"We would rather have someone say 'That was really fucked up
'than 'Oh, that was cute.'" -Trey Parker1
- Many people will hate South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999) for its anti-political correctness, foul language, and (homo)sexual suggestiveness. The musically sensitive among us, however, are also likely to be taken aback by its openly irreverent attitude towards a variety of musical styles. Trey Parker and Matt Stone's animated television series South Park (1997-) has always featured music prominently, but it is generally quite sparse, featuring only a few instruments at a time and, in the case of instrumental background music, often no more than a few chords or sounds in quick succession (typically on banjo or slide guitar). By making their film into a musical, Parker and Stone simultaneously constructed a large-scale narrative and large-scale music without compromising their ideological principles of questioning authority and lambasting everything and everyone equally.
- In the South Park television series, this sparse approach to music perfectly complements the minimalist animation strategy of the series, which originated in the use of cut-out figures. For South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Parker and Stone expanded their vocabulary to include elements of Disney and Broadway musicals (with their expansive orchestrations), extended chorus numbers, high-energy "folk music," hardcore thrash, and other easily recognizable styles. Instead of merely replicating an effective television approach with a full orchestra, however (as Mark Snow did, with limited success, for 1998's The X-Files: Fight The Future), Parker and Stone managed to retain their eccentric (and irreverent) approach to the music of their television series while also expanding its vocabulary for the big screen.
- In brief, the story of the movie has Stan, Kenny, Cartman, and Kyle sneak into an R-rated film featuring their cartoon heroes, Terrance and Phillip, and begin emulating this pair of swearing and fart-joke aficionados from Canada. The long-suffering, orange-jacketed, aurally incomprehensible Kenny (who dies in nearly every episode of the television series) dies and goes to Hell, where he meets Satan and his gay lover, Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, back in South Park, the hypocritical adults, instead of having meaningful discussions with the children about their foul language, go on a rampage; they institute "rapid detox," introduce an experimental "V-chip" into Cartman's head (to prevent him from swearing by threat of electrical shock), establish a death sentence against Terrance and Phillip, and initiate a full-blown war against the duo's native Canada. The children form a resistance movement in response, at which point the two stories are interwoven.
- After getting past the decidedly non-politically-correct and otherwise "shocking" surface features of the movie, the spectator actually experiences a very rich musical text. As is the case with the South Park television series, most of the music and lyrics for the film are by Trey Parker. However, for the movie, Parker enlisted Hollywood film composer Marc Shaiman to expand his musical vocabulary to include orchestral music. For example, the opening song is preceded by an instrumental passage that is highly reminiscent of the overture to Rodgers' and Hammerstein's The Sound Of Music, which begins with gentle, tonally-wandering orchestral music featuring bird-like woodwinds, majestic brass passages, and subtle strings. An orchestral crescendo then introduces the opening song "(The Hills Are Alive With) The Sound Of Music," sung by Julie Andrews as she wanders alone in the hills. In South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, it is Stan who wanders alone around town, after subtle strings, gentle woodwinds, majestic brass passages, a kind of bird-like flute choir, and an orchestral crescendo introduce his opening song, "Mountain Town."
- The opening of Stan's song is closely related to the opening of "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'" from Rodgers' and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! "There's a bright golden haze on the meadow" becomes "There's a bunch of birds in the sky, and some deers just went running by," with a similar melody, rhythm, and orchestration. South Park's ideology, however, does not allow for such a straightforward account of rural bliss, so "Mountain Town" quickly veers towards a variety of ambivalent "corrections" to Stan's initial joy. Although its tempo is different, the melody, rhythm, phrase structure, and orchestration of "MountainTown" itself are actually most similar to another of Oklahoma's famous songs, "The Surrey With the Fringe On Top." In the opening verse, Stan refers to excessive amounts of snow and low temperatures, and a passing adult treats him as an annoying obstacle. Then, as the song continues, various temporary tonal areas are used for the introduction of new settings and characters, and references to South Park being a "white bread, redneck town" further the ambivalence about the town. Later, as Kyle's mother starts giving us indications that she and ther est of the adults of South Park are much more psychologically disturbed than the children, Shaiman changes the tonal area to a completely unexpected minor/diminished area and adds menacing, low, brass gestures. It is Kyle's mother who leads the battles against Terrance and Phillip (and Canada) for much of the film, but the fact that this negative-sounding aspect is quickly abandoned here (as part of yet another key change) gives just enough of a sense that the film will conclude with some kind of happy ending.
- The power of referencing Broadway musicals continues in the "film-within-a-film"(Asses Of Fire), as Terrance and Phillip sing the deliciously irreverent "Uncle Fucka." This joyously dance-like "folksong" also derives from Oklahoma! It includes a tap-dance/ hoe-down (here making use of especially percussive farting sounds) and ends with a spelling out of its title: specifically, "O-K-L-A- H-O-M-A Oklahoma!" becomes "U-N-C-L-E Fuck You Uncle Fucka." Similar high-energy "folk music" is used for several chorus numbers, including one for deprogramming the children and another, led by Kyle's mother, for blaming Canada for the decline of American youth. The movie also includes a bizarre epic/heroic folk ballad, extolling the (fictional) hyper-macho exploits of gay figure skater Brian Boitano, and a sympathy-imbued, gospel-inflected, chorus-supported pop song, "(I Want To Live) Up There," concerning Satan's longing to leave hell for earth, where "babies burp and flowers bloom." This song parodies animated Disney musicals such as 1989's The Little Mermaid and 1991's Beauty and the Beast (both with music by Alan Menken). Shaiman reports in a New Yorker interview that "[e]very Disney movie has . . . the 'I want' song" and that "Trey loved the idea that Satan had the 'I want' song" in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut .2
- Other songs include a tongue-in-cheek "resistance anthem" parodying the poignant, emotional singing style of the Broadway musical Les Misérables and a varied-tempo, Middle-Eastern-sounding, "exotic" song having to do with Saddam Hussein's weak promise to be a better lover to Satan. Brian Boitano, Saddam Hussein, and Satan are not the only gay characters in the movie, though, for Big Gay Al (earlier featured in a television episode) is also in the film, with his catch-phrase "I'm Super" spun out into an elaborately-staged chorus number, highly reminiscent of (and probably parodying) Busby Berkeley's flamboyant film-musical choreography and production numbers of the 1930s and 40s. Shaiman's contributions as an arranger and orchestrator are also quite evident in the medley of several earlier tunes that appears near the middle of the film, which is similar to a sequence in Leonard Bernstein's musical West Side Story. The songs of the two rival gangs, Anita, Maria, and Tony all come together in a single texture, which, in South Park:Bigger, Longer & Uncut, becomes a merger of songs earlier presented by American soldiers, Satan, Terrance and Phillip, the children, Kyle's mother, and the leader of "La Resistance." The movie concludes with a "happy ending," featuring soul music icon Isaac Hayes as Chef and reprising "Mountain Town" from the beginning of the film.
- The expanded animation procedures of this film have enriched the aesthetically minimalist aesthetic of the television series, but as a musically attentive spectator, I was also impressed by the sophisticated amplification of musical vocabulary (Broadway and Disney musicals, etc.) in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. Indeed, one of the most promising things about Parker and Stone's approach here is that their central premise of questioning authority and "fucking things up" can involve music to such a great extent.
1. Rolling Stone 816/817, July 8-July 22, 1999, 86.
2. Rebecca Mead, article-interview with Marc Shaiman "TheMusical Life: The Maestro Behind South Park's Arpeggios of Flatulence," The New Yorker July 19, 1999, 30.
University of California, Los Angeles