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Adam Curtis | 15:22 UK time, Wednesday, 14 November 2012

I have always been fascinated by the way music can completely change the way you watch film - and how you feel as you watch the images.

For the last year or so I have been collecting all sorts of footage of people dancing that I found in the BBC archives. In all I gathered over two thousand shots culled from all kinds of programmes. I then cut some of them together to music by the wonderful 70s German band Neu.

I think it gives a sense that we are all together in the dance.

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I then took exactly the same sequence of images - I haven't altered even a frame - and put them to a montage of some very different music. There are all sorts of songs and pieces in there - but it owes a great deal to the great romantic musical genius of our age - Burial.

I think that this other version leads you to look at the people dancing in a very different way. The feeling it evokes is how separate we are - and how isolated we sometimes are from one another.

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  • Comment number 1.

    I love editing to "Hallo Gallo", it's one I always come back to. It has a quality of perpetuity which offers a feeling of hope, of endlessness. The beat in Neu gives a sense of togetherness, of a mechanical happening of forces interacting. Burial in contrast is very isolating. Great stuff here Adam, as always.

  • Comment number 2.

    Thanks, watching people dance is great, reminds you people are amazing

  • Comment number 3.

    Marker's 'Letter from Siberia' comes to mind - great stuff.

  • Comment number 4.

    For me the Neu track pushes the narrative, in such a combination we are used to, and in doing so it does not allow room for any introspection or pause. The Burial track seems to disrupt this narrative and in doing so delivers a different emotional response, one that we are not used so perhaps and don't swallow so easily.
    In the first edit I was drawn to the movement of the dancers and in the second edit I was drawn to their faces, to see who was in there.
    Excellent, as always.
    (PS Any chance of putting whole of the AC Serpentine Memory Marathon presentation up at some point?)

  • Comment number 5.

    Is there a tracklist for the second video? if not, could OP post it? thanks

  • Comment number 6.

    Ahhh... Human Robots and the loss of innocence

  • Comment number 7.

    I like the Neu one more. I think people are usually transported and/or happy when they are dancing. Unless they are being forced to dance, like I sometimes am and my dance-a-like at 3.36 is.

  • Comment number 8.

    Hi Adam, there are songs on soundcloud you used in the videos?
    Nice work

  • Comment number 9.

    Isn't this a simple matter of rhythm:
    The Neu music is more 'in tune' with the dancing - the rhythms of the dancing and music are closer, which makes them feel more integrated and draws the viewer into the experience.
    The Second sequence is in general a lot slower than the tempo of the dancing - there's no way the people are listening to it whilst dancing, its a layer of sound on top of the video which in turn isolates us from the experience.

  • Comment number 10.

    Interesting. Perhaps it's the rhythm of things (of life, stories, conversations – and dance) that draw us together. While the lack of rhythm in the second piece does the opposite; there it's just you, the solitary viewer, silently observing.

    Acceptance –vs– Questioning
    Truth –vs– Searching for meaning
    Single layered –vs– Multi layered
    Happiness/Fun –vs– Sadness/Melancholia
    Hot –vs– Cool
    Broad –vs– Narrow
    Collectivism –vs– Individualism
    Shared social ties –vs– Individual(s') characteristics

  • Comment number 11.

    Thanks. It reminded me of Mark Leckey's 'Fiorucci Made me Hardcore', 'an extended paean to the unadulterated bliss of nocturnal abandon' which is an equally enjoyable view:
    also phil collins' (artists - no the singer)....they shoot horses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtQrWNA8aRE

  • Comment number 12.

    It also matters which one you watch first. Love the song. Love the footage. Thank you for this.

  • Comment number 13.

    At first I read this as an almost obvious comment about how music affects how we see things: that's Hollywood spends so much money on music for films -- making almost exclusively melodramas in the original sense. A nice demonstration of something that didn't we already know. Then, watching the second film, I started thinking that isn't this also how our personalities affect how we see the world around us. About how our personalities create our own reality distortion fields. Not just our basic temperement affecting whether we see life as happy or sad, connected or isolated, but also our political worldview. Especially those bits of it that we've internalised so strongly that we no longer think of them as views, just as the way the world is.

    That we constantly have music of one sort or another playing inside us affecting the sense of how we see the world.

  • Comment number 14.


    Elegant, unequivocal demonstration of the power of music – and some great footage.

    This is probably all bread and potatoes to you film-making johnnies, but I remember the guy who scored The Simpsons talking about how you should always score the *emotion*, never the action.

    Music seems to feed directly into emotion – certainly strongly enough to set the tone of otherwise ambiguous material, but perhaps strongly enough to override emotionally non-ambiguous material as well, in the way that some of the more obviously happy and exuberant dancers in the first version of your film end up seeming like pitiful deranged-automata in the second. Smoke, mirrors and CGI create optical illusions; I guess music can create emotional illusions.

    It can backfire horribly though: I remember watching a TV news programme just after the attacks on the World Trade Centre, and towards the end they just played some extended footage of the smoking rouble, without commentary – but they put Adagio For Strings over the top of it. I remember feeling absolutely furious – as if I was being bludgeoned into someone else's idea of an appropriate emotional response. Something real was being treated more like a movie. More like entertainment than news.

  • Comment number 15.

    with all due respect
    i fail to see the point here...the emotion is in the music
    you feel empathy with the people in the film because we see them, we are human

    try the same thing with footage of fields of flowers or trees,
    or without any film...

    just saying

  • Comment number 16.

    Adam Curtis...I love all your work....nothing you do is boring.Your a big influence on my own film documentaries. I just wish I had all those archives to work with.

  • Comment number 17.

    Have you noticed that going from montage to montage, you see shots in one that you don't see in the other? How great is the influence of the music on what you see (or don't see)?

  • Comment number 18.

    Dear Adam,
    I wonder if I might ask you for some advice on a research project about the UK civil nuclear state? I'm working alongside colleagues from the Science Museum and University of Manchester. We're interested in the sociotechnical imaginaries involved, the imaginary futures and how they played out in real places. Would be very pleased if you could contact...
    I recently made "Atom Town; life after technology" about Dounreay, may give some idea of the intended approach.
    regards Gair Dunlop.

  • Comment number 19.

    This is great. One minor quibble (and this is for the BBC web people) - it would be great if we could watch these videos were available to view on mobile devices. Thanks Adam - been a big fan of your work since forever.

  • Comment number 20.

    I had a similar response to Andy, but more extreme. Whilst watching the second version, I could still hear (or feel) the first one. The music just seemed disconnected and I couldn't relate it to the images, though I did look more at the people and things in the background and was less drawn to the dancers. I will try watching it again on another day in the other order. I think if I'd seen the second one first I'd have been more able to make an interpretation/acquire an understanding from it.

  • Comment number 21.

    Yes, you can intensify the isolationist effect by slowing the clip down. Then people feel the passage of time much more intensely and feel alienated from the material presented.

  • Comment number 22.

    Wonderful stuff Adam, particularly the Neu! cut. A fantastic piece of music anyway and you add to it making the image musical and the music generate images.
    All power to the Inner DJ! Even threw in Gunter Grass & Yeltsin arf arf. My girlfriend knows one of Legs & Co who must have been in there somewhere.

    Agree with Andy & ook about the comtemplative Burial jarring with the dancing action. But conversely, Burial plus slowed down footage equals a moving piece!

    I expect you're probably absorbed with the new Rihanna album right now. Interesting review in the Guardian which praised its poptasticness but was uneasy with its apparent accommodation to her violent ex-partner.

    It must be rather tough at the BBC right now for investigative journalism with a section dedicated to it shut down and Newsnight shot down in flames. You have my sympathy. Keep on pushing! Don't let them get away with it! You Shall Return (as Muhammed Ali had it)...

  • Comment number 23.

    Brilliant, just brilliant.

  • Comment number 24.

    Blimey is that THE Holger Czukay???

    I was at a party once with Irmin Schmidt and his wife. I talked to his wife but couldn't pluck up the courage to talk to Irmin who I was told was like me rather shy...

    Anyway...just to plug another brilliant combination of image and music:
    From The Sea To The Land Beyond, which is a combination Penny Woolcock's edited selection of mainly BFI archive of people at work and play around the British Coast, to a score by British Sea Power. They are just finishing touring it and i saw them do it live at Sheffield DocFest.
    It was brilliant and moving from the very start, the music giving a voice to 100 years of people in the clips. A sort of Humphrey Jennings for the 21st century (without the commentary).
    If I'm not mistaken it even contained a clip of Family Portrait which Adam's dad Martin shot for Jennings.
    It comes out on DVD in January. Don't miss it!

  • Comment number 25.

    If you play both videos at the same time you evokes both togetherness and separation!

  • Comment number 26.

    I agree with Andrew Smallbone: in the first video everyone is dancing to the film music. In the second, no one is dancing to the film music. Everyone is dancing to music we can't hear. And we infer that the music is as different as the times, places, and people in front of the camera. We are no longer with them dancing - we are evaluating and judging from a distance. The music becomes commentary.

  • Comment number 27.

    Interesting, as ever, but not the biggest newsflash ever - that music affects our perception. As you infer, why else employ people to score films / documentaries?

    Still, most people don't explicitly realise this so it bears repeating.

  • Comment number 28.

    You always have such great soundtracks in your films Adam, was very happy to hear Burial used in All Watched Over. His music evokes so much of the strange hollowness of contemporary life you often talk about in your work.

  • Comment number 29.

    hurrah for the limbic system

  • Comment number 30.

    I've just finished a video essay on salsa dancing.


  • Comment number 31.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 32.

    i love this post quite deeply

  • Comment number 33.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 34.

    Wonderful! It's great when you start both videos at the same time.

  • Comment number 35.

    I agree with Andrew Smallbone's comment. The people are dancing, so the upbeat rhythm of the Neu! track draws the viewer into the context of the diegetic action - namely celebration. In the second video, you are imbuing the montage with a contrasting idea of what is going on - the editor forces the viewer to stand apart.

    What is now perhaps more interesting is that everyone can play editor and add music to appropriate their own meaning.

  • Comment number 36.

    Hi Adam,

    Just out of an absolute love of all your work and this blog in particular, about a year ago I borrowed/stole/took footage from 'all watched over..' and put it to one of my songs.... Please do not be mad! It was a non commercial release which basically just went to a few select friends..... https://vimeo.com/24986356

  • Comment number 37.

    Also these two videos were really interesting to me as a musician (and also as someone who loves neu and stuff like burial/eno/glass/carpenter/dystopian soundscapey things in general!)

    With video 1, I was smiling all the time.... perhaps connected is too strong a word for how I felt. I felt just kind of happy to see all these people dancing! Still really cool but when compared to video 2 I would say almost pedestrian (not saying your work is pedestrian I quickly add!!)

    With video 2 however, I felt like an alien who had just come to earth for the first time and was gleaning our planet for signs of life! It was so moving. I felt disconnected but in a way strangely connected.... How do I qualify that last sentence. It was as if the juxtaposition of the 'other worldly', sublime music with those very personal human interactions almost amplified the disconnect. But in amplifying the disconnect, you are also reminded that you too are also human, and I got a sense of 'Isn't it amazing, all these human interactions are played out in a little microcosm of the universe... and as if by chance some guy in an editing room in the BBC decided to put them together..... The feeling was amplified over the course of the piece. With the last 3-4 minutes almost over-whelming... Beautiful stuff indeed, and thanyou for taking the time to do this :)

  • Comment number 38.

    I felt the same at the end of the Gadaffi article when you cut the 'Arab Spring' riots to Jesus and Mary Chain. Not ashamed to admit, I cried... yeah yeah I'm emotional!!

  • Comment number 39.

    I am gonna stop spamming you now......but when it comes to all your films, you have an uncanny ability to 'show not tell'..... Music is so powerful and can evoke a subtext we didn't even know existed. In the right hands, It plays our emotions like no other medium can. You are a master of this Adam Curtis. Much love and respect to you

  • Comment number 40.

    I found both videos hypnotic and I have been haunted by memories of some of the images for days. Neu, Burial et al make a superb soundtrack.

    In mentioning hypnosis, I'm keen to share the following remarkable story of how a young German WWI corporal with a trauma was transformed by a hypnotic therapy with great consequences.


  • Comment number 41.

    Nice to hear This Mortal Coil getting some attention! they made some of the most gorgeously emotional music.

  • Comment number 42.

    Could you post one of these on Youtube, please? I'd like to rip the video and add my own score. Thanks.

  • Comment number 43.

    As others, I loved the first version. I was already to go with feelings of separateness with the second as trailed by Adam, but the funny thing is it just didn't happen. Despite the introspection of the music the sheer physical joy of so many of the dancers kept breaking through and the overridding sense for me was still one of togetherness. It reminded me of the raw physicality of dance and the fun that it gives people, especially when in a group of friends. And thanks for introducing me to Neu.

  • Comment number 44.

    I'd say one thing - drums. That's a large part of the difference.

    I'm probably being quite simple minded, but you've also got the broadly slow tempo of these pieces in the second clip. And without the strict structured beat pronounced by any drums (which are really persistent and prominent in the Neu track) there's a kind of strange emptiness.

    People don't really dance to music without drums or percussion of some sort. It's why the one bit that feels kind of correct is the beautiful pull-away of the ballet dancers, it fits the This Mortal Coil strings beautifully. The rest of it is eerie because it's incongruous, but I think that section, certainly in isolation, feels right.

    I've wondered about Curtis and dancing since AWOBMOLG, particularly part 3. I like the black guy dancing whilst looking in the mirror, by himself. It's funny when it's used in AWOBMOLG (I think it's end of Part 1). But I wonder if someone could say something clever about it evoking individualism, narcissism or isolation?

    Dancing is really prominently used in the section about The Selfish Gene. I don't quite know what to make of that. Maybe it's the opposite to what I mentioned earlier, most of the dances are group pieces, and synchronised. Maybe it's a metaphor for rigid assimilation, or something? Collective action, but where no one could stop the dance, or dance differently? The mechanical precision of I Feel Love emphasises this feeling for me, once again this might be terribly obvious to everyone else. Although I bloody love that song. I heard Adam's mate (Eno) talking about State of Independence, and how he loves the combo of Moroder's mechanical production and arrangement, and Summer's ultra-human passion and soulfulness. He ruined River Deep for me as well.


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