As a kid I spent a lot of summertime Friday nights with my mom and grandma at the drive-in down the street. For a poor family like ours, drive-ins were cheaper than indoor theaters, especially if you stayed late and caught two or three films for the price of one. The concession stands served fried grub as affordable as any contemporary fast-food joint. Until the feature presentation rolled at sundown, free preshow entertainments abounded. Audience members could set out lawn chairs and mingle with folks they know in the next parking space over. Kids could goof around on the playground in front of the screen. And in the years before some entrepreneur figured out how to patch the soundtrack into a short-range FM signal, you could hang one of the drive-in’s own heavy, tinny, awkward mono speakers on your window, crank up the plastic white knob, and listen to the prefab radio program spinning the exact same songs at every showing for years until the drive-in closed in 1982 and was demolished to make way for boring medical offices.
The track listing in general — borne from the post-disco days of “easy listening” lullabies, country/western crossover hits, and ’60s leftovers-turned-standards — was a parade of inoffensive AM-radio earworms cultivated for my elders who liked their sonic backdrops as plain as a pus-colored Tupperware cup of sugarless lemonade on a wind-free porch. In the years ahead I’d come to develop my own musical tastes as the opposite of all that. To this day they’re why I respond poorly to slow jams, twee ballads, and somnambulist Starbucks-CD jangle-pop. Despite my youngster’s apathy, one single would catch my attention above all others every time: Petula Clark’s “Downtown”.
Whenever Clark extolled the virtues of the Everyman’s Big City and its flashy venues, her elated yawp cut through all conversations and dull ambiance and demanded to be heard, as if the suggestion of an upscale urban diversion was something listeners needed to hear now now now. I could totally relate: occasionally on weekends Mom and I would hop a bus from our section-8 apartment complex and ride into downtown Indianapolis for a day of window shopping. The difference between our dingy neighborhood and our Indiana’s largest skyscraper collection was vast and distracting and for a few hours could help us forget our meager dwelling and tired jokes about Indiana “Naptown” and cornfields. Clark didn’t need to petition us because we were largely in agreement with her, and her voice could get annoying after two or three replays in the same night. Ever since then, “Downtown” has reminded me of drive-ins, getaways, and loud musical intrusions emanating from crude, tiny boxes.
The preceding wave of nostalgia from a primitive, repetitive era blasted me head-on when “Downtown” took center stage for a key moment in Edgar Wright’s latest film, Last Night in Soho. As with some past works (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Baby Driver), Wright’s golden ear for soundtrack compilation has unearthed a solid string of keepers from the annals of musical history, familiar and obscure, many of which feed the narrative itself, nearly to the point of qualifying as a musical. “Downtown” serves early on, capturing a moment in time when two women dream of better lives away from their respective points of origin — hieing themselves to where the neon is always brighter, the songs are always catchier, and the endings are always happier. Conveniently, the songwriter is not around to be held accountable for his unfulfilled promises.
We meet Our Heroine as she emerges toward us through a box of sorts. A country girl named Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie from Jojo Rabbit) flips the lights as she arrives home through the front doorway with a spring in her step and a song in her headphones. Despite her mother’s tragic fate, young Ellie’s upbringing with her grandmother (Doctor Zhivago‘s Rita Tushingham) kept her on the straight and narrow, and brought light into her darkness courtesy of Wright’s antique vinyl bins. Ellie loves ’60s pop and brings along a hefty digital assortment to her first semester of fashion college in the big, big city of London. When her classmates prove to be Mean Girls and sneer at her station, she relocates to an off-campus bedsit (their more efficient term for the Yank euphemism “studio apartment”) rented out by an elderly lady (Dame Diana Rigg of England’s The Avengers, in her final film role). The affable but firm Mrs. Collins lays down simple, old-fashioned ground rules that will of course be tested later because that’s what young renters do. But the bedsit, as such things go, is such a rather nice box, dating back to the ’60s and beyond as a holder of stuff, tangible or otherwise.
Ellie also carries with her a certain psychic sensitivity. In the early home scenes she merely sees extra images in mirrors, as when her dead mom occasionally pops in, framed in helpless silence. The scope of that peculiar talent broadens during her first night’s sleep in the bedsit, when she has the longest, loveliest dream. Suddenly it’s 1965 in Soho, the neighborhood where London’s entertainments are in full swing, its fashions are at their heights, and everything ‘s awesome on the surface for the carefree gadabouts and trendsetting libertines of the day. Ellie ‘s enraptured stroll merges with that of a better-dressed young lady named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy, escaping The New Mutants intact), a wannabe singer looking to get her foot in the door and become the greatest cabaret singer of all time. Ellie first connects with Sandie through a nightclub’s floor-to-ceiling mirror. Within moments Ellie’s dream self swaps places with Sandie, and she’s the one watching from within frames as Sandie chats up her audition prospects with a seedy suit named Jack (The Crown‘s Matt Smith, whose role is twice as fun if you mischievously pretend he’s a mirror-universe Prince Philip).
Ellie and Sandie are soon trading positions back and forth between the past and the mirrors that gaze into it, alternately reliving and learning of it, often with multiple swaps in the same scene and shot. When her alarm clock cuts the first dream short, Ellie hopes it’s To Be Continued and resolves to reenter the next evening, because the past is so fascinating and she can see what it must have been like for all her favorite musicians to come up in the Good Ol’ Days. She watches as Sandie’s faithful performance of an excerpt from “Downtown” wins her the job, and it’s the point where they think life pivots for them. They can forget all their troubles. They can forget all their cares. Things will be great. Everything’s waiting for them both.
Ellie never thinks to Google Sandie and see what heights her career might have reached, which of her singles hit the charts, or how many of her albums she can download. Perhaps if she had, she might’ve steeled herself a bit harder for the poor nights’ sleeps that would follow. Meanwhile behind the scenes, things fall apart as Sandie’s story keeps going beyond the happy ending and things darken under the red lights of so many Soho stages and backrooms. Ellie listens and watches with increasing alarm as the Top of the Pops vibe fades away, like a hit single petering out so DJs can blather over its last refrains. Lounge-songstress burnout gives way to creepy burlesque, which in turn gives way to nightly performances-on-demand that have nothing to do with music. Hollywood, we learn, isn’t the only industry to treat its women like disposable toys, men have been insatiable monsters since time immemorial, and sexual tyranny was a problem for public arts performers decades before everyone decided Harvey Weinstein was the first, the worst, and the last straw.
Even before her dreams begin to spiral into misery, Ellie is not necessarily “innocent” in the way country girls once might have been. (Or perhaps this is equally rose-colored hindsight.) When her first decrepit London cabbie gets heavy-handed with his icky flirtations, she has enough sense to exit the vehicle two blocks early and seek refuge in a store till he’s given up stalking her. When she becomes friendly with a classmate named John (Michael Ajao, once a scrappy li’l wannabe gangster tyke in Attack the Block), portents point toward a “more than friends” relationship in the offing with no hint of chastity belts real or imagined. But golden oldies were her safe space. The music of yesteryear was her idealized home away from home, where she could curl up in a corner for some comfort crooning when real life got suffocating.
The nastiness devolves into full-fledged horror as the dreams become full-strength nightmares, spectral visions infest the flashbacks, and before long there’s blood and terror and the lost screams of crimes from long ago never brought to justice. The starter motifs are then shelved as Soho disposes of its own rules about dreams and mirrors, and the boundaries between dreams and reality are erased and forgotten. For a time I lost patience with Ellie as she struggled with unreality’s invasion because I’ve already recently undergone a similar frustration with the second season of Stargirl, in which the villainous Eclipso menaces an entire army of superheroes with scary illusions that could’ve been defeated nine episodes early if someone had had the spine simply to employ the simplistic Nightmare on Elm Street endgame defense. But country girl Ellie is too rattled to take this stance, overwhelmed by the ghastly events, and so we must wait for her to catch up with us. As she and the audience have been told more than once, “London can be a lot.”
I know little of London apart from the pop-culture renderings of it and the history lessons my wife occasionally gives me for fun. As a straight-edge prude I’ve also little firsthand affinity for carousing and canoodling as weekend leisure options. But Wright’s love of the area clearly bursts through even as he and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful) excoriate the depraved pigs who lurked behind its narrow streets, its storied facades, and its esteemed reputation as a cool place for cool people with cool travel budgets to come do cool things back in those cool, cool ’60s. In that sense he’s matured from the parody/homage of his earlier, funnier films and into a more scathing mode of rebuke/homage.
Some of his music choices for the environment are a bit too on-the-nose, as when Ellie flees a pack of long-dead remnants to the tune of Sandie Shaw’s “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me”. I expect that sort of laughable accompaniment in a trailer, not in an actual film itself. I’m nevertheless inclined to look up the soundtrack and revisit those selections shortly, strongly packaged lineup that they are when divested from their new context. (Now playing in my headphones: James Ray’s original “Got My Mind Set on You”, which I never knew existed till Wright made me aware, and annoyed that George Harrison deleted a few lyrics.) As hinted, I was more charitable toward the ironic use of “Downtown” due to preexisting personal notions, not unlike Ellie’s own affection for her playlist.
I found myself rooting more for McKenzie than for Taylor-Joy, if only because it seems less a stretch for the latter while the former holds her own and gives us hope that even the most unsophisticated fashion student can learn to handle ugly truths in the face of oppressive “big city” moral corruption. Last Night in Soho keeps us transfixed on both women to the big climax, to one last box-within-a-box, and to the final frames that may not be enough to contain them.
One housekeeping footnote: our theater posted signs warning of the film’s flashing-strobe sequences in advance, and posted separate signs advising its first 25 minutes’ sound would emanate only from the front speakers, it’s supposed to be like that, and their speakers were not in fact broken. No such signs were posted to assure guests that despite the film’s use of “Downtown” to foreshadow evil pretenses, the real downtowns in some cities are actually inviting and well-patrolled places for citizens to hang out, and totally not traps for unsuspecting idealists. Then again, maybe you can never really tell which downtowns very much are, Petula Clark notwithstanding.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The great Terence Stamp is the local elderly barfly who may or may not be guilty of sins past, but will snarl at you either way. Unhelpful police who do nearly nothing here include Michael Jipson, who was a lieutenant/pilot for Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi. Sam Claflin (the fourth Pirates, the second Hunger Games) has a cameo as a gentleman caller who may or may not be a cop. Blink as hard as I did and you’ll also miss James and Oliver Phelps, the Weasley twins, hiding in a closet or something.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Last Night in Soho end credits, but hardcore armchair Anglophiles, and/or travelers who’ve actually been to London, are treated to repeated shots of its streets that alternate with the words and job titles. Each shot is deserted, without any crowds bringing them to life and without any sins to drag them down.