But I’m alone
(Patsy: oh no you’re not!)
So all alone
(Patsy: I’m here you twat!)
All by myself I’m all alone
I’m All Alone (from “Spamalot”) – Tim Curry and Michael McGrath
What do Monty Python and Emily Dickinson have in common? Nothing, probably, except that they both employ the English language. Perhaps a Monty Python sketch may have parodied the Belle of Amherst, but surely a serious biopic about her would not reference Monty Python, would it? And yet…
We were watching “A Quiet Passion”, Terence Davies’ exquisitely crafted movie about Emily Dickinson, luminously embodied by Cynthia Nixon in one of her most compelling, multi-layered performances. The movie is both a traditional biopic and a willfully original work in that it dutifully follows a life span from youth through adulthood to death, but rather than constructing traditional dramatic arcs to illustrate Dickinson’s life, it skips fleetingly yet deeply from moment to moment, each rendered as short and dense scenes of outward simplicity and inner richness, in what I imagine is a conscious effort to have the cinematic dramaturgy mirror the shape and effect of Emily Dickinson’s own poetry, which is often heard recited, clear and elusive all at once.
It’s a movie likely to divide audiences. I was engrossed throughout. Ed felt like he was “watching wallpaper”. Which may explain why his mind was free to catch the Monty Python moment. During a scene late in the movie when Dickinson is feeling bereft and wandering the rooms of her home alone, somber piano music is playing in the soundtrack. Ed leaned toward me and whispered “Spamalot”. I thought “What?” and listened closely to the doleful piano melody. Yes, it did sound like “I’m All Alone”, King Arthur’s comically pathetic ballad from Act Two of the Monty Python musical “Spamalot”. But surely that was just a matter of one melody coincidentally sharing a few notes with another melody, much like “Memory” from “Cats” shares similarities with Ravel’s “Bolero” or “West Side Story’s” “I Have a Love” echoes Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung”, to name just two famous examples. I lightly boxed Ed’s arm in a comic rebuke for making such a silly connection while watching a sorrowful moment in this film, and mentally reminded myself to check the music credits at the end of the movie to find out what 19th century piano piece Terence Davies really did employ, and which must have a melody that would over a hundred years later be coincidentally mirrored in a Monty Python tune.
I was in for a surprise.
Waiting until the tail end of the end credits we discovered that what we heard was a piano version of “I’m All Alone” from Spamalot. There it was listed, nestled after Frederick Chopin’s “Waltz No. 17” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s “7 Ländler” and before Franz Schubert’s “Nacht und Träume” and Charles Ives “Decoration Day”:
I’m All Alone
Written by Eric Idle & John Du Prez
The soundtrack of “A Quiet Passion” is not yet available, and the sole piano only version of “I’m All Alone” I could find anywhere on line is this YouTube video. I’m not sure if it is the exact same recording that was employed in the movie, but it is surely very similar:
The music may suit the moment emotionally very nicely. And perhaps it is just too apt to play a piece of music called “I’m All Alone” while Cynthia Nixon’s Emily Dickinson mournfully wanders through her family home in solitary fashion. But once reminded of the “Spamalot” provenance, do I really want lyrical snippets like “I’m here, you twat!” to intrude upon my contemplation of the Amherst recluse?
There is a wealth of appropriately melancholy, authentically 19th century piano music that could have accompanied that moment in “A Quiet Passion”. Much of it surely even boasting titles that include words like “alone” or its many synonyms, if that is desired. I have no way of knowing what was going through Terence Davies’ mind when he made that Pythonesque choice of music cue. But it appears to me like a conscious hidden gag, a little easter egg, a rib tickling in-joke amongst the filmmakers, snuck into the movie, too subtle to have its absurdity consciously intrude upon 99.9% of the viewers (and listeners) in the audience. Unfortunately for me, my husband fell into the other 0.1%.