their age and era.)

The main reason for teen energy’s overwhelmingly affected and underwhelmingly effective display in the movies is to do with the obvious fact that teens or youths are not the filmmakers. Picture teen energy—the embodiment of some such force within the psycho-sexual vessel of the body of youth—as a voice: a material manifestation of identity with precise characteristics. Picture teen movies—he dramaturgical diorama for the staging of that force—as mimicry, impersonation, caricature. Like a comedian doing Stallone or an actor doing a valley girl, their reference hinges on complete acceptance of their illegitimacy. Teen energy is most noticeable in social formations, group gatherings and public spaces. In place of a voice that can either be controlled, copied or codified, you have a din, all talking at once, each the centre of its own stage. Screaming, yelling, shouting, gaggling.

Consider that sonic image for a moment. Now amplify it a thousand fold. The noise you now hear is the sound of Bring It On. The dramaturgical diorama of Bring It On is one that commits to presenting this scenario, and with such intensity that there can be no room for smarminess, irony, hipness or satire. I’m sure many people equate cheerleaders with the image through which they have been branded by countless attacks on their subculture: from serial killers to comedians to punk bands to arthouse movies. I thought Bring It On was going to be some para-indie Sundance-hip (yechhh!) witty critique of an obvious bimbo-target like cheerleaders. But Bring It On is so aware of the cheap (and dated) idea of ‘critiquing pop culture’ that one scene brings up the infamous mother who hired someone to kill a cheerleader competing against her own daughter, then dismisses it instantaneously. If you can understand why a mother would be that obsessive, you wouldn’t make fun of such an event; you would accept its deviancy as normal. For Bring It On is literally about the absolute drive which pumps adrenaline through the youthful corpus. It embraces the competitiveness, rivalry, sexuality, sexiness, hysteria and exhaustion which vibrate the world of the cheerleader.

Bring It On is a sign of an appositely progressive cinema which cares zero for the jaded counter-cultural dialectic which erroneously equates critique with intelligence and awareness. Like Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (the ultimate 90s ‘re-teen’ movie), Bring It On generates something that critical strategy can never manage: a wholly inward perception of self which simultaneously negates the external world while totalizing a sense of place within the world. Or, a presentation of dumbness which is so unproblematized that one feels stupid in having highlighted it in the first place. Unlike the dominant teen movie setting, Bring It On presents not just a bunch of rowdy kids in a mall, but a group of cheerleaders whose job it is to yell and scream and go crazy to whip up a crowd at a sports event. And, get this, their main aim is not just to be cheerleaders for any one sports event or season, but to compete with other cheerleaders in a national cheerleading tournament, where a mass of other people cheer them as they act out how they would cheerlead a sports event audience. The feedback loop of an audience cheering the routines of a cheerleading group is both ‘stupid’ yet also epicentral to designing the contained sonorific arena for Bring It On’s depiction of a teen energy space.

The sound of voice and music are vital ingredients in the creation and sustaining of this teen energy. The main approach to voice placement entails hyper-compaction. The whole soundtrack, especially when music is sounded, stylistically and technically employs the type of compression and ‘ducking’ which allows radio presenters’ voices to talk over dense music presence while never seeming to be on a separate volume plane. ‘Ducking’ is an automated process of compression which involves feeding a vocal track signal into a music track signal so that when no voice is present, the music is boosted to optimum level, and as soon as the voice comes in, the music instantly drops down and back up in every pause between the speaker’s words. When used to a high degree (as in AM talk-radio broadcasts) its psycho-acoustic side-effects induce a breathless claustrophobia wherein no gaps are allowed and the passage of time is rendered thick, imposing, congested. Narrative film sound design generally disallows this for 2 reasons: voice is typically rendered as being embedded within a location (or locatable) environment which includes occasional yet slight interference to the voice, rather than placing it in an aural void; and narrative crafting conservatively favours classical ‘peaking-and-troughing’ which stimulates drama through variance in dynamics, rather than pummeling the audience with a sonic onslaught.

Most scenes in Bring It On start with the explosive introduction of a music track as if you have jumped in a car and turning on the engine has simultaneously turned on the radio at full volume. The music then sits underneath the dialogue of the scene, but never low enough to feel separate from the socio-musical realm of the characters. Kids listen to music loud, so they must talk loudly over it. It is arguable that conventions of sound mixing for film are out of synch with people’s ability to hear ‘through’ the noise which surrounds us, so it is refreshing when a film acknowledges the currency of this through its mix. Bring It On recreates the aural energy of being in a space where volume is an issue which affects communication; the hyper-compaction of the vocal ducking facilitates this well.

Editing rhythms both support and enforce this aesthetic. The contemporary template of this type of hyper-compaction is found in Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing of the dynamic bind between voice-over narration and song-over score in Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Bring It On is like a screaming teen energy version of Goodfellas’ ‘solo voce’ opera; the former unleashes its energy in a flashing present, while the latter orchestrates its energy in a contemplative past. Both films rely on a clearly defined integration of aural levels and sonic rhythms between the cut and the mix. One operating in ignorance of the other would deliver an unbalanced combine, as in American Pie which clearly separates voice from music from score from film in a clinical and totally unerotic way. Bring It On drives on its energy like a fuel within the body of the text: the cheerleaders are always engaged in responding to music, through being energized by its erotic pulsation, choreographing body movements to it, and chanting slogans and call-signs over its amplified presence; song has a distinct use-value for the film’s characters and its placement is rendered compatible with their physicality.

The finale of the tournament and its confrontation between the East Compton team (as black as) and the Burbank team (as white as) takes place in the ground zero of American teen energy: Fort Lauderdale, Miami, site of many an atomic detonation in the movies (see Sean Cunningham’s Spring Break for the most frighteningly pornographic version). An interesting musicological schism culminates here in opposing the LA (Hollywood versioning) sound of energetic dance pop (exemplified by the Euro-House sample stabs reimported into the West Coast by the likes of CC & Factory’s Everybody Dance Now) against the multi-faceted fractalized cut-up of the current Miami mutation between old school Miami Bass (a regional take on East Coast Electro) and the UK sound of Jump-Up (a collision between Hip Hop, Drum & Bass and Electro). While the Burbank team originally went for pop, they learnt from East Compton the power of underground sound. In the climactic finale, both teams use similar tracks which provide a breathless and breath-taking soundtrack to the dynamic body scores of their routines, like watching a group version of an aerobics doubles tournament. Surprisingly, the underdog team (East Compton) wins, enabling a form of social justice to overcome dramatic resolution, another progressive element which other so-called non-mainstream films would not consider due to their intent to craft a ‘well-told resolved story.’ Again, it is refreshing that an American film foregrounds race when dealing with music, considering the tense history (and present) of criss-crossing racial appropriations of pop and folk forms which gives life to so much music.

Bring It On is dressed in the narrative regalia of competitive sport. Sports should allow people to kill each other. That way, the winners can be ultimately victorious and the losers can become martyrs, like tragic fools whose boats capsize in rich corporate yacht races. All competitive team sports enact militaristic stratagems, suggesting that deep down people like war, but they moan about it to feign worldly concern. Bring It On collapses dance, sport and spectacle in a way that the base death drive which compels someone to play or support sport is erased by the vitality with which the cheerleaders expel, eject and ejaculate themselves across the screen. Its stage is a healthy pornorium within which teen energy—compounding sexual, bodily and musical electricity—can both combust and regenerate to the sound of the crowd. Bring It On is healthy and, believe it or not, it’s not bad for you.

Bring It On, director Peyton Reed, writer Jessica Bendinger, distributor Roadshow, Australian release December 14, 2000.

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 17

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2001
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