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Blonde Soundtrack: a gorgeous score lends dignity to a disastrous film

Is it ethical to even watch Blonde? It is a dilemma that has scorched reception of the new three-hour Marilyn Monroe biopic, directed by Andrew Dominik and starring Ana De Armas. The uncomfortable tension between the film’s veneer of feminism and the misogynistic exploitation and voyeurism with which it treats its subject continues a pipeline of Hollywood’s obsession with female pain. The question of what exactly the point is of films that capitalise on dramatising – and often embellishing – the real-life traumas of exploited female celebrities has been re-invigorated in the wake of similarly-intentioned projects such as ‘Spencer’ ‘Pam & Tommy’ and ‘Judy’. It is an uncomfortable moment of pause for the average consumer, where many of us are asking ourselves what exactly we gain from watching the most traumatic and private moments of a real person’s life unfold on screen – very frequently without their knowledge or consent. 

It is important to make this aside because, having watched all three hours of ‘Blonde’ in order to write about its soundtrack, it takes little convincing to believe that it should never have been made in the first place. Blonde perpetuates a disturbing Hollywood tendency to glorify female suffering poorly disguised by glitzy camera tricks in its shameless greed to see a woman helpless at rock bottom. The film wants us to know that it sympathises with Marilyn’s discomfort at the voyeurism she is constantly subjected to- while she is needlessly shown topless in multiple scenes and at one point the camera quite literally inserts into her cervix. Not to mention some frankly shocking pro-life messaging that led me to Google what anti-abortion organisations had funded the film. Crucially, Blonde robs Monroe of her agency. It ignores her triumphs in a male-dominated industry, her business successes and her advocacy. Ultimately, Blonde is simply too exploitative to justify its own existence. 

In spite of this, there is a peculiar and fragile, if somewhat self-indulgent, beauty to find in Blonde, made possible mostly by the haunting soundtrack created by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave. The duo picks up the slack in a grandiose opera in which there is no singing, with a score more synth-heavy than their 2021 experimental rock album Carnage. It reverberates with anxiety and anticipation, changing keys so as to temper and harmonise the emotional register; sometimes uplifting, sometimes twisting the knife. Filled with strings and sparse piano, the music never drops in tension, in accordance with the highly emotive scenes it accompanies. 

The score often takes on an obscure ethereal quality, with organ strings and angelic backing vocals that soar, which ring eerie in the contexts of drug addiction, alcoholism and, most predominantly, miscarriage. The fragile and elegiac quality of the sparse electronic instrumentals give the disturbing sense that we are witnessing the eulogy for a woman seconds before her death. This sense of oncoming tragedy intensifies as the score becomes more ominous sounding the closer it gets to Marilyn’s true final moments. The vintage-style arrangement, similar to early Brian Eno tracks, works well alongside the old-Hollywood sheen of the shots, drawing the viewer further into Marilyn’s nightmarish, claustrophobic world. 

One particular moment stands out, which is the recreation of the famous grate shot from The Seven Year Itch, which heartbreakingly recontextualises one of Monroe’s most iconic moments. Pensive music plays as the camera pans slowly around an adoring wall of film crew, finally arriving on the magnificent Monroe, posing larger than life and radiant in her ethereal white dress. Yet the moment spirals into horror, as the men’s exultant voyeurism comes to the surface. They smoke, spit, and grin miscellaneously, until the camera finds her husband, the lone unamused face that breaks the spell of adoration. A despondent Marilyn, out of character for one brief moment, gazes shamefully out at the gawking faces, looking like she wants nothing more than to be free of the spotlight.  All the while, the score soars, growing slowly more sinister as the sense of watery melancholia breaks down into something more frightening. 

For a story this intense, and a legacy this large, Cave and Ellis needed to bring home something delicate, haunting and genuinely affecting- far from what the film as a whole achieves, but, thankfully, beautifully delivered and successful in its own right. Cave and Ellis’ haunting soundtrack manages to achieve what Blonde ultimately fails to deliver. An affecting, unpretentious fully realised piece of art that offers these scenes – and Marilyn – the dignity they deserve. It is the only element of the film that does any justice to her legacy. 

Image “Marilyn Monroe” by Alexander Sasha Dejan is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.