Rumour has it the bigwigs of karaoke were crammed into a secret meeting room last week, drowning their sorrows in alcopops and belting out misery ballads. Why? Because two of entertainment’s buzziest names threatened to pull the plug on the entire industry. “Karaoke should be banned in my opinion. I’ve never had an enjoyable experience,” said Paul Mescal in an interview to promote new film All of Us Strangers. His co-star Andrew Scott agreed: “I’m not a fan of karaoke, I’m not. There’s a kind of anxiety, which is like, ‘Is this ever gonna end?’” . Scott’s complaint – that karaoke seemingly never ends – rings true, at least when it comes to film and TV. Over the last couple of years, our big screens have been filled with characters staring at slightly smaller screens, clutching cheap microphones and singing along to trashy classics.
Ironically, Mescal himself features in one of the most gut-hollowing examples of the last couple of years, in Charlotte Wells’s “tear de force” Aftersun. At a package holiday karaoke night, Calum (Mescal) realises that his daughter Sophie has put their name down to perform. As applause echoes around the venue, Calum leaves Sophie to go up on her own and mince a performance of Losing My Religion by REM.
Others are more excruciating than heartbreaking. In one of the many toe-curling, stomach-clenching moments peppered throughout Saltburn, Barry Keoghan’s character Oliver, while trying to hobnob in Felix’s snobby social circle, is persuaded by haughty cousin Farleigh to sing Rent by the Pet Shop Boys. He realises when he gets to the chorus – “I love you, you pay my rent” – that it’s a set-up, chosen by Farleigh to call him out for being a sponge. Even Keoghan struggled with the embarrassment factor, saying it was his the scene he most dreaded to film in an interview with AP Entertainment. Which speaks volumes, really, when you consider what the other parts of the narrative required of Keoghan’s talents.
Then there’s Alan Ruck, Connor in Succession, the most empathic (and pathetic) of the Roy family and an unlikely karaoke anorak. In the final series’ second episode, the wannabe Potus, spouting his usual soupy, self-pitying nonsense, persuades the siblings to go for a singalong. Connor croaks and croons Famous Blue Raincoat by Leonard Cohen. “This is Guantánamo level shit,” his brother Roman riffs.
All three scenes tap into the most potent human emotion: humiliation. Connor, Oliver and Sophie are all left mortified and stupefied, pouring their lungs and hearts out without any sort of resolution. Many of us have felt this deep, drunken shame while sardined in a tiny backstreet bar, wailing over a backing track. Karaoke, after all, means “empty orchestra” in Japanese – there is something missing.
Also, there’s an alluring power dynamic at play. There’s something bizarre about the reverse-bathos of Logan heading into the kitsch karaoke bar to talk serious business. In Saltburn, too, the microphone is used as a weapon by Farleigh, realising Oliver hasn’t quite got to grips with the upper class’s bamboozling mix of high and low culture. “You can have a kind of Caravaggio-esque mise-en-scene in the world’s most beautiful room, but it can be lit by a shitty karaoke machine. That’s the human thing,” Saltburn’s director Emerald Fennell said in an interview with IndieWire.
It’s not all frowns and rain clouds, though. Other recent karaoke scenes are far happier affairs. In Rye Lane, for example, Yas and Dom, who pretend to have met at a “fire hip-hop karaoke night” in Peckham, end up going to a bar, performing Shoop together and kissing for the first time. Tina in The Bear, meanwhile, wins the respect of her culinary school friends thanks to a rousing rendition of Before the Next Teardrop Falls by Freddy Fender. Karaoke scenes have been around for a while. The longing of Lost in Translation is captured by its iconic karaoke scene, seeing Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson trade songs and knowing, loving, looks. Many are laugh-out-loud shambolic; turn the dial through Joseph Gordon-Levitt warbling Pixies in 500 Days of Summer, Renée Zellweger howling Badfinger in Bridget Jones’s Diary and Cameron Diaz perforating eardrums with I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself in My Best Friend’s Wedding.
If, as film academic Barbara Klinger once had it, “karaoke cinema” refers to the films we watch repeatedly for comfort and nostalgia, what can these on-screen karaoke moments teach us? “These scenes are a great source of joy for all people everywhere who do karaoke,” Ruck tells me. “It’s like go ahead, stand up and be a fool. And we’ll love you for it.” Basically, it’s totally fine to make yourself look like an absolute tit – it’s what actors have to do all the time.
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