(Left to right) Jim Parsons, Robin de Jesus, Michael Benjamin Washington and Matt Bomer in "The Boys in the Band". twitter.com/macguffincast

The original poster for the film of Mart Crowleyʼs 1968 play The Boys in the Band knew what it was about, proclaiming in clear lettering its strapline: “THE BOYS IN THE BAND… is not a musical.ʼ. The poster was true to fact; the original film, released in 1970, was most definitely not of the show tune variety. Neither is the new film of the play, released on Netflix in September last year, but music plays an important role in both versions.

A producer on both crews, Mart Crowley was not the only constant across the two films. Both make use of a compilation soundtrack consisting of a selection of songs which are heard throughout. Two of these – ‘Good Lovinʼ Ainʼt Easy To Come Byʼ (Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell) and ’(Love Is Like A) Heat Waveʼ (Martha Reeves & The Vandellas) – are present in both films, one playing in Juliusʼ and the second a soundtrack to a dance later in the film. For me, music adds realism to these situations in both films because it places the action in a time, both in terms of the musicʼs own origin – sixties dance – and because of the location in which it was being played (Juliusʼ) or was conjuring up (Fire Island).

“...music acts as a way for characters to define their identity and to relate to a community.”

There are differences in the music of the two films. In part this might stem from the play’s non-specificity on the topic: music is indicated in the script but not specified. The 1970 film is spare in this regard in comparison to the 2020 film. The 2020 film saturates its first half with music, before a second half left to the spoken voice alone; music creates a sense of presence in the first half of the film which is created by the continuous and rising tension between the characters in its second half. In contrast, the 1970 film creates a sonic contrast between its two halves via a raising of voices in the second half, something not present in the 2020 film.

On a brief tangent; the modes in which drama is created in the two films vary on account of sound effects, as well as due to music. Both films feature similar such effects, the telephone ring and flat doorbell being key. But, to me at least, the sound effects in the 2020 film mark progress through the film more than in the 1970 version; they are louder and more defined on the audio track, and more unusual to my twenty-first century ear (used to electronic sounds telling me thereʼs a call or visitor waiting). But back to the music. In both films and in the playbook, music acts as a way for characters to define their identity and to relate to a community. Picking up the telephone near the start, Michael answers with ’Backstage, Funny Girlʼ (‘New Moonʼ in the 1970 version); when the friends dance to ’(Love is like a) Heatwaveʼ, they dance a routine learnt together in the past on Fire Island.

“The meaning of the play has not changed from 1970 to 2020; different sonic means are simply required for a different cinematic audience fifty years on.”

The 2020 Netflix film adds to this when we see Bernard play the piano and Harold put on a record to start the film, and when the filmʼs final montage is sewn together with a Chet Baker track which plays extradiegetically over the images. In both films, and in the playbook too, mention is made of ’constructive escapismʼ in relation to one of the charactersʼ reading habits. I would argue that music (and dance to it) falls into that same category for all of the characters; Michael suggests putting on some music to ’lighten things upʼ as tension is beginning to build and Michael sings in an attempt to lift Donaldʼs mood. One of the Netflix filmʼs few moments of repose occurs as many of the characters slowdance to Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brassʼs ’This Guyʼs In Love With Youʼ while Donald looks on. Despite similarities, the 2020 Netflix film builds on the use of music in the 1970 film in a number of ways. The song which opens the original movie is Harpers Bizarreʼs ’Anything Goesʼ and is replaced in the new version by Erma Franklinʼs ’Hold on, Iʼm Cominʼʼ. The latter song sets what is to me a decidedly upbeat tone for the film, where ’Anything Goesʼ (1967) might not have delivered such a strong signal to a 2020 audience as to one in 1970.


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A final difference between the two film versions is the insertion into the Netflix version of visual flashbacks during certain passages, where characters recall the past and the insertion of a final montage sequence. These, and the accompanying sounds, point to a key difference between the 1970 and 2020 films: the 2020 film is directed at an audience accustomed to a style of filmmaking filled with tricks and sophisticated use of sound and music. The meaning of the play has not changed from 1970 to 2020; different sonic means are simply required for a different cinematic audience fifty years on.