Skip to main content

Sound Affects: Exploring How Cinematic Soundscapes Create Utopian Experiences

Published onJul 18, 2022
Sound Affects: Exploring How Cinematic Soundscapes Create Utopian Experiences


Sound Affects: Exploring How Cinematic Soundscapes Create Utopian Experiences
Kirsty Graham, Royal Holloway, University of London

Drawing on scholarship from fields of musicology, film studies and utopian theory, this essay explores how sound can contribute to utopian experiences of cinema. Considering the perspectives of on-screen characters and audiences, I discuss sonic techniques used in films where this potential shines through. Firstly, I outline theories of utopia that have informed my analyses, address how film soundscapes and utopianism relate, and touch on concepts of nostalgia, transcendence and realism relevant to the discussion. Three contrasting contemporary case studies are then analysed, addressing how they promote musical entertainment as utopian and encourage feelings of escapism. Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017) is examined, focusing on its ambiguous cultural setting constructed through retro musical references, and how its emphasis on music may imply a state of “supra-diegesis.” Secondly, I discuss The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012), which illustrates how music can operate as a form of escape in dystopian narratives. Finally, I examine Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, 2019) and how its soundscape constructs a “satirical utopia,” especially through its prominent use of anachronistic pop music. Identifying similarities across these films, I conclude by proposing common characteristics of film soundscapes which emphasise utopian escapism, within on-screen narratives, and through the immersion of audiences into imagined realities.


The idea that sound can cultivate a sense of utopia in films is not original. In her influential book Strains of Utopia, Caryl Flinn makes a connection between classical Hollywood film music and feelings of utopia.1 Since this publication, scholars have increasingly considered film sound beyond non-diegetic scores, a path which I follow in my own investigations. Drawing on Flinn’s theories, and incorporating ideas from across film studies and musicology, I intend to supplement the wide range of literature connecting concepts of utopia to film by applying established ideas to contemporary cinema examples, discussing Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver (2017), Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games (2012), and Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit (2019). These case studies present utopian ideals in past, present and future “realities,” each containing varying degrees of fictionalised settings or fantasy elements. 

To scrutinise an inherent link between utopian aesthetics and soundscapes, I examine my case studies on two levels. Firstly, I consider how musical entertainment is presented as a form of utopian escapism within the film, where any envisioned or actualised departure from the diegetic reality overcomes restrictive or dystopian circumstances. Secondly, I evaluate the role of sound in immersing audiences into the film world, and how this experience can be described as utopian. These films are primarily focalised through a main character, such that almost all diegetic audio reflects their perspective, immersing viewers into the cinematic experience through the ears of the protagonist. This heavy presence of “meta-diegetic” sound – or, sounds that take us “inside a character’s head, within that subjectivity” – facilitates processes of sharing the utopian escapism experienced by characters with the film’s viewers.2

By exploring these aspects of each case study, I present specific methods of how sound can produce utopian effects on a film’s themes and audience experiences, and the similarities in sonic approaches between the films. I begin by introducing established theories of utopia, key ideas, arguments, and themes. This includes the ambiguous relationships between music, sound and diegesis, contributing to a sense of unattainability, why sounds beyond the traditional film score should be considered, and the importance of a musical soundscape in achieving feelings of utopian escape.

Theories of Utopia

To understand “utopia” and its relevance to film, it is important to consider the term’s origins. Coined by Thomas More in the 16th-century, the Greek words for “no place” and “good place” were combined to invent a concept that was not only symbolic of an ideal world, but an unattainable one.3 Fátima Vieira explains that while More’s version of “utopia” was defined during the Renaissance era, the Enlightenment of later centuries encouraged utopias to be placed in the future, due to “optimistic worldview(s) on a global theory of evolution.”4 Within a much more forward-looking society, utopias were no longer connected to “static, ahistorical” models.5 Consequently, theories of utopia have been continuously interpreted as unreachable in the present reality. 

Philosopher Ernst Bloch defines utopia based on what is lacking in reality; he theorised that utopias are constructed or envisaged using elements “missing” from our own lives or society, to encourage a desire for change.6 Flinn relates Bloch’s theory to film music of the classical Hollywood era, arguing the very presence of music proved an awareness that film was deficient without it – that music provided a missing element.7 Furthermore, Bloch reinforces the connection between utopias and the future, as he believes art-forms like music can point towards “not-yet-conscious” possibilities, through their “cultural surplus”– the ability to sustain cultural relevance beyond their time.8 Much like utopia, places and circumstances presented in films are not actual, but can be treated, although not always set in the future, as a possibility – we can acknowledge it is separate from reality but still imagine ourselves living under its circumstances.

Utopia & Film Soundscapes

Historically, a most crucial characteristic of utopias is the “desire for a better life.”9 It may therefore seem flawed to relate cinema to utopia when defining the concept according to its presentation of a “better life”; films often present situations or settings that are far from ideal. However, it is the experience of engaging with these worlds that can be described as utopian. According to Flinn, films offer a “utopian promise” of an “escape.”10 Rather than considering the utopia of the material itself (as Bloch did), she examines the utopian experience in the “moment of interpretation.”11 Regardless of whether a specific imagined reality on-screen is presented as a “good place,” at the very least, cinema provides an intriguing alternative or heightened version of reality that may override audiences’ awareness of the real world.

What makes film such an excellent medium for utopian escapism is the inherent unattainability of the “place” on-screen. The soundscape of a film collates elements added or edited after the film has been shot. Randolph Jordan describes how the “schizophonia” of the audiovisual experience - a term coined by R. Murray Schafer to describe the necessary separation of sound and image - during filmmaking allows post-production editing to construct a soundscape.12 He argues that the “holistic totality” of the final product would not be achievable if sound were not recorded separately, then manipulated to indicate a greater sense of “realism.”13 In many cases, the search for a seamless fusion of realism and fiction means films will inevitably hint towards a specially sculpted version of reality – an unattainable “no place.”14

Despite Bloch’s insistence on utopia being rooted in anticipation, Flinn attributes connections between film music and utopia to notions of nostalgia – another concept dealing with desire for the unattainable. Part of the “utopian function” of film music involves an ability to allow listeners to return to memories of better times.15 The “historical verisimilitude” associated with non-diegetic film scores of the Classical Hollywood era meant traditional orchestral music could authenticate a film’s historical setting, to create a “nostalgic” utopia.16 Therefore, looking to the past can also provide “missing” musical elements. Similarly, as I will explore, when music from a distant time to the narrative setting is used, this allows films to simultaneously associate with different eras to create a truly imagined version of reality. This complex relationship to time and space influences film music’s association with More’s original view of utopia as an inaccessible “no place.”17

Flinn emphasises the legacy of Romanticism in film music, relating the ideal of “transcendence” to a higher realm through music-listening.18 She relates the notion that music can uncover a “better, more unified world,” and our tendencies to treat classical film music as “ethereal” and “timeless.”19 Studies by Ben Anderson and Ruth Herbert apply ideas of transcendence to everyday music-listening scenarios. Anderson’s ethnographic study analyses the “transcendent” potential of recorded music and relates this directly to Bloch’s theories of utopia, while Herbert discusses how music-listening leads to perceived “shifts of consciousness.”20 Anderson’s interview subjects recall events that exhibit music’s potential for utopian escape: as she “switch[ed] off” by dancing to a ska CD, one respondent stated that she “WAS somewhere else.”21 This illustrates how popular music genres can also contribute to utopian experiences, and, by extension, how Flinn’s “utopian promise” can be considered beyond traditional film scoring.22 Similarly, Herbert’s interviewees used terms like “trance” or “altered states” to describe the phenomenon of music-listening.23 She even discusses the concept of “visual listening,” as “music triggers thoughts about film,” and how everyday music-listening in modern settings can give a “filmic quality” to surroundings.24 Here the very feeling of escaping through music is defined by its similarity to film, which implies music is a definitive aspect of cinematic escapism. Music therefore plays a vital role in processes of immersing audiences into film “realities.”

Nonetheless, it would be reductive to attribute utopian experiences in films to the presence of music alone. Music is simply an expected feature of filmmaking. Importantly, it also accounts for just one artistic component of a film’s soundscape. Danijela Kulezic-Wilson states that sound design provides a more subtle, and therefore effective sonic underscore than traditional film music, advocating for the musicality of the “integrated soundtrack,” rather than viewing music and sound effects as separate.25 She describes director Darren Aronofksy’s use of exaggerated, rhythmic sound effects alongside dramatic visual editing to emphasise specific themes, and compares them to hip-hop samples to stress their “musical properties.”26 I would also argue the use of sound to call attention to a narrative theme is comparable to leitmotifs common in orchestral film scores, exemplifying how sound design can expand on existing film music conventions. I will discuss sonic leitmotifs further in relation to Jojo Rabbit. Acknowledging this viewpoint, the strong connection between music and utopia invites us to explore how the musicality of a film’s entire soundscape, beyond the expected rhythms and melodies of non-diegetic scores, can enhance its connection to utopian ideals. In my aim to be inclusive of the entire artistic soundscape, references I make to sound will encapsulate any material that may conventionally fall under the categories of ‘music’ and ‘sound.’27

The creative functions of film sounds have impact beyond making fictional or constructed worlds more believable, and I want to clarify that aiming for realism is not necessary for experiences of immersion. A conflict between realism and entertainment is crucial to how film presents opportunities for escapism, both from the perspective of the film viewer, and the character – though sonically, the two often overlap. In most cases of modern-day commercial cinema, the purpose of film is not to present a realistic version of our everyday experiences, but to push the boundaries of the world with which we are familiar. Rhys Davies asserts that audiovisual sound need not be “actual” or “authentic” to feel “appropriate.”28 Resultantly, audiences need not believe in the world on-screen for that place to offer an escape. Utopian experiences, after all, are about striving for somewhere that is, by definition, inaccessible.

By presenting an unreal, constructed universe, films can manifest an unattainable world where characters can strive for their own utopias. Sound, and how it is presented, can affect audiences in ways that immerse them into the film’s sonic environment, often allowing them to experience a level of utopian escapism themselves. Sound thus enhances a film’s ability to offer such experiences of escapism and what I call its utopian potential. The purpose of this essay is to focus on this potential, using examples of films that effectively exploit it, to demonstrate how sound can transform cinematic viewing into a utopian experience.

Baby Driver: A Musical Utopia, or Utopian Musical?

Director Edgar Wright has a reputation for embracing an aesthetic of “sonic excess” in his films, corresponding with augmented visual techniques and action sequences.29 Music is integral to the action of Baby Driver (2017), a film about a young man desperate to leave his life as a getaway driver. Wright was initially motivated to create the film after hearing “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, as he instantly imagined the song accompanying a car chase, stating “it was as close to synesthesia as I’ll probably ever come.”30 Wright’s imagined car chase opens the film and, like all action sequences throughout the film, is constructed around the soundtrack rather than vice versa, thereby prioritising the auditory experience. 

In scoring the film specifically with music released between the 1950s and 1990s, a sense of longing for past popular cultures enhances the film’s ability to present a desirable alternative to reality – that is, nostalgic music choices add to the film’s utopian potential. A lack of realism and the musicality of its entire soundscape further supplements this potential, with characters’ continuous engagement with music suggesting a constant state of “supra-diegesis,” a term coined by Rick Altman to describe the defining utopian-like states achieved in film musicals.31 This section examines how audiences can be captivated by its sonic approaches, and how a soundscape based around pre-existing popular music can offer the promise of utopia Flinn describes. 

Despite being set in modern-day Atlanta, the film’s nostalgic aesthetic is a key factor in its projections of utopia. Flinn’s assertion that film scores reminiscent of older, symphonic orchestra music can authenticate historical settings establishes that nostalgic underscoring can contribute to such projections.32 While extra-diegetic scores often influence a viewer’s experience, Baby Driver’s soundtrack is not reserved for the audience alone. An amalgamation of late-20th-century pop music is listened to by protagonist, Baby – and presented as meta-diegetic – through various ‘outdated’ devices, including iPods, cassette tapes, and vinyl, referencing multiple historical versions of popular music culture. The film’s intended temporal setting feels uncertain, and is further obscured by this non-specific, heterogenous ‘retro’ aesthetic. Through his constant music-listening, Baby himself escapes the world around him, where he is stuck in a criminal job he dislikes. The audience hears this music through the soundtrack, an example of a shared musical experience which, according to Ben Winters, creates a “bond” between audiences and characters.33 Baby’s musical escapism therefore extends to those watching, and constructing the soundtrack with mostly decades-old pop music guides this escapism backwards in time, encouraging feelings of nostalgia.

Distancing the film from modern culture through its musical score enhances the film’s ability to present an idealistic on-screen world. Ernst Bloch emphasises the expression of an idealised future, or “not-yet-conscious” state, in artwork demonstrating a “negative” relationship to its own time.34 Baby Driver seems to reference an idealised past for comparable reasons. John Hunter contends a common feature consistent across the highest grossing films in recent years is the portrayal of a world without modern-day technology such as smartphones, a deliberate decision made by filmmakers to enhance escapism and provide viewers with a truly alternative version of reality.35 Considering this, the film’s lack of realistic imagery of 2017, through nostalgic music and technology, can be seen as a reaction against its present society. Even the most modern song featured, “Easy” by Sky Ferreira, is a key symbol of the past, as Ferreira herself plays Baby’s mother in a flashback to Baby’s childhood covering The Commodores’ original 1977 track, which is also featured in the film’s soundtrack.

David Shumway’s analysis of the music in American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973), another car-based film, suggests how pop music can be just as effective as Flinn’s orchestral examples in creating a sense of nostalgia.36 Set in 1962, the film follows final-year high school students who are hesitant to leave their hometown for college. The presence of music through car radios expresses their teenage identity throughout, as they participate in the ‘cruising’ youth culture of the time; however, just as in Baby Driver, their musical preferences seem outdated, as most of the music they consume are pop songs of the 1950s. This double-nostalgia effect creates a misleading image of the 1960s, which, according to Shumway allows audiences to construct an “alternative world” of the fifties.37 He attributes the effectiveness of pop music in evoking nostalgia to the fact that cultural trends can represent collective memories many audience members can relate to. We should consider that much younger audiences of such films may also long for this past, precisely because they cannot remember it. Echoing American Graffiti, Baby Driver’s emphasis on various past cultures projects onto audiences an idealised, atemporal place, where a memory of the past can be replaced by retro aesthetics. As such, Baby Driver looks to the past to fulfil the missing elements of modern-day reality, presenting a utopian version through nostalgia. 

Having established how its soundscape can create an intriguing fictional universe, the film must make audiences feel like they are part of this universe. Conventionally, original non-diegetic film scores can effectively represent elements that are not always explicitly expressed, like a character’s emotional state. Using popular music in the same way can complicate this. As popular music exists in many contexts outside the film, it is not inextricably linked to the film text, and its presence as non-diegetic material reminds us that there is a difference between our world, where this music exists, and that of the characters, who cannot hear it. Its “invisible,” non-diegetic status risks highlighting the separation between the diegesis and extra-diegesis, distancing the world on-screen from reality.38 By placing source of the music on-screen, it becomes an artistic artefact shared between our reality and the reality of the film. Suffering from tinnitus, Baby’s incessant listening to music is justified, allowing most of the music we hear to come from his iPod. Hearing much of the film from Baby’s perspective draws audiences away from their role as non-diegetic outsiders. For example, when Baby removes his right earphone, the panning of the music in the soundtrack shifts to the left of the mix (00:07:52), mimicking Baby’s imagined sonic experience. Robynn Stilwell describes how character subjectivities presented through meta-diegetic sound act as “bridging mechanisms” between the audience and the diegesis.39 Thus, placing the source of the music inside the diegesis further narrows the separation between the real world and the imagined one. Winters makes an interesting parenthetical comment when discussing how music’s presence in film undermines attempts to show a believable sense of reality: “the diegesis I am watching seems saturated with music in a way that everyday life is not (unless we are permanently plugged into an iPod).”40 Baby Driver literally plugs its protagonist, and by extension the audience, into an iPod for much of the film, creating a sense of reality, despite its action sequences being far from everyday life. Through a meta-diegetic perspective, audiences need not question the source of films’ musical backdrop, drawing them further into the world on-screen. It is as if the iPod symbolises music as the utopian missing element. 

Yet, the way the music interacts with the story contradicts this idea of believability, often acting as a narrative tool, much like traditional film scores. After Baby has been blackmailed into maintaining his criminal career, suitably, the song “Nowhere to Run” by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas plays on the car radio as Baby drives his fellow criminals to collect weapons for their next job. The song lyrics also foreshadow Baby’s imminent circumstances, as a shoot-out ensues between the gang and the weapons suppliers, leaving Baby surrounded by gunfire, with literally “nowhere to run” and “nowhere to hide.”41 Annette Davison discusses how non-diegetic music possesses the authority to act as a narrative device, but this scene exemplifies a case for musical narration within the diegesis.42 Commenting on American Graffiti, Shumway believes the ubiquitous presence of music via car radios means the music not only seems to come from the space but “pervades it,” allowing it to interact with the narrative in ways typical of both diegetic and non-diegetic music.43 In Baby Driver, diegetic music reflects Baby’s perspective not only in how we physically hear it, but in its ability to narrate Baby’s life. In this utopian world, the music you hear can react to, or foreshadow, your experiences. This combination of realist and expressive uses of diegetic music ensures audiences are exposed to an intriguing, alternative version of reality, while simultaneously accepting what they see and hear as somewhat plausible. 

The musical focus of Baby Driver throughout its production process also exemplifies Rhys Davies’ theory that soundscapes must be “appropriate” but not necessarily “realistic” for an effective artistic result.44 Julian Slater, the film’s sound designer, explains that all sonic material was altered and arranged to match the music, with the goal of creating one “harmonic” soundscape.45 He presents the example of police sirens in a car chase sequence. The pitches of the sirens were corrected to match the music in the scene, while their tempo fluctuates to coincide with tempo changes in the music. While this synchronisation is completely unrealistic, the result is fitting for a film in which music is so central to the action. Furthermore, the sirens themselves, which are essentially repeated musical fragments, are constructed by layering American and European police sirens, which as Slater demonstrates, are rhythmically and melodically distinct.46 Although the film is set in the US, and it would therefore make sense to only hear recognisable signs of an American urban soundscape, the almost polyphonic contrast of the two sirens complements the energy and rapid editing of the visual material, rendering the combination artistically effective. Rather than fully adhering to one realistic soundscape that aligns with the film’s geographical context, the sonic technique creates a fictional world that exists outside of our own experience of time and space. These artistic choices are appropriate for the world of Baby Driver, where the “sonic excess” discussed by Amanda McQueen heightens the drama, and actions revolve around music.47 Essentially, if audiences are to be taken “somewhere else,” as was the case in Ben Anderson’s interview subject, going beyond typical conventions of realism is effective in achieving this escapism from reality. 

As musicality is intertwined into the entire soundscape, and characters in the diegesis closely engage with the film’s soundtrack, the artistic approach to Baby Driver can be compared to conventions of the film musical.48 The film musical as a genre is heavily associated with utopia – Richard Dyer’s work on the presentation of entertainment as utopia relates to film musicals specifically and is hugely influential, evidenced by my own explorations of utopian entertainment in cinema.49 Defining the film musical characteristics of Baby Driver therefore emphasises the film’s utopian functions. A case for Baby Driver’s film musical qualities can be recognised when comparing it to another action film with a similar plot: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). Both Baby Driver and Drive follow a getaway driver who conceals his real name, faces dramatic conflict with his fellow criminals, and whose work complicates his relationship with a female love interest. In both cases, entertainment is presented as a form of escapism – while Baby is obsessed with music, Refn’s protagonist works as a Hollywood stunt driver as a contrast to his criminal work. Despite their similarities, the styles of both films are extremely different, especially in terms of sound. Drive contrasts the overwhelming engine noises of cars in its action sequences with moments where non-diegetic music suppresses all diegetic sound. The expressive effect heightens the drama of dangerous action scenes and dissociates these with feel-good moments where uplifting music is brought to the fore. The resultant dichotomy accentuates the contrast between sound and silence within the diegesis – and between sound design and music – for artistic effect. Conversely, most sounds occurring in Baby Driver are integrated into a single musical soundscape, which features upbeat music during car chases, thereby intensifying the cinematic experience through well-known pop tunes. This suggests that, rather than being considered of the same genre to Drive, Baby Driver’s focus on musicality makes it much more akin to a film musical. 

The film musical is heavily associated with a lack of realism; a genre that presents a unique imagined place capable of unpredictably transforming into a theatrical stage. Often the sources of the music to which characters are singing and dancing are nowhere to be seen in the fictional space. While we can see the source of the music in Baby Driver (often Baby’s earphones), the fact that other characters, too, move in time to the music echoes the same implausibilities of the film musical genre. Such a situation can be described as “supra-diegetic,” a term Rick Altman uses to define the state achieved by characters during musical numbers. These states are reached through various visual and audio “dissolves” that gradually transition us into a utopian, musical space.50 An “audio dissolve” describes the gradual engagement of on-screen audio elements, often characters singing, with non-diegetic music.51 These transformations can be accompanied by “video dissolves,” which involve seeing often unrealistic circumstances that take us outside of the normal diegetic setting, and “personality dissolves,” wherein characters transition into someone with musical capabilities, demonstrating tremendous singing and dancing abilities for the duration of a musical number.52 Discussing the 1932 musical Love Me Tonight, Altman states: 

In order for that utopia to have substance, it must be a limited realm, one seemingly cut off from the outer, evil world, accessible only through the magical aspect of song.53

A further example can be seen in the film musical High School Musical (Kenny Ortega, 2006). Here, the basketball-themed number “Get Your Head In The Game” begins with the squeaks of gym shoes against the floor and the rhythms of bouncing basketballs developing distinct patterns, which then become the rhythmic foundation on which the rest of the musical number is based (00:14:15–00:17:00). Gradually increasing the musicality of diegetic sounds acts as a transitionary dissolve, before the characters’ rhythmic movements become a dance routine and they burst out into song. Compare this to the opening of Baby Driver, where Baby waits in his car for his criminal colleagues to rob a bank before an elaborate car chase takes place (00:00:55-00:06:20). Before the chase, each moment, including slamming car doors, footsteps, the bank’s burglar alarm, and the car’s moving windscreen wipers, all happen exactly in time to the song “Bellbottoms,” which Baby hears through his earphones. These moments pave the way for the rest of the sequence, to not only show extraordinary visual stunts, but for all action – such as the previously discussed police sirens – to adhere to the musical qualities of the soundtrack. These opening moments, just as the squeaking shoes and basketball bounces in High School Musical, can be seen as audio dissolves, preparing audiences for a supra-diegetic state. 

Moreover, I believe that this opening dissolve not only prepares us for one musical number but for the whole film to exist entirely within this musical utopia. In many traditional film musicals, characters’ performances within the “supradiegetic bubble” of the musical number often go unnoticed by non-participating characters and are posed as embedded fictional fantasies, set apart from the “‘realistic’ diegetic space” to which we return after the song.54 In the High School Musical number, male lead Troy is singing and dancing with his basketball teammates, who in “reality” are unaware of (and later oppose) Troy’s interests in musical theatre. When the song ends, the characters demonstrate no recollection of the events that took place, acting as if an ordinary training session has just ended. Conversely, in Baby Driver, such a distinction between diegetic reality and supra-diegetic possibility is never made. Baby listens to music in almost every scene, and for most examples, all visual and audio elements match the rhythms of his personal soundscape. Slater outlines the process of filmmaking where every scene was “tempo-mapped” before shooting, indicating the intention for the musicality of Baby’s reality to be continuous throughout.55 Rather than providing opportunities for characters to express emotion through song, Baby Driver may be seen as a jukebox musical in which the continuous presence of pop music is integral to the action that takes place. The implausibility of the entire storyline is emphasised by Baby’s ability to remain alive despite several life-threatening events, receive a generously short prison sentence when eventually apprehended, and fulfil his dream of going on a road-trip with his love interest, Debra. As all events must start and finish to the beat of Baby’s music, there is a sense of security that things will go his way, at least until the end of the current song. Audiences are transported to this utopian place of possibility from the start of the film and remain immersed in that world for its duration. 

The state of utopia presented in Baby Driver is reached through a deliberate lack of realism in its soundscape and an unclear divide between diegetic and non-diegetic material. This ambiguity not only draws audiences further into the heightened reality but can be interpreted as a state of supra-diegesis, a common feature of the film musical. Presenting the film’s soundscape entirely from the meta-diegetic perspective of the protagonist allows the audience to share the character’s sonic experience, and to dissociate from their typical role as outside observers and feel part of the world on-screen. Immersing them into a universe in which all music and sound are in sync presents not only an intriguing non-place, but one that can be deemed distinctly utopian when categorising the film as a kind of musical.

The Hunger Games: The Musicality of a Potential Utopia

Based on Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novel, The Hunger Games is set in a futuristic North America called Panem. At the heart of society is the Capitol, the home of the elite whose industrial needs are served by the workers of twelve separate districts. As punishment for a failed revolt against the Capitol, each district must nominate two young citizens as “tributes” to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a “fight to the death” among the 24 combatants. This elaborate backstory justifies a huge sense of dissatisfaction among its characters. The story follows Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to represent District 12 in the Hunger Games, in place of her sister Prim. Reflecting modern-day issues like wealth inequality and class segregation, the film’s near-future setting is an alternative yet familiar society, where hope is occasionally in sight. According to Joe Tompkins this allows audiences to “live out the dream of revolution as mere entertainment.”56 Sound is key to effectively presenting both the dystopian future setting and moments of utopian escape, and is shared with audiences by blurring distinctions between diegetic and non-diegetic material and by presenting the film from Katniss’ perspective. This section explores how sonic associations and melodic motifs represent these opposing states, and how musical paratexts elaborate on the film’s glimpses of musical utopia. 

In the film, the contrasting worlds of, on one hand, Panem’s harsh society and, on the other, instances of hope, are worlds that sound very different. In their article on the songs of The Hunger Games, Jon Fitzgerald and Philip Hayward identify key thematic binaries between “humanity,” “low-tech” and “pre-modern,” and “inhumanity,” “hi-tech” and “futuristic.”57 Anderson Martins Pereira meanwhile discusses these dichotomies in relation to the original novels, stating that technology and its uses represent “totalitarian social order, in a dystopian landscape,” while utopian escape is only achieved via a “return to nature.”58 Technological advances are key to the torturous elements of the Games, with “game-makers” creating electronically engineered creatures and simulating spontaneous forest fires. This connection between technology and danger is hinted in the choice of instrumentation underscoring the film’s opening titles. 

As the logo of distribution company Lionsgate appears on-screen, we do not hear its usual musical accompaniment, but instead the gradual presence of an ambiguous drone of woodwind and string instruments, supplemented with what sounds like whistling wind. A six-note, plucked acoustic guitar motif is then introduced. After crediting production company Color Force, an opening title scroll commences as the film presents text from Panem’s “Treaty of Treason,” explaining the narrative’s backstory, all the while the guitar melody remains, modulating between G major and F major. However, as we read more about the reasons behind the Hunger Games, the accompanying drone increases in volume before the acoustic melody fades altogether. With any sonic indicators of nature gone, the drone now predominantly features electronic synthesisers. The transition to the penultimate title card, showing the words “Fight to the Death” to describe the punishment of the Hunger Games, coincides with a musical shift from major to minor, as if simplistic musical shorthand for the film’s backstory: from the hope of revolution to the downfall of the consequences. Crucially, this introductory musical journey also presents us with the opposing states of utopia and dystopia present throughout the film – the former defined by folk-like instrumentation and soundbites of nature, and the latter differentiated by electronic sounds, most closely associated with the Capitol and tragedies of the Hunger Games.

After this fitting introduction, sound establishes the dystopian setting in the very first scene. During a television interview, Head Game-maker, Seneca, a symbol for the villainous attributes of the Capitol, is asked to explain his “personal signature” (00:01:21) We then instantly hear a girl screaming, alongside crickets chirping and birds hooting, as the film cuts to the natural scenery of District 12, and then to the source of the scream, Prim. The scream elicits an instant emotional and almost primal response: in hearing a screaming child we instinctively recognise distress that must be resolved. Caitrióna Walsh explores instances of “corporeality” in film soundscapes – “being physical and/or relating to the body” - for example, how heartbeat sound effects in horror films can elicit fear in audiences by presenting an empathetic bodily experience.59 Exemplifying such corporeality, Prim’s scream signals fear, pain and helplessness, and suggests that it these qualities that define Seneca’s “personal signature,” while audiences are immediately made to empathise with the harm caused by the Capitol. The dissonance between the scream and the tranquil, biophonic sounds of the forest articulates the film’s ideals of natural escapism in a troubled society. Prim’s anguish is caused by a dream in which she is chosen to participate in the Games – an event that ultimately comes true – and her scream illustrates the nightmarish realities of Panem’s society. A similar reliance on sound associations is evident throughout, for example, through the warfare-related “bang” of fired canons heard every night of the Games, communicating the daily death-count.

Furthermore, exaggerated sound effects use audience’s knowledge of science fiction to reinforce the film’s futuristic dystopia. Replacing the prosaic sounds of modern-day cosmopolitan technology, like automatic doors with emphasised “futuristic” sound effects, these effects exploit sonic associations established in sci-fi films to consolidate the plot’s setting in the future.60 When Katniss and fellow tribute, Peeta, travel to the Capitol, a quick wide shot of the train travelling across the screen shows it is actually hovering above the tracks. This is accompanied by an electronic “swoosh,” reminiscent of the sounds of flying spacecrafts in films like Star Wars (1977-2019). These sounds contribute to the futuristic soundscape that define the Capitol and solidify a dichotomy between a natural escape and a fearful digital dystopia. 

A key consideration when analysing art’s relationship with utopia is its intention as a form of entertainment. Dyer focuses on the musical when connecting themes of entertainment as a utopian “escape,” but this correlation in other genres is more complex.61 As evidenced by The Hunger Games’ dystopia, audiences are not always presented with the “image of ‘something better’.”62 Two distinct and opposing versions of entertainment are presented in the film. The first presents entertainment as the epitome of consumerism, a negative and exaggerated reflection of the consumer cultures of today, in which members of society are forced to partake – watching a gameshow-like television broadcast of the Hunger Games is mandatory. This portrayal, however, would seem ironic if not contrasted with more positive representations of entertainment. As Flinn states, we cannot expect a product of Hollywood to be “entirely critical of the industrial and ideological machinery giving rise to it.”63 In The Hunger Games, moments where entertainment is presented in a positive light, as a form of escape, are musical ones. 

An association between utopia and folk music in particular is established; Fitzgerald and Hayward describe the “folkiness” of Katniss’ “vibrato-free, untrained voice” when singing in times of distress.64 Consoling her younger sister after her nightmare, Katniss sings “The Meadow Song,” the lyrics of which evoke the beauty of natural landscapes:

Deep in the meadow, under the willow,
A bed of grass, a soft green pillow

Singing about a meadow specifically denotes a slightly different natural landscape to the woods and overgrown fields of District 12. That is, the comforting descriptions do not match the girls’ surroundings, implying notions of escapism. Although we hear no instruments, the singing is not unaccompanied, as the faint diegetic sounds of crickets are heard, supposedly coming from outside the bedroom. The non-performative simplicity of this short, a cappella rendition creates a sense of realism within a highly fictional setting. As in Baby Driver, the lack of non-diegetic music here breaks the barriers between the characters and those watching, a “common experience” allowing us to empathise with the girls’ short moment of relief.65

Later in the film, during the Games, Katniss once again sings “The Meadow Song,” this time to District 11 tribute Rue as she dies in her arms after being shot (01:40:18). To escape the digital version of “entertainment” around them, Katniss’s lullaby-like singing contradicts the tragic event as a consoling distraction. The simplicity of the song also opposes the complexity of their situation, as characters who are supposed to view one another as enemies have formed a bond that results in such an emotional end. The continued lyrics of the song evoke images of sleeping and waking up in a better place, presenting a paradoxically beautiful narration for Rue’s brutal death: 

Lay down your head and close your eyes,
and when they open, the sun will rise

The natural imagery of the words and simplicity of the melody highlight a focus on folk-like musical elements, immersing audiences in a fictional pastoral world that promotes a connection to nature over the dangers of technology. 

In addition to these sung moments, non-diegetic musical motifs in the film’s underscore are also effective in foregrounding symbols of hope. When Katniss finds a pin of the fictional mockingjay bird at the District market, non-diegetic vocals hum a four-note phrase starting on D (Figure 1). 

Figure 1 - Sketch of the four-note melody heard at 0:08:15.

After a vendor gifts Katniss the pin, the vocal line returns, continuing into the following sequence, based mainly around the same pitches before finally climaxing on its minor tonic, A. Focusing on these pitches with little rhythmic variation, this wordless vocal line foreshadows the four-note “mockingjay” motif that is used later in the film. Singing to the mockingjays in the arena, Katniss and Rue exploit the birds’ abilities to imitate melodies to create a communication signal during The Games; the melody they use is a variation of the phrase from Figure 1, this time in the key of F# minor (Figure 2). 

Figure 2 - Sketch of the four-note “Mockingjay” motif

We also learn that the mockingjay’s intelligence is the unintentional result of the Capitol’s genetically mutated jabberjay birds, designed to spy on Panem’s citizens, mating with the common mockingbird. Using their own technology against them, the characters oppose the ruthless nature of the Games to work together, with this musical motif representing a rebellion against the forces of authority. The melody continues to be featured throughout The Hunger Games trilogy, with characters using it as a signal of protest against their inequitable society. Heard on our very first exposure to the mockingjay, which becomes a “potent symbol of hope,” this music foreshadows the motif’s association with escape and rebellion.66 Here, in a dystopian society, the underscore provides the “utopian promise” Flinn describes, hinting towards an alternative, more hopeful way of living.67

By contrast, the “reaping” scene before the Games, in which the competing tributes are selected, is characterised by a lack of musicality. During the scene, a video is shown to District 12’s assembled citizens, promoting the “peace” afforded by the Hunger Games as a solution to the “war” of the uprising (00:12:42–00:14:00). The video’s accompanying music – described by the film’s subtitles as “inspirational” – sounds stereotypically ‘cinematic,’ with its heavy use of horns propagating ideals of heroism. However, its poor, tinny sound quality, appropriately imagining what would emanate from the diegetic outdoor speakers, undermines its supposedly inspirational message. The rest of the scene features very little music at all. Sonic details like the tapping of an echoing microphone are completely isolated, underlining the tension of the silence. Even Prim’s name being announced, a dramatic turn of events that would typically be accompanied by a musical “stinger,” features no underscoring music. Again, adding an unnerving sense of realism to the circumstances on-screen, there are no musical motifs or cues to associate with the horrors of the Capitol.

A similar phenomenon has been expressed about another famous “young adult” fantasy series, Harry Potter (2001-2011), which, according to Jamie Lynn Webster, alternates musical moments and silence to contrast “magical” and “non-magical” events.68 Webster explains that the instrumental representation of magic is key to the “spectacle” of the film – “another form of fantasy as escapism.”69 Like the magic of Harry Potter, escapist moments in The Hunger Games are defined by musicality, providing them with much more utopian potential. When Katniss goes hunting at the beginning of the film (00:02:53-00:05:00), we hear a high-pitched drone, birdsong and humming, all as one musical entity. Without the clear border of a non-diegetic score – an artistic no-man’s land where sounds belong to neither diegesis nor reality – the separation between character and audience is diminished. We then hear a succession of sounds in her surroundings that establish District 12’s identity, drawing viewers into Katniss’ world. During quick cuts between various activities of the district, we hear water splashing, clanging mining equipment, a dog panting, a knife cutting some meat, and the rattling of the fence bordering the district, which Katniss steps over to enter the forest. As animalistic and natural sonances alternate with metallic sounds of tools, audiences are invited into the woodland surroundings of the working-class, coal-mining district. These sounds lead us to Katniss’ physical and mental escape from the closed-off, controlled environment, to do something we come to learn she thrives at and enjoys – archery. 

After she fetches her bow and arrow a single plucked bass note is heard, which then repeats to coincide with each moment she draws her bow. Alongside an ambient drone, we hear overlapping vocal melodies in a canon structure, creating an echoic effect that implies a dream-like state. All music is then interrupted when she sees her friend Gale. The seamless interaction between implied non-diegetic music and diegetic visuals, and the fact another character’s presence cuts off the music we hear, suggests the source of the music may be the imagination of Katniss herself. The film’s sound designer, Lon Bender, explains how all sounds were captured and edited to reflect Katniss’ perspective, which may explain the effect of the musical material in this scene, narrating Katniss’ form of escape so closely.70 Ben Winters, meanwhile, states that the ambiguity itself surrounding whether on-screen characters “hear,” or imagine hearing, the music is enough to suggest a “common experience we share with the characters.”71 By making audiences feel they relate to an unattainable fantasy, the utopian potential of the film-viewing experience is enhanced. 

Furthermore, opportunities for audiences to immerse themselves into Katniss’ world go beyond the limitations of the music featured in the film itself. An accompanying album was released entitled The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond. Most of the tracks from the album do not feature in the film, meaning its main focus is not “District 12,” but the “beyond.” Comparable to the Spider Man – Music From and Inspired By albums released alongside Sam Raimi’s film series (2002-2007) or even the more recent Music Inspired by The Film Roma album released a year after Alfonso Cuáron’s Roma (2018), the synergistic marketing intentions behind such projects are clear. Lee Barron discusses this phenomenon of releasing “Music Inspired By…” albums, where soundtracks contain popular songs that may not feature in the film itself, deeming those given an “‘official’ film soundtrack status … brazen and misleading.”72 Yet, this album, which clarifies its beyond-the-film status, does effectively relate to the imagined reality of The Hunger Games. Throughout the album, acoustic guitars, drones and simple melodies echo the sonic environments of the film itself, especially, as implied by its title, those of District 12. Resultantly, the album continues to establish the sonic binary between the “pre-modern” and the “futuristic” by identifying District 12 with sounds of the former.73 This is further mirrored by the selection of artists featured on the album: the majority of the artists are associated with music of folk or country genres, such as The Decemberists, Birdy, and Taylor Swift. Other artists featured are just as well-known but are heard performing folk songs, despite this being stylistically inconsistent with their usual output, such as Maroon 5. Their song “Come Away to the Water,” written specifically for the soundtrack, also seems to symbolically reflect the film’s storyline. Its lyrics, describing sending a lamb to the slaughter, reflects Panem’s society where young children are sent off to their deaths. 

Making such metaphorical connections to the film world can be ambiguous but are arguably inevitable as the cultural artefacts of the album and film are intertwined. Fitzgerald and Hayward relate musical features of the song “Kingdom Come” by The Civil Wars, a song that accompanies the final ending credits of the film, directly to The Hunger Games’ romantic storyline. They state the “emotional” overlapping vocals of male and female singers “suggest Katniss’ intense interactions … with the two male protagonists.”74 This exemplifies how the album compels listeners to associate what they hear with the film diegesis, even though its music may not underscore any actual scenes. Therefore, The Hunger Games’ accompanying album brings depth to the film’s alternative reality, a transmedial relationship that arguably constitutes its material as “film music,” which, to quote Elizabeth Cowie, “might take up where vision, fundamentally impaired, leaves off.”75 Through the album, the film’s natural soundscape – the one underscoring moments of escape – is offered an identity of its own, giving audiences opportunities to delve deeper into the trilogy’s sonic universe. With a fan-base for both the original novels and film adaptations, the album adds yet another dimension to the world of The Hunger Games, solidifying Panem’s identity as a fictional place that can be accessed in multiple ways, rather than just a backdrop to a story. Following this, we can ascertain that musical soundscapes can enhance a film’s potential to provide a utopian alternative to reality. Bringing such strong focus to music and sound outside the parameters of the film through an accompanying album provides an extra potential for utopian escapism, as we can escape to the film-world through other media, in spaces and moments beyond the film-viewing experience. 

In The Hunger Games, sound and music are crucial to establishing a futuristic dystopia, while presenting both characters and audiences with opportunities to depart from its horrors, particularly through associations between nature and notions of escapism. Anti-technological sentiments place a focus on folk music and unaccompanied singing as ‘positive’ entertainment, while the Hunger Games themselves, characterised by futuristic sonic material, are presented as a negative, exploitative form of entertainment. Essentially, the utopian versus dystopian binary central to the film is enhanced through contrasting sonic material. Sound and music thus help to immerse audiences into distinct and alternating imagined realities. Importantly, moments where characters break-away from the control of the authoritative figures that cause their suffering, are underpinned by music that supports the established utopian sentiments of nature.

Jojo Rabbit: A Utopian Experience of a Dystopian Reality

Set in the real historical dystopia of Nazi Germany, Taika Waititi’s comedy Jojo Rabbit (2019), follows a boy who discovers that his mother is secretly hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa, in their house. Focalised from the viewpoint of Jojo, who is a ten-year-old, enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth, the Nazi regime is presented to the audience as a utopia, or at least what Fátima Vieira would deem a non-trustworthy “satirical utopia.”76 This presentation changes throughout the film, as a growing friendship with Elsa shifts Jojo’s view of the regime. This is most obviously represented by his creation and subsequent rejection of an imaginary friend version of Hitler – a figure played by Waititi himself that personifies Jojo’s radicalisation under Nazism. Like Baby Driver and The Hunger Games, the soundscape is constructed to reflect the perspective of its protagonist, in this case a ten-year-old boy. Therefore, although its depiction of Nazi Germany was not without controversy and received some negative reviews, the film adopts levels of innocence and ignorance that allow room for comedy in a plot about such a dark period in history.77 Any implications that this was a funny time and place are not to be taken seriously. This is communicated to audiences through the film’s musical choices, as Jojo’s initial delusions about Nazi Germany are supported by a soundtrack of uplifting post-war pop music that clashes with the film’s 1940s setting. I believe this connection between escapism and entertainment is most vividly represented through the recurring depiction of characters dancing. This section explains and elaborates on these features by analysing specific scenes, sequences, and motifs.

As in The Hunger Games, audiences are exposed to the film’s soundscape from the opening titles. Replacing Alfred Newman’s widely recognised 20th Century Fox fanfare, the Fox Searchlight Pictures logo is underscored by music in a German folk-style (“Jojo’s March”) written by film composer Michael Giacchino (00:00:05-00:00:35). The militaristic feel of the snare drum patterns is undermined by youthful recorders and pizzicato strings, and the pleasant sound of young boys’ voices singing lyrical, syncopated, polka-like melodies. This prepares audiences for a world that is unrecognisable – a utopian view of Nazi Germany. As previously discussed, folk music’s connotations with simplicity and nostalgia makes it an especially influential tool for establishing a sense of idealism.78 The simplicity of this opening cue foreshadows Jojo’s naïveté, as the seeming innocence of a national folk song symbolises the sense of amusement that initially attracts Jojo to the Hitler Youth. This enthusiasm is symbolised sonically in the opening scene: heightened sounds of Jojo marching forward, fixing his tie, pulling up his socks and buckling his belt, accompany close-up shots of these actions, as he prepares himself for a Hitler Youth training weekend (00:00:37). His outfit resembles a boy-scout uniform, but the sonic exaggeration of these subtle actions followed by his description of “join[ing] the ranks,” shows how Jojo sees himself as a soldier. From the very beginning of the film, a heightened soundscape is adopted to accentuate Jojo’s youthful imagination. 

During his training weekend, sound design and music score continue to amplify Jojo’s viewpoint. This creates a sense of distance between historical reality and Jojo’s youthful perspective, presenting what is effectively the grooming of young children to adopt a dangerous political ideology like a comedy sketch. The camp’s leader, Captain Klenzendorf, showcases his shooting skills to the children, with fast-paced editing cutting to images of his increasingly ridiculous poses as he fires. The gunshots are unrealistically quiet, and the cartoonish sound effects of each shot underline the representation of the subject matter as hyperbolic. A similar exaggeration can be identified in the orchestral underscoring of some of the camp’s darker training exercises. When Jojo refuses to kill a rabbit to prove he is soldier-material, the musical cue “How Jojo Got His Name” successfully communicates Jojo’s fears about war and violence (00:11:43). Through dissonant chords and string tremolos that lead to a stinger-like climax, the music narrates the taunting of Jojo for his weakness, leading to the moment he runs away in panic. While earlier the sounds of gunshots were funny and exciting, the underscore tells us that, for Jojo, being teased by his peers is like experiencing a horror film, reinforcing the fact we are seeing the world through the eyes of a ten-year-old. Matching the movements of the narrative so closely, the score reinforces a sonic fixation of Jojo’s perspective, discouraging us from judging the humorous take on Nazi Germany from an objective standpoint. Drawing audiences into a utopian version of a real-life dystopia fulfils Jean Baudrillard’s negative description of cinema that contributes to his concept of the “hyperreal.” He uses this term to describe the deceivingly exaggerated version of reality reflected in cinema due to factors such as the industry’s increasing use of technology and an obsession with the “blurring of the real and the virtual.”79 Rather than being obviously fantastical or, on the other hand, realistic, the hyperreal goes beyond realism towards an artistically constructed illusion, with false projections of history through cinema being particularly detrimental.80 Baudrillard’s position is surmised by Gerry Coulter:

Cinema … plays an important part in the greater contribution of all media to the creation of a time when any event, idea or history can be replaced with any view of it.81

Despite the intended damaging connotations, I would argue in the case of Jojo Rabbit the presentation of a hyperreality is not done deceptively. An implausible soundscape (and the use of anachronistic music discussed below) mocks the “hyperreal” version of 1940s Germany, underlining the fact this is a replacement of history, constructed for entertainment. This affirms that audiences are not being immersed into a literal utopia but experiencing a form of escapism offered by a fictional chain of events.

Like Baby Driver, the film’s soundtrack is not representative of its temporal setting, in this case, using post-war pop music. This relates to Bloch’s theory of utopias adopting elements from outside the cultural present for fulfilment. This retro-futuristic effect provides refuge from the present of the problematic era of the film, as well as the actual present of the 21st-century. This anachrony emphasises a lack of realism that undermines a serious potential for irreverence in the film, perhaps making audiences more comfortable viewing a comedic take on Nazi Germany. For example, the German version of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” released in 1964, accompanies the film’s opening credit sequence, which features historic images of cheering crowds welcoming Hitler at rallies (00:00:37-00:04:20). Seas of Nazi salutes add new meaning to the translated lyrics of “come, give me your hand” (“komm, gib mir deine Hand”), and compare Hitler’s cult of personality with that of “Beatlemania” two decades later. This musical irony continues throughout. During the aforementioned Hitler Youth weekend, a montage of different training activities is underscored by “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” by Tom Waits. The youthful perspective adopted in the song explain the children’s enthusiasm is for the fun activities on-screen, rather than actual Nazi politics. The purposefully anachronistic use of a rock song from the 1990s invites audiences to embrace the film’s comedy without relating it to a realistic re-enactment of the regime, while subtly reminding us of its horrors – beyond the children’s ignorance, we know the prospect of growing up in a fascist society would be undesirable. The use of post-war music contradicts Flinn’s discussion of non-diegetic music’s potential to authentically establish a historical era.82 By undermining the implications of the visuals, the music reminds audiences that the war does end – that the film has at least one positive outcome, allowing the viewer to enjoy the storytelling that happens along the way. Rather than being immersed in a realistic 1940s Germany of war, fear and fascism, the music can transport listeners to post-war decades that may evoke a positive sense of nostalgia.

Furthermore, another scene shows diegetic music from the film’s past acting in a similar way, this time offering a nostalgic escape for an on-screen character, Jojo’s mother Rosie. Over dinner with her son, she expresses her excitement at the prospect the war will soon be over and the Nazis will be defeated, while the Lecuona Cuban Boys’ song “Tabú” plays in the background (00:39:46-00:40:25). The song was released in 1935, predating World War II, and is distinctly un-German in origin and style – the rhythmic percussion of shakers, woodblocks and conga drums, and tango-like melody make the music recognisable as Latin American. As well as a lack of patriotism, Rosie – who has been secretly supporting the resistance movement – chooses music that arguably symbolises a longing to escape the temporal and spatial present. Through Bloch’s theory of utopian “missing” elements, the film’s use of pre-existing music in its non-diegetic soundtrack and within the diegesis, presents both audiences and characters with a nostalgic refuge from 1940s Nazism. 

Beyond comedic effects and ironies, sound is also imperative to the portrayal of the film’s most harrowing moments, including the death of Jojo’s mother. An important motif in the film is Rosie’s distinctive red shoes, which, through close-ups and camera angles, attract viewers’ attention throughout. Crucially, this motif is supported by the sound of her footsteps that are often at the forefront of the soundscape. At 00:34:21, Rosie enters the frame from the side, walking along a step above Jojo, who is undergoing physiotherapy in a swimming pool. While this framing cuts off the rest of Rosie’s body, we are encouraged to continue focusing on her shoes as she clips her heels in time to the “oom-pah-pah” of the waltz music playing in the background. The music was initially foregrounded while Jojo was swimming underwater, implying its non-diegetic status. While a conventionally scored motif may rely on associating music with themes or characters, the sounds of Rosie’s shoes are seen to resonate from their source, suggesting how foley sounds may be effective leitmotifs in a more direct manner to music as we learn to associate these sounds with her character. 

Early in the film, Jojo is introduced to the practice of public hangings when in the town square, a starting point for uncovering the inhumanity of Nazism. Later, Jojo stands in the same square, looking outward. The mise-en-scène consists of just Jojo and a pair of dangling legs (Figure 3). Because the motif of Rosie’s shoes has been such a prominent aspect of the film, audiences instantly recognise that these legs belong to her. Giving the audience time to make this connection before Jojo himself turns to see his mother, this moment is not presented from Jojo’s perspective, which has thus far been associated with exaggeration and comedy. This makes the tragedy feel all the more real. Demonstrating their artistic potential, from the cartoon sounds of Klenzendorf’s gunshots, or the sonic emphasis of Rosie’s footsteps, the film’s foley and sound design influence the emotional impact of narrative events on the audience. Having a much closer association with the physical events on screen mean this impact, much like the meta-diegetic status of music in Baby Driver, narrows the gap between audiences and the diegesis to encourage immersion and escapism. 

Figure 3 - 01:17:41.

Like all the films explored in this essay, moments of tragedy caused by a sense of dystopia are important, as they give characters and audiences the desire for an alternative, utopian reality – something often achieved through themes of entertainment. In Jojo Rabbit, the focus on Rosie’s shoes is part of a broader theme of dancing, the form of entertainment associated with utopian escapism in this film. This is exemplified in one scene, when, following an argument about Rosie’s lack of support for Germany in the war, there is a dramatic conversation between Jojo and his mother about his father’s absence, exhibiting the strain this puts on the lives of both characters (00:41:47). Rosie then distracts Jojo by putting on an Ella Fitzgerald jazz record (00:43:18) – again, recognisably un-German music – and inviting him to dance with her. Here, dancing is a way for the characters to put aside their political differences, and for Jojo, who stands on a chair so he can dance with his mother, to be a child rather than a tool for Nazi propaganda. The freedom this brings them is accentuated when the camera cuts to Elsa upstairs, hearing the music but with no reason or space to dance, as she sits in her make-shift room hidden in the walls. 

The characters’ desire to dance is not limited to the presence of a record player. Rosie often dances to no music at all, at one point explicitly expressing that dancing is an “escape from all this” (00:52:14). Further, at the end of the film, we see Jojo and Elsa celebrate the end of the war as they dance along to a German version of David Bowie’s 1977 hit “Heroes” (“Helden”) (01:42:04-01:42:58). As there is no plausible diegetic musical source, and the song was released decades after the war, the scene breaks down the divide between diegesis and extra-diegesis. Jojo and Elsa’s transcendence of the boundaries of time and space to express themselves musically can be compared to the supra-diegetic states of film musicals. By the end of the film, this anachronistic pop music becomes a way for 21st-century audiences and the characters in 1945 Germany to ‘meet in the middle’ somehow, through post-war music, and by the literal break in the diegetic divide in this ending scene. 

Jojo Rabbit’s historical setting almost brings a new meaning to ideas of an alternative reality, as a world where such a horrific moment in the past becomes the setting for a comedy. Like the glimpses of hope in The Hunger Games, the film’s musical soundscape is essential in establishing a light-hearted mood that contrasts an obviously dystopian setting. A lack of realism implied by an anachronistic soundtrack and heightened sound design is vital to the film’s initial satirical portrayal of Nazi Germany as a utopia, and as an escape from its inhumanity when Jojo is confronted with the dystopian society he really lives in. For audiences, this escape comes from the nostalgia of a post-war era offered by the non-diegetic soundtrack, while for the characters, music and dance are forms of entertainment that provide solace in times of hardship. The film’s overall soundscape is therefore critical to immersing audiences into an imagined reality, where music has the power to overcome even the most horrible circumstances.

Conclusions: Film, Sound and Utopia

Film soundscapes have the potential to provide utopian experiences for audiences, as they fabricate constructed, unattainable worlds and invite us to treat these “places” as an escape from real life. From the supra-diegetic musical sequences of Baby Driver, to the exaggerated soundscape of Jojo Rabbit, a lack of realism can be crucial to providing viewers with an alternative world that can act as a distraction from, rather than authentic reflection of, reality. Considering The Hunger Games’ accompanying film album implies how paratexts can act to expand sonic engagement with an imagined reality beyond the film text. This underlines that film sound is not grounded in one place. Instead, its ubiquitous capabilities establish an intangible space, or a “non-place,” helping to define the film-viewing experience as utopian. Common features across my three case studies of different genres, styles and settings suggest how specific sonic techniques can enhance this potential for utopian escapism.83

To show characters using musical forms of entertainment as an escape from undesirable circumstances, whether a dangerous, criminal lifestyle or dystopian society, indicates a connection between their escapism and utopia as a desire for something better. Connections between utopia and this presentation of entertainment have been established by scholars in relation to the film musical and this essay has demonstrated how this can be realised in other genres too, as the narratives discussed above prove music’s potential for the characters’ personal escapism, while also offering a similar experience for the audience.84

Techniques that draw audiences closer to these character experiences allow this utopian escapism to be shared with them. These three films demonstrate a level of blurring diegetic and non-diegetic states, whether by combining sound material from each, or using music supposedly only heard by audiences to narrate or influence actions on-screen. This ambiguity weakens any distinct separation between audience and character experiences, allowing viewers to greater empathise with characters and their presence within the diegesis. Highlighted in these three examples, interpreting an alternative world through the perspective of a focalised character is one way audiences might imagine themselves inhabiting the place on-screen. Editing sound to reflect a character’s imagined aural experience creates a meta-diegetic soundscape that allows for this. Additionally, through cultural references, innocent folk music or cartoonish sound effects, learned musical and sonic associations affect how we interpret a film’s theme or relate to its narrative. Through these techniques, sound can be used as a persuasive tool, to encourage viewers to make a commitment to the film and its often unrealistic version of the world. 

Understanding films as providing the elements “missing” from the present, as Ernst Bloch suggests, music’s capacity to stimulate nostalgia can contribute to a film’s utopian potential.85 As exemplified by each case study, trends of dissociating with key features of modern, everyday life and, often replacing them with indicators of the past, can be recognised in popular cinema, implying that a nostalgic longing for a different time is a human tendency films can successfully exploit. The choices of music associated with the past – 20th-century pop music or traditional folk – shows how these case studies can take advantage of this, allowing audiences to temporarily immerse themselves in a world distant from their own. 

Expanding on Flinn’s theories connecting film scores of the Classical Hollywood era and utopia, this essay has demonstrated how her ideas can be relevant in recent cinema and need not be limited to music. An established association between music and utopia has been made across musicology and utopian theory, and we can see how musicality contributes to utopian experiences on multiple levels of a film’s sonic construction. Baby Driver’s integration of sound design and diegetic music helps create a utopian state of supra-diegesis. The Hunger Games’ soundscape reserves its musicality for moments of utopian escape, during which score and sound design interweave, solidifying musical qualities as utopian. Jojo Rabbit’s themes of utopia are supported by heightened sound effects, supporting a utopian view of the protagonists’ surroundings, and a sonic leitmotif, supporting its emphasis on dance as escapism. By addressing all sounds as one cinematic soundscape, like Danijela Kulezic-Wilson’s so-called “integrated soundtrack,” we are open to the possibilities of a film’s entire soundscape to be musical. Given music’s ability to create utopian listening experiences, the musicality of a film’s soundscape can greatly enhance its utopian potential. 

Sonic techniques consistent across these case studies, when considered in the context of a vast and varied industry, point to a wider picture that showcases the power of sound and its treatment to impact the reception of a film, providing an immersive transformation that directly relates to theories of utopia. I should stress that audience reception and interpretation is subjective, and so the impact of film sound cannot be definitively measured according to the execution of specific sonic features. However, the conclusions drawn here demonstrate how certain approaches to sound can give a film more potential to immerse audiences and intensify on-screen environments – processes that can result in forms of utopian escape.


Altman, Rick. The American Film Musical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Anderson, Ben. “A Principle of Hope: Recorded Music, Listening Practices and the Immanence of Utopia.” Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography 84, no. 3-4 (2002): 211-227.

Barron, Lee. “‘Music Inspired By…’: The Curious Case of the Missing Soundtrack.” In Popular Music and Film, edited by Ian Inglis, 148-161. London: Wallflower Press, 2003. 

Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope. Translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Bradshaw, Peter. “Jojo Rabbit review – Taika Waititi’s Hitler Comedy is Intensely Unfunny.” The Guardian, December 20, 2019.

Coulter, Gerry. “Jean Baudrillard and Cinema: The Problems of Technology, Realism and History.” Film-Philosophy 14, no. 2 (2010): 6-20.

Davies, Rhys. “Explicit Commentaries and Implicit Designs: The Evolving Role of Post-Production Sound in Mainstream Documentary.” Journal of Media Practice 8, no. 2 (2007): 161-181.

Davison, Annette. Hollywood Theory, Non-Hollywood Practice: Cinema Soundtracks in the 1980s and 1990s. London: Ashgate, 2004.

Denisoff, R. Serge, and George Plasketes. “Synergy in 1980s Film and Music: Formula for Success or Industry Mythology?.” Film History 4, no. 3 (1990): 257-276.

Dyer, Richard. Only Entertainment. London: Routledge, 1992.

Feuer, Jane. “The Self‐Reflective Musical and the Myth of Entertainment.” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 2, no. 3 (1997): 313-326.

Fitzgerald, Jon, and Philip Hayward. “Mountain Airs, Mockingjays and Modernity: Songs and Their Significance in The Hunger Games.” Science Fiction Film and Television 8, no. 1 (2015): 75-89.

Flinn, Caryl. Strains of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia, and Hollywood Film Music. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Fransman, Sophie. “Baby Driver: Een Actiemusical. Een Neoformalistisch Onderzoek Naar Het Genre van de Film Baby Driver Met Behulp van Het Semantische/Syntactische Model van Rick Altman.” MA diss., Utrecht University, 2020.

Gorbman, Claudia. Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music. London: BFI, 1987.

Grönholm, Pertti. “When Tomorrow Began Yesterday: Kraftwerk's Nostalgia for the Past Futures.” Popular Music and Society 28, no. 3 (2015): 372-388.

Heldt, Guido. Music and Levels of Narration in Film. Bristol: Intellect, 2013.

Herbert, Ruth. Everyday Music Listening: Absorption, Dissociation and Trancing. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2011. 

Jordan, Randolph. “The Schizophonic Imagination: Audio-visual Ecology in the Cinema.” PhD diss., Concordia University, 2010.

Kulezic-Wilson, Danijela. “Sound Design is the New Score.” Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 2, no. 2 (2008): 127-131. 

Kulezic-Wilson, Danijela. Sound Design Is the New Score: Theory, Aesthetics, and Erotics of the Integrated Soundtrack. London: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Layfield, Allison. “Identity Construction and the Gaze in The Hunger Games. The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Childrens Literature 17, no. 1 (2013).

Mabitsela, Diale Daniel. “Foley Music: An Exploration of the Relationships Between Sound Design and ‘Music’ in Film.” MA diss., University of the Witwatersrand, 2016.

McQueen, Amanda. “‘Bring the Noise!’: Sonic Intensified Continuity in the Films of Edgar Wright.” Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 7, no. 2 (2013): 141-165.

Michael, Tony S.L. “Jo Jo Rabbit.” Journal of Religion & Film 23, no. 2 (2019): 1-3.

Minsker, Evan. “Behind the Music of Baby Driver with Director Edgar Wright.” Pitchfork, July 5, 2017. 

Penner, Nina. “Rethinking the Diegetic/Nondiegetic Distinction in the Film Musical.” Music and the Moving Image 10, no. 3 (2017): 3-20.

Pereira, Anderson Martins. “The Hunger Games is a Utopia? The Feminine as a Bridge to the Return to Nature in Contemporary Dystopia.” Trabalhosem Linguística Aplicada 58, no. 2 (2019): 743-758.

Russel, Alex. “Why Does Crowd Noise Matter?” The Conversation, June 2, 2020.

Shumway, David R. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Sound Tracks and the Production of Nostalgia.” Cinema Journal 38, no. 2 (1999): 36-51.

Sites, William. “‘We Travel the Spaceways’: Urban Utopianism and the Imagined Spaces of Black Experimental Music.’” Urban Geography 33, no. 4 (2012): 566-586.

Smith, Jeff. “Popular Songs and Comic Allusions in Contemporary Cinema.” In Soundtrack Available: Essays on Film and Popular Music, edited by Arthur Knight and Pamela Robertson Wojcik, 407-430. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2001.

Stevens, Richard, and Dave Raybould. “The Reality Paradox: Authenticity, Fidelity and the Real in Battlefield 4.” The Soundtrack 8, no. 1 (2015): 57-75.

Stilwell, Robynn J. “The Fantastical Gap between Diegetic and Non-Diegetic.” In Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema, edited by Daniel Ira Goldmark, Lawrence Kramer, and Richard Leppert, 184-204. California: University of California Press, 2007.

Sweers, Britta. “The Power to Influence Minds: German Folk Music During the Nazi Era and After.” In Music, Power, and Politics, edited by Annie J. Randall, 65-86. Abingdon: Routledge, 2004. 

Tompkins, Joe. “The Makings of a Contradictory Franchise: Revolutionary Melodrama and Cynicism in The Hunger Games. Journal of Cinema and Media Studies 58, no. 1 (2018): 70-90. 

Vieira, Fátima. “‘The Concept of Utopia.” In The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, edited by Gregory Claeys, 3-27. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Walsh, Caitríona. “Obscene Sounds: Sex, Death, and the Body On-Screen.” Music and the Moving Image 10, no. 3 (2017): 36–54.

Webster, Jamie Lynn. “The Music of Harry Potter: Continuity and Change in the First Five Films.” PhD diss., University of Oregon, 2009.

Winter, Ben. “The Non-Diegetic Fallacy: Film, Music, and Narrative Space.” Music & Letters 91, no. 2 (2010): 224-244.

Winters, Ben. Music, Performance, and the Realities of Film: Shared Concert Experiences in Screen Fiction. Abingdon: Routledge, 2014. 

Media Cited

Baby Driver. Directed by Edgar Wright. Film. California: TriStar Pictures/MRC, 2017.

Drive. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Film. California: Bold Films, 2011.

High School Musical. Directed by Kenny Ortega. Film. Utah: Salty Pictures, 2006. 

Indiewire. “‘Baby Driver’: Oscar-Nominated Sound Designer Julian Slater Shows How He Made the Film Come to Life.” YouTube video, 2:51. January 31, 2018. Accessed February 1, 2021.

Jojo Rabbit. Directed by Taika Waititi. Film. Cailfornia: Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2019.

Motion Pictures Sound Editors. “Baby Driver Post Show Interview with Julian Slater.” Video, 37:14. July 13, 2017. Accessed October 25, 2020. 

SoundWorks Collection. “The Sound of The Hunger Games.” Video, 9:05. March 27, 2012. Accessed January 18, 2021. 

TEDx Talks. “The Hollywood Guide to the Future-Past | John Hunter | TEDxBucknellUniversity.” YouTube video, 16:00. May 10, 2017. Accessed January 29, 2021.

The Hunger Games. Directed byGary Ross. Film. California: Color Force, 2012.


Kirsty Graham graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London with a BMus Music degree in 2021. Throughout her undergraduate course and beyond, her main academic interests include musicology, digital composition, and film studies, being particularly fascinated by discussions of sound and moving image. Delving deeper into this area of study, this essay is an extended and reworked version of her final year dissertation, exploring the intricate relationships between film, sound, and the concept of utopia. Since graduating she has joined the industry of audio post-production, and is currently based in London as a foley editor for film, TV and video games. 

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?