Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Down to The Wire: The Fall

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 5, 2008

Season Five of The Wire, the HBO drama that is almost inarguably the most compelling, innovative and exciting show on TV at the moment, begins at the end of this week. With that in mind, we here at IITS are devoting the rest of the week to the show–the characters, lines, scenes, episodes and themes that make up the patchwork of the show that broadened the perameters of what a TV drama could be capable of. Spoiler Alerts abound, so if you haven’t already, be sure to marathon the entire show first before reading.

Considering a list of my top ten favorite TV shows of all-time, and I’d say the music used might have the least to do with the success of The Wire of any of them. Which is weird, because The Wire probably also uses more songs that I like than any other show on that list. In the season two premiere alone, for instance, you’ve got The Stooges’ “Search and Destroy,” Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry,” Looking Glass’s “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” The Knack’s “My Sharona,” Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ “Wooly Bully” and Sean Paul’s “Gimme the Light.” Near-classics all, but you could watch the episode five times and not remember the presence of a single one of ’em–it’s just not used the way music is normally used cinematically–not to comment on the show, or to drive it emotionally, but rather just to act as music existing in the world. Blasting out of boomboxes and car radios, piping in from tinny diner speakers, soundtracking the dancers at strip clubs, nearly all the music in The Wire is diagetic, and most of it is entirely interchangable.

That’s not to say that the use of music is bad, of course–it just works more as an element of realism than as a legitimate soundtrack. The Wire is a show that feels, more than any other show in history, practically like non-fiction, a show with such integrity and reliability that any deviation from this verisimilitude feels jarring, almost like cheating. This is why I could never really get behind Brother Mouzone, depsite on paper being one of the show’s most compelling characters–a Muslim intellectual that’s also the most feared enforcer on the entire east coast, it just seemed a little too Television for a show like The Wire (and yes, I’m aware that scarred, homosexual Robin Hood of the streets is one of my favorite characters–good to get in on the ground floor, I guess). So the fact that music is so rarely used in the conventional, more powerful way seems forgivable.

There are a handful of times, though, that the show does use non-diagetic movie. The most obvious one is the theme song–the gospel-blues of “Way Down in the Hole,” performed (depending on the season) by The Blind Boys of Alabama, Tom Waits, The Neville Brothers, DoMaJe, and eventually Steve Earle, depending on the season. It’s a fantastic song for the show, though I personally like each version less than the one that preceded. The second most obvious is the climactic montage sequence at the end of each season, set to songs by Jesse Winchester, Steve Earle, Solomon Burke and Paul Weller. The montages that are just impactful enough to feel excusable from the television verite standards of the rest of the show.

My personal favorite, though, is “The Fall.” Closing themes don’t get too much respect in TV, but they play a very underappreciated part in a show’s success–after all, the closing theme is what you leave the show with, the piece of music that provides the lingering impression. Plus, the best ones can sort of put a period on the end of the show, one final piece of punctuation to leave a mark as important to the chapter of the episode as anything else that came before it.

“The Fall” is one of those closing themes. Composed by the show’s music supervisor, Blake Leyh, the song is the perfect way to close episodes of The Wire. A subdued sort of orchestral, down-tempo instrumental, “The Fall” hums along like an ode to the streets at night, dark, melancholy and haunting. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking piece of music, the yearning and defeated counterpoint to the urgent and virulent beginning theme–like one of the show’s police heading home drunk and bleary-eyed after a long day of demoralizing case work.

But what makes me really love “The Fall” is the way the show uses it. The Wire isn’t a show where you can often see when an episode is about to end–the action is so continuous, and the sub-plots are so infinite, that without clock-gazing, it always feel like an episode could either run for another 45 minutes or end at any second. But when you hear that three-hit cymbal introduction to “The Fall” (duh-ding-ding), leading into that shuffling, echoing drum beat (which’ll always remind me of Four Tet’s similarly underrated “She Moves She“), it serves almost like an unexpected punchline, providing both the familiar thrill of getting to hear the closing theme and the disappointment of the show being over. It gets so I spend the last ten minutes of each show just trying to anticipate that duh-ding-ding.

The Wire‘s first soundtrack comes out on the 8th. I’m hesitant to pick it up–like I said, the show is practically soundtrack-proof–but as a fan of the show, I feel a certain responsibility to pick it up. Plus, it might be worth it just to finally get a full-length mp3 of “The Fall”.

One Response to “Down to The Wire: The Fall”

  1. Jason L said

    Yep, you’re absolutely right. When the strings come in after a few seconds during “The Fall”, it always sends a shiver down my spine. I can’t imagine the soundtrack being a must-own, though, since there’s barely any focus on music in the series. Maybe they’ll include some rap hits that are always blaring from the Barksdale crew’s huge cars…

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