Radiohead's "Exit Music (For a Film)" as a Romeo and Juliet teaching tool
Tyler Flory is a teacher at Main Street School of Performing Arts in Hopkins. His Music Class column ties together his job and his music fandom in a neat little package.
A staple of 9th grade English is reading Shakespeare. He is arguably the greatest playwright who has ever lived, and his legend continues to grow even though he died 400 years ago. It has taken me awhile to appreciate his ability to develop meaningful characters and to twist a plot. Even though his complete works are free and only a click away, it's a rare bird who spends an afternoon reading Richard III. The only thing I remember from reading Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade are a few scenes from Shakespeare in Love and the giant purple textbook the play was in.
I teach Romeo and Juliet at the end of the 3rd quarter, a time when everyone is waiting for the snow to melt. Tensions are rising the among students just as they are rising between the Capulets and the Montagues. Most of my students have never read anything by Shakespeare. This is most likely the hardest text they will come across in their academic year and the anxiety that they have about their final test is high. I try to ease this tension with Radiohead*.
After we read the play aloud in class and I dispense as much traditional Shakespeare info that I can, we watch Baz Luhrmann's 1996 classic Romeo + Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. I love showing this film because it demonstrates how relevant Shakespeare still is today. The film also has a distinct feel and style which can be felt instantly. It is both beautiful and raw. The music played over the credits is Radiohead's "Exit Music (For a Film)." The song was written after Luhrmann sent the last 20 minutes of the film to Thom Yorke and asked him to compose a song for the credits. Yorke and his bandmates produced "Exit Music," which appears on their classic 1997 album OK Computer.
In my class we listen to the song twice. The first time at the end of the film and the second after a brief explanation about origins of the song. The tune slowly builds with hollow guitars to a roaring mess of sound at the end. After listening, some students are eager to discuss it, and others are still reeling from the beautiful chaos and clutter that Radiohead created.
In the first verse Yorke sings "Wake from your sleep/ The drying of your tears/ Today we escape, we escape."
"What is he singing about in the first verse?" I ask as I begin discussion of the song.
"About how Romeo and Juliet just want to escape from the world," says one student.
"That they're going to die," says another.
"Excellent," I say, "He's showing that Romeo and Juliet had a chance to skip town before Romeo was banished to Mantua. It's also foreshadowing because he's using escape in two ways. The first is that they could leave town and the second is about leaving the earth." Even though what Yorke is doing seems simple, it isn't. The lesson that anything that has to do with Shakespeare is difficult but rewarding continues.
We move on to the second stanza as I ask my students, "What's going on when Yorke sings 'Pack and get dressed/ Before your father hears us/ Before all hell breaks loose?'"
"It shows that they had a chance to leave before Lord Capulet flipped on Juliet."
"Perfect" I say. "The song shows that they could have left before Lord Capulet changed his mind about Juliet marrying Paris," and we all go back to Act III Scene V when Romeo insists that the bird he hears is lark while Juliet needs it to be a nightingale.
We move to the end of the song and I ask, "Who is the singer portraying and who is he talking to when he sings 'We hope your rules and wisdom choke you/ Now we are one in everlasting peace?'"
"It's Romeo," says one student.
"Everlasting peace means that they are all dead at the end of the play," says another.
"This part is towards the Prince," says a third.
"Excellent," I say, "This is a classic Romeo response, right? He continues to be a self-absorbed teenager lashing out at authority." And this is the reason why this play works so well in 9th grade. There's love at first sight, sword fighting, and dirty jokes -- what more do you need? "Yorke repeats the line 'We hope that you choke, that you choke' over and over in the last stanza. Who is he talking to?" I ask.
"The Prince," suggests one student.
"Juliet's dad," suggests another.
"Both of those answers are right" I say. "He could be talking to everyone who got in the way of their love. Parents, friends, perhaps even the Friar."
We then move on to discuss the general feel of the song. There is general consensus that this song fits the film. I tell my students that I think this film and the song still sound current. That's the great thing about Shakespeare. We have a great, gritty film that engages students and feels new -- even after 17 years. I also tell my students that whether it was intended to or not, the song's structure parallels the play's structure. The first three minutes start slow and drone. We try to get used to the tone and the voice (literally and figuratively, both Yorke and Shakespeare can be difficult to grasp the first time around). By the time we've grasped what's happening, things are spinning out of control. Romeo threatens suicide in the friar's chamber, Juliet takes a potion, and Radiohead creates classic Radiohead noise. Everything becomes more complicated for the audience. The play and the song resolve in a "glooming peace" that haunts us.
By listening to and analyzing the song, the play seems easier. It is no longer about figuring out the language and the plot, but about understanding the chance for hope and the difficulties of love. When we finish reading the play, watching the film, and analyzing the song we feel accomplished as a class. We are moved as Yorke was when he wrote "Exit Music (For a Film)" and we understand the weight that Shakespeare still carries in the world.
*Radiohead is either the best or worst band for easing tension. Their ability to polarize is amazing.
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