Multimodality in rockumentaries

intro multimodalité

Ce billet est une adaptation de ma présentation au congrès 2014 de la SERCIA (Raboud University, Nijmegen) qui avait pour thème “Movies and Music”.

My initial interest in multimodality, defined in this paper as the complex relation between visual, verbal and musical modes of expression came from an issue raised by the specificity of my corpus. Indeed, the focus of my Phd dissertation is a linguistic and discursive analysis of interviews found in rock documentaries (henceforth rockumentaries)

It seems impossible to ignore the significance of sound and image in these films, which aim at retracing the career of a band, a musician or a musical movement. The three modes of discourse are intertwined and the rich association of these semiotic systems contribute to the historiographical and/or biographical enterprise of directors.

Obviously, music is not secondary in this context, as it is the focal point of all discourses and the initial interest for an audience expecting to learn things about famous musicians. Yet, it has been claimed that talking is more appealing than music in these films and that “historiography purports to mold messy events into neat narratives, and verbal testimony accomplishes this job more effectively than music and images” (Cohen, Playing to the Camera, 2012)

The aim of this paper is to show that, in many cases, it is irrelevant to try and dissociate these three kinds of discourses as their rich entanglement is precisely the specificity of rockumentaries. Besides, the relations between these forms of discourse create a powerful system of echoes which aim at reinforcing the truth claim lying at the core of documentaries: hence, the importance of verbal, visual and acoustic quotations (Landvogt and Sartingen, 2010).

The excerpt I am going to study is taken from Live Forever (2003, John Dower). This film is representative as far as editing and discursive construction are concerned, but slightly different from other rockumentaries as it deals with a cultural phenomenon as opposed to the career of a specific band or artist. This phenomenon was that of Britpop, roughly defined as the dynamism of British pop culture and pop music between 1994 and 1997, as exemplified by the so called “battle” between Blur and Oasis. The excerpt is featured rather early on in the film (about 15 minutes), and it suggests an analysis of the symoblical birth of the movement, first with Blur (more precisely their album Parklife and the song “Boys and Girls”), then Oasis.

James Brown: I think the thing about Parklife, it did capture that, sort of…that sense of freedom you finally got when you left the fifth form. Just sitting around in parks, drinking cider and booting football. I remember the last night we finished the first ever edition of Loaded. When I finished, I put ‘Boys And Girls’ on and danced around the office. It was exciting, and it was… had edge. And I think… I remember listening to that record and every desk in the office had been cleared, because we were moving out to a bigger office. And I was just about to tip my desk into a crate when the phone went. And it was somebody from the Daily Express saying had I heard whether or not Kurt Cobain was dead.

Journalist 1: Fans of the American rock band Nirvana have been mourning the death of the group’s lead singer, Kurt Cobain. The self-confessed heroin addict…

Journalist 2: … shot himself at his Seattle home. A suicide note was found beside his body.

John Savage: What happened with Kurt Cobain’s suicide was that there was this vacuum. And the music industry and the media industries abhor a vacuum. And Oasis came along at just the right time.

Liam Gallagher: At that time, it was just Phil Collins and all these boring people in boring bands and… who were playing big gigs, but it was like “You’ve got nowt to say. You don’t look like rock stars, you look like dicks in tights.” Like summat off a pantomime, d’you know what I mean? It was time for some real lads to get up there and take charge. I think that’s what we did.


A Plurisemiotic Anaphoric Chain

Keeping in mind the idea of a macro-discourse being constructed by the director (the narrative of the entire film) thanks to the relations between micro-discourse (interviews and archive footage), we can see thate the relations between the different thematic elements, the witnesses and the various sequences are underlined, through editing, by the three semiotic systems I referred to earlier. Hence the notion of an “anaphoric chain” since important elements may be introduced and referred to several times thanks to different means.

The five thematic sub-sequences of this excerpt are actually connected through this anaphoric chain, illustrated by the table below, taking into account each type of discourse.

 tableau multimodalité

1.      Reviewing Parklife

Because it is James Brown’s first appearance in the film, his identity and the relevance of his presence  are indicated onscreen. He was the director of Loaded, a famous “lad magazine” which started at the same time as Britpop (since the first edition occurred shortly after the release of Parklife).

‘Boys and Girls’ by Blur (the hit song of Parklife) is played in the background: there is a clear exploitation of multimodality here since the review is pronounced over the song itself. There is then a transition to the video of the song at the end of James Brown’s review, in which music is heard without speech, giving way to his anecdote.

2.      Illustration: ‘Boys and Girls’

The anecdote begins while still showing the video, but the three discourses (visual, musical and oral) all end at the same time after the word “dead” is pronounced. We may notice that it is the only moment in the excerpt when such a thing happens, showing that the effect of Kurt Cobain’s death is not only conveyed through what is said, but also thanks to editing.

If we go back to the status of the song in this sequence, it is interestnig to notice the illustrative quality of the video and the music : they are said to have edge, which entails that they are new and provocative. In other words, the song is both the soundtrack of the anecdote in the film and within the diegetic space of the story told by the witness.

3.      Cut: Kurt Cobains’s death

As we said, the brutal cut to archive footage is triggered by the word ‘dead‘, in that respect speech seems to be the prime organizer to this transition. The initial silence associated with the death of Kurt Cobain is obviously a symbol of death and mourning, which seems all the more relevant for a grunge musician. However, silence gradually gives way to a factual and minimal account of the event by news journalists, who are neither named nor seen.

4.      Transitions

Then John Savage (who had appeared previously in the film) talks about the death of Kurt Cobain as a voice-over while images of grieving fans are shown. There is still no music at the point. This technique serves as a transition within the macro-discourse of the film, since it superimposes a “recent analysis” with archive footage. There is also a transition to Oasis in his speech, at micro-discourse level, so to speak, with the idea that the end of Nirvana generated a vacuum in which Oasis appeared. Interestingly, at the precise moment when he gives the name of the band, a very Oasis-like drum intro is heard.

5.      Introducing Liam Gallagher

The initial musical transition is then expanded upon since Liam Gallagher is introduced through the three discourses: the images of his industrial hometown (Burnage-Manchester, which is crucial since the entire film emphasizes the importance of the origins of bands in a very determinist fashion), the song by Oasis, and his identity (name and band) which is then written onscreen when he finally appears. This interview is the beginning of a new “chapter” in the film, a chapter about Oasis in which Liam Gallagher and his brother Noel are interviewed separately.

An Enriched Discourse

I will now try to show how the anaphoric chain gives way to an enriched discourse in which multimodality is meaningful, as opposed to the idea according to which speech is pronounced over a secondary visual and musical background.

Evocative setting

In an interview with the BBC, director John Dower explained that he wanted evocative settings, showing thereby his concern for a visual discourse. Though he does not mention James Brown, John Savage and Liam Gallagher, the examples he gives are rather telling:

“We didn’t want the usual, “He’s a musician, let’s plonk him in front of a mixing desk.” We were trying to make th“We didn’t want the usual, “He’s a musician, let’s plonk him in front of a mixing desk.” We were trying to make them a little bit evocative. (…) Jarvis [Cocker] in a sleazy hotel in King’s Cross is how he felt on This is Hardcore. He felt a little bit dirty. And Damon [Albarn] sitting in front of that dartboard in the pub is particularly Parklife.”

Damon Albarn (Blur)
Jarvis Cocker (Pulp)

Creating a Dialogue

The coherence the audience finds thanks to the anaphoric chain we referred to should not lead us to overlook and the polyphony orchestrated by the director. Indeed, John Dower uses the technique of the documentary to create a dialogue in which he is apparently absent (although there are various degrees of disembodiment depending on directors, potential incidents during interviews, etc).

How does it work ? Thanks to the basic assumption of the audience according to which two successive sequences have a logical connection, Landvog and Sartingen (2010) show that the logical link between two propositional sequences is either refutation or reelaboration. In this case, it is a bit of both, since Liam Gallagher seems to contradict John Savage when he declares that there was no serious band before Oasis, while agreeing with him in some respect (it was the right time for Oasis to emerge). Though it is a construction on the part of the director, this accumulation of witnesses serves a claim for truth and objectivity at work behind most documentaries. We can see a bit of a paradox in the fact that such a complex editing work should be undertaken in order to erase the voice of the director.

A Retrospective Look

We saw earlier how multimodality gives the possibility of superimposing comments about a cultural object (music or other elements of rock culture) and the object itself (cf. James Brown and Blur). The retrospective look, and the historiographical stance also aim at giving meaning to a particular event or musical production, thanks to the critical distance allowed by time. In this respect, Cohen’s remark seems relevant: spoken analyses tend to be the driving force of the narrative while image and music seem more illustrative. This stance is in opposition with that of initial rockumentaries, such as Dont Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker), known as direct cinema or cinéma vérité. These supposedly unmediated films, shot as if the director was “a fly on the wall” recording spontaneous sequences, were supposed  to give access to the “true person” behind the mask of the rock star, thanks to immediacy. Most of the modern documentaries, on the other hand, follow a logic of accumulation (of witnesses) and of temporal distanciation.

In that sequence, the death of Kurt Cobain is treated through this enriched discourse: first the initial shock is staged thanks to James Brown’s anecdote and the multimodal treatment we referred to, then the event itself is alluded to in a minimal and factual manner (circumstance, reason for celebrity, possible cause of death) over the images of a silent crowd. Then the whole sequence is given meaning by John Savage both as an event (creaing a vacuum) and as a condition for the emergence of something else (Oasis).

A multimodal rock ethos?  

As the the three modes of discourse overlap, they all seem to share the assumptions at work in rock culture (cf. Claude Chastagner).

First, we may notice that the two stories in the sequence follow the same pattern: the story about Blur becomes a story about Nirvana and the story about Nirvana becomes a story about Oasis. It is in keeping with the notion of lineage and succession which is very important in rock culture: artists are influenced by “father figures” they may refer to explicitly, thus creating a form of artistic genealogy. Besides, in Great Britain, pop music is often presented as an ecosystem regulated by death and birth, rise and fall, and, to some extent, by a struggle for domination. It should therefore not come as a surprise that the “battle” between Blur and Oasis was presented as a reenactment of the Beatles/Rolling Stones rivalry.

The discursive ethos (cf. Ruth Amossy) is defined as the image of self or a social group constructed through discourse. In this short excerpt, numerous patterns and tensions of rock culture are alluded to or work as presuppositions, through speech, images and music.

1.      Nonconformism, rebellion

Ever since the very first records of the 1950’s, rock music has been supposed to embody a sense of rebellion and social non-conformism. In this extract, the tokens of this rebellion are numerous: James Brown talks about the sense of teenage freedom captured by Parklife, John Savage, though he is a journalist, gives a rather critical and insightful account of the workings behind the media industry, while Liam Gallagher, insulting Phil Collins and underlining his own successes, breaches most of the rules of interaction defined by the Brown-Levinson theory of faces (more on that topic here).

It is harder to pinpoint this preconstruction in music and images, though we may notice the Bobbies wearing Blur t-shirts in the “Boys and Girls” video and Liam Gallagher’s body language unmistakably displaying nonchalance and the classic couldn’t-care-less attitude of rock stars giving interviews.

2.      Authenticity and entertainment

In De la culture rock (2011), Claude Chastagner shows the tension at work in rock culture between the notion of authenticity (derived from the Romantic idealization of artists and the temptation of political involvement) and that of entertainment, keeping in mind that the music industry is, first and foremost, part of the entertainment system.

In that excerpt the entertaining quality of Blur’s song is put forward and valued (James Brown says the song was “exciting” and it made him feel like dancing around the office). The images in the video of song, for instance girls on waterslides and boats, are in keeping with the rather upbeat tune of “Boys and Girls”,

Yet, the tension between authenticity and entertainment is more blatent in the case of Nirvana and Oasis. Indeed, John Savage’s analysis of an industry looking for a substitute for the late Kurt Cobain over the images of grieving fan, is a very clear example of this, apparent, contradiction. This contradiction, however, seems to pervade Liam Gallagher’s speech, since he opposes boring bands and pantomimes giving big shows while having nowt to say to Oasis, the real lads taking charge.  The choice of the adjective “real” is telling of course, and so is the word lad, since it conveys a sense of manliness and working-class authenticity, which is another cliché of rock culture, as though “having dirt under one’s nails was some sort of badge of honor” (quoting Noel Gallagher). Indeed, when looking at things in more details and leaving aside the question of sociological background, one could raise the legitimate questions of what exactly Oasis ever had to say.

3.      Eros and Thanatos

Finally, Eros and Thanatos are often considered to be driving forces of rock music, which is associated with sexual exaltation and danger (especially for rock stars) as examplified by James Brown’s anecdote.

The mildly sexual aspect of music is present throughout the extract, especially in the Boys and Girls video and lyrics, and, of course, in Liam Gallagher’s claim to “real manliness”. Thanatos, on the other hand, is obvisouly to be found in Kurt Cobain’s suicide, which got him into the famous “club” of rock stars dying at 27 (there was an interesting analysis of that legend by “Les Décodeurs” on Le Monde”s website, which can be found here).


The resources of multimodality, as illustrated by this excerpt, help us understand why documentaries have come to play such an important part in the historiography of rock music and why they do so, in myopinion, much more efficiently than the numerous biographies and museums dedicated to this topic.


Amossy R., La présentation de soi : ethos et identité verbale, Puf, Paris, 2010

« BBC Entertainment- Live Forever- Director’s Notes », (

Chastagner C., De la culture rock, Puf, Paris, 2011

Cohen T.F., Playing to the Camera: Musicians and Musical Performance in Documentary Cinema, Wallflower, Londres, 2012

Landvogt A., Sartinger K., « Discours en circulation et (dé)montage filmique dans Fahrenheit 9/11 » (42-64), in Lopez-Munoz, Marnette, Rosier, La circulation des discours: médias, mémoire et croyance, 2010

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Charles Bonnot (26 septembre 2014). Multimodality in rockumentaries. Funny you should say that. Consulté le 14 juillet 2024 à l’adresse

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