Comment: The Restorative Power of Lip-Syncing
Ella Bucknall investigates the hilarious, emotional and restorative power of lip-syncing - as demonstrated by our literal unsung heroes of the classic romcoms. Let's talk Heath Ledger, Swayze and Renée Zellweger.
It is easy to see why lip-syncing has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years. The comic mismatch between voice and appearance is a simple but timeless gag, and the fanatical accuracy with which songs are performed is funny in itself. But while the phenomenon of lip-syncing has most recently boomed on shows like Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and Lip-Sync Battle, it has always been a popular trope in romcoms and teen flicks, and not just because it’s funny. John Hughes, Richard Curtis, and countless other iconic directors of fan-fave romcoms have all employed lip-sync scenes in their movies, exploiting that particularly fertile gap between sound and vision in order to best represent the universal experiences of heartbreak and of coming-of-age, these being often wretchedly wrapped up in one other.
Lip-syncing in romcoms sometimes plays a role in seduction, as in this dreamy scene in Ten Things I Hate About You:
It is a sign of Baby’s newfound sexual confidence in Dirty Dancing when she and swoony “lover boy” Swayze flirtatiously mouth the words to Mickey and Sylvia’s ‘Love is Strange’ in one of the film’s steamiest dances. Here, the tongue-in-cheek tension between the conflicting visual and audio serves to aid the tantalising sexual tension between Baby and Johnny:
However, generally lip-syncing as seduction is less a playful emblem of confidence in these films, and more a means through which an insecure character can channel someone else’s sexual prowess, not possessing much of their own. In Wayne’s World, when Garth has a crippling crush on someone which makes him “want to hurl”, a fantasy is sparked in his mind in which he unexpectedly develops great virility through lip-syncing to Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Foxey Lady’. As speech perception is multimodal, involving both hearing and vision, our brains seek to synch words to their owners even when faced with conflicting signals. Therefore an audience watching a lip-sync scene will self-consciously suspend disbelief so that, in that moment, Garth does briefly become Jimi Hendrix. In the fantasy, after miming bunny ears at his love interest, Garth looks down in delighted surprise as his crotch moves, seemingly through its own agency, thrusting him forward:
Likewise, in Hughes’ classic Pretty in Pink, Duckie uses ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ to vicariously express his love for unreceptive Andie, utilising Otis Redding’s voice when he cannot find his own. The difference between Duckie mouthing these words of passion and actually saying them directly is key to his inner turmoil over Andie, and, as he clenches his fists, flutters his feet, and gyrates around the record store to the slowly building tempo of the music, we see the extent of his great sexual frustration over her too:
In another of Hughes’ classics, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a different kind of teen angst is explored through lip-syncing. While Ferris himself is busy flaunting on a float, lip-syncing to ‘Danke Schoen’ and then, in one of the most brilliant movie dance scenes of all time, ‘Twist and Shout’, his friends Cameron and Sloane discuss their lack of direction in life, their lack of real interest in anything, and their uncertain futures. The lip-syncing here, just like the entirety of their errant day, is a form of displacement:
But the lip-syncing scenes which are perhaps the most enjoyable because they feel the most real – being neither fantastic serenades nor incredible impromptu performances at parades– are the scenes in which lip-syncing is used as self-help.
In Curtis’ The Boat That Rocked, when Chris O’Dowd’s character “Simple” Simon Swafford learns that his marriage is a sham and his wife loves someone else, he plays Lorraine Ellison’s epic break-up song ‘Stay With Me Baby’ on his radio show. The fact that Simon stays schtum while singing in tandem with Ellison is what makes the scene so touching because, as with Duckie, the singer gives Simon a voice for what he himself cannot express. While the physical exertion involved in mouthing Ellison’s melodic wails seems cathartic in itself, his silence permits a larger sympathetic reaction than if he were to have actually wailed; his very British stoicism heroic in the context of this very British film:
Similarly, after another crushing romantic blow in Bridget Jones, our relatable eponymous protagonist, home alone on New Year’s Eve in her apartment, is self-consciously self-indulgently miserable. So, after drinking much wine in her Christmas-patterned onesie, she attempts Jamie O’Neal’s ‘All By Myself’:
However, in miming the lyrics to ‘All By Myself’, Bridget ironically forges a union, a kind of sympathetic unanimity, with the singer. Indeed, what is so consoling about lip-syncing is the fact that through it one can uncover a connection with someone, diverse to oneself in space and time, through the universal human emotion they are expressing. A character in crisis can thus experience a comforting sense of proximity through synchronicity, even when alone. And the watching audience– having experienced the same loneliness, the same heart-ache, the same angst-ridden coming-of- age – can then too, with a wry smile of recognition, enter the silent chorus, all by themselves, together.