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Fresh Dubs: “A Prophet (Un prophète)” [2009]

Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: , .

Fresh Dubs is a series which focuses on an individual film’s use of pop music, or lack thereof, analyzing a sampling of songs from the film and offering suggestions for alternative tracks along the way.

“A prison tale of French-Arab-Corsican teenager Malik (Tahar Rahim) dropped into the shark tank of the predatory prison culture, is a riveting portrait of a prison education.” Sean Axmaker, Seanax.com.

“Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet traces the evolution of an illiterate French-Arab inmate who uses his time well in prison, learning to read and write, studying economics, picking up a new language. Along the way, he applies his new skills and his native acumen to become a supreme crimelord in the making, running drugs, carrying out strategic hits, playing rival gangs off one another for his own benefit.” David Germain, Associated Press, Boston.com.

“Many crime narratives demand for their protagonist a chained linkage of tasks completed, rivals defeated, glories attained. While Audiard’s film is a crime story to its very core, he doesn’t appear to feel the same need as many of his fellow filmmakers to valorize his young criminal hero.” Chris Barsanti, PopMatters.com.

Original dub: Nas feat. Olu Dara “Bridging the Gap,” from 2004′s Street’s Disciple.

Early on in the film, following character introductions and Malik El Djebena’s initial rumblings with the Corsican mafia, the only use of music outside of piano or strings had been a brief guitar piece which was used for a single scene. Having made tremendous strides in gaining trust of César Luciani, the leader of the Corsican mafia within the prison, Malik had been given the responsibility of handling and protecting the crew’s lifeline to the outside world—a cellphone—and in leu of three quarters of the gang having been released he was given more responsibility; César’s suspicion that there’s a rat within the group only exaggerated his paranoia, leaving Malik the most trustworthy alternative. “You’ll be my eyes and ears.” Still heinously disrespected and abused for his nationality however, his growing skill set left him able to manipulate information he was made privy to for his own benefit. Given the duty of keeping his finger glued to the pulse of everything happening in the prison, the speed which he learned the ins and outs of the prison yard hierarchy was only accelerated that much more.

Nas‘ “Bridging the Gap” is an interesting choice for the montage of events that focus on Malik’s observation of the goings-on in the prison. The song, which features Nas’ father, Olu Dara, is about Nas’ rise from the youth to his present self. But in typical form, his swagger is so thick that the examples of his blossoming talents come off as byproducts of an overfed ego: Dara repeats throughout the song how Nas is “The greatest man alive,” and Nas, himself, compares his rise through his years in school to slaves regaining control of their freedoms (“‘Cause I’m my own master, my Pop told me be your own boss… Slaves are harmonizing them ah’s and ooh’s/Old school, new school, know school rules”).

Musically, the beat makes far more sense in the film than “Bridging the Gap” does lyrically—the blues to hip hop transformation signifying a shift from the old to the new, just as the established Corsican mafia’s hold on the prison’s power began fraying away. But the use of hip hop, or blues for that matter, in the film doesn’t quite match the environment which the song was used in. In the time that “Bridging the Gap” plays out, the song’s upbeat momentum leaves a positive spin on the sequence of events, which is odd considering the scene depicts Malik sinking further into the deep waters of drug trafficking within the prison’s walls. While on the surface he’s no more sinister than anyone else in the story, as these events are taking place he’s slowly building a plan of action in the back of his mind. Whether or not he had a final goal planned or not, the scene depicts Malik drawing the blueprints to move on to a larger role, and away from that of being Corsican’s César Luciani stooge.

The Stooges‘ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” acts in a similar manner, musically, as “Bridging the Gap,” slowly warming up before lurching into the body of the track. If you remove the opening introduction of spastic guitar, fade the song in slowly, and nail John Cale‘s single-note piano riff at the same time that Nas’ bars are unleashed, both the corruption depicted in the scene and the methodical nature of Malik’s maturation become increasingly emphasized.

Fresh dub: The Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” from the band’s 1969 eponymous debut.

Original dub: Sigur Rós “Gobbledigook,” from 2008′s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust.

Later, Malik was told an insider’s story of a recent drug bust by a fellow convict. During the narrated flashback to the scene of the arrests, the upbeat sound of Sigur Rós fades in, illuminating the humorous aspect of how, exactly, the traffickers were caught—their car broke down and customs officers were the ones who stopped to assist them. During the 50 seconds that the song’s powerful drum beat and wildly nonsensical vocals are introduced one of the gang members is shown fleeing the police, stopping in a public restroom and stashing what’s revealed to be 25 kg of hash above the ceiling tiles before escaping. “Gobbledigook” on its own is a phenomenal song (matched by an equally interesting music video, for what it’s worth) but when taking into consideration how the scene played out, and the implications that follow—on a 12 hour leave for good behavior, Malik would later risk being condemned to “the hole” by searching out the lost package—it’s a far more crucial scene than the song makes it out to be.

Forget that it was originally used amidst the score to Sofia Coppola’s downer-of-a-film, The Virgin Suicides, with some clever editing the rumbling piano and atmospheric synths of Air‘s “Dead Bodies” would fit perfectly within the scene. Not only would the gravity of the situation be emphasized, including the foreboding of how the scene might later impact Malik’s future, but the song would further the underlying theme that the wheels are well in motion for something greater to happen. That, and having a French film without much representation from French musicians seems a bit odd; does it not?

Fresh dub: Air “Dead Bodies,” from 2000′s The Virgin Suicides: Original Motion Picture Score.

Original dub: Turner Cody “Corner of My Room,” from 2008′s First Light.

As Malik continued to hone his knowledge of reading, writing, and economics through courses offered in the prison, he became increasingly comfortable with his position amongst the community. Set on pursuing something bigger, he continued to develop a plan with a former Muslim inmate, Ryad, as his focus on maintaining face with the remaining Corsicans began to wash away. Turner Cody‘s “Corner of My Room” backs this particular segment and is essentially the theme song to the film as it’s also used in promotional trailers. Upon the first sound of the Brooklyn-based folkster’s voice, his unmistakable likeness to Bob Dylan immediately catches the ear, and the twang of his guitar remains consistently dominant throughout the next two minutes. If it weren’t such a catchy track the suggestion that it’s simply a cheaper alternative to use than licensing one of Dylan’s similar sounding songs—say, 2006′s “Thunder on the Mountain”—but in all honesty it has a unique characteristic that is able to carry not only 120 seconds of screen time, but a trailer as well. Lending a sharper, more aggressive contrast, the bob between sharp and soft of Eels’ “Souljacker Pt. 1″ would carry the scene in a different direction: while it may be less effective in the place of Cody’s “Corner of My Room” it would offer the trailer a more aggressive tone which would better complement the action sequences it portrays.

Fresh dub: Eels “Souljacker Part 1,” from 2002′s Souljacker.

Throughout the first hour, a sparse score comprised of gentle springs and piano is used; typically only when Malik is the focus: when he’s transfered to the prison, when the reality of the prison hits him, when he’s confronted by the limitations of his skills (reading, etc.), when he’s flying, and so forth. And aside from the strings, piano, the faint strum and pluck of a guitar some 40 minutes in and the previously mentioned songs, A Prophet doesn’t utilize much in terms of a soundtrack. While this leaves many scenes feeling atmospherically hollow, it serves to confirm that the action of the characters and their dialog with one another is the primary focus.

One scene in particular stands out in the film for its grand use of silence. Amidst a scheme designed by Malik and Ryad, Malik initiates crossfire and in the close range of the handguns he momentarily loses his hearing. So in the middle of this scene while he is under the protection of a human shield, deaf, all that is heard is the sound of his exhaling. During that moment Malik appeared to be in a state of zen and for that brief time neither the hostility of the surrounding environment, nor anything else, appeared to be of much concern to him.

Obviously the minimalist approach to the sound in the scene was the chosen route for a reason, but what it provides is further proof of the craftsmanship at work with the film. Had it been under the supervision of someone with a different perspective, Malik’s momentary enlightenment might have been accompanied with those same distanced strings, some fast-paced electronica, or even worse: hard rock.

Original dub: Jimmie Dale Gilmore “Mack the Knife,” from 2000′s One Endless Night.

While there’s nothing really negative that can be said of using Jimmie Dale Gilmore to play the movie out, the song does something to contradict a revolving theme in A Prophet. While the song doesn’t primarily reflect Gilmore’s country roots, in the context of the film’s ending scene of Malik walking away into the unknown, “Mack the Knife” summons a similarity to a cowboy vanishing into a sunset. Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad thing, or a poor way to end the film, but throughout A Prophet Malik is made out to be learning his way as he goes, never knowing exactly what he’s doing, just diving head first into each new situation. While he has killed he’s not a stone cold killer, and while he’s shot people he’s no a gunslinger…

“The burden you bear is a power not of this world” repeats Kid Congo Powers throughout “Power,” a song which gives both an appropriate literal and musical context to the ambiguity of the film’s ending. Just as Malik experienced during a moment of peace, oddly smiling during the gunfight, he previously experienced what appeared to be a similar moment while in flight on his way to a meeting set up by the Corsicans. Even as he was becoming increasingly consumed by knowledge and events that would change his life forever, he retained an innocence that allowed him to keep a distance from it all. As Powers concludes in one of his verses, “Smiles wash away the miles of who you are, or who you might be.”

Fresh dub: Kid Congo Powers “Power,” from 2005′s Solo Cholo.

Un Prophete Film