One thing that struck me over and over watching the first brilliant season of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire was the music. Not the Brian Jonestown Massacre tune used in the opening title sequence (which is gorgeous and epic in and of itself), but the use of music within the show.
Boardwalk Empire is a fictionalized exploration of prohibition era Atlantic City based on the lives of some of the real people who controlled and affected that world. Music was everywhere in the initial 12 episodes, and it was tied to the period. This brought two thoughts to mind repeatedly throughout the season: First, I know nothing about hot 1920s jazz, vaudeville, and nickelodeons. Second, it was a challenge to get my head around the idea that modern music – rock and roll – simply didn’t exist at the time.
The music of the period is gorgeous, and completely foreign to me. But the up-side to a show like this on a guy like me is that I willingly search and explore. And now I know who Sophie Tucker and Eddie Cantor were, and am beginning to appreciate their impact on popular culture. Credit HBO for including music credits for each episode on their site, giving the curious a starting point for digging deeper into the musical archeology of the early 20th century.
As engrossing as the show itself is, when the music stepped to the fore (and music is most definitely a character in and of itself in this show!) I often found myself stopping and thinking how amazing it is that rock and roll as I know it was decades away from even beginning to grow. I love music. Modern music. The result of fifty years of evolution and experimentation. And to conceive of a world where that music doesn’t exist is mind-boggling to me.
And these two notions come crashing in on one another when I realize that the music of the speakeasies was the modern music of the era, the pop music of a generation.