Today’s Oscar nominations included a nod for Sufjan Stevens, whose whisper-quiet ballads in Luca Guadagnino’s powerful, pastel love story Call Me By Your Name soundtrack its most emotional moments. Al Horner explains why his music is as beautiful and curious a match for the film as Oliver was for Elio, and why it would be just peachy if the cult New Yorker could go home with Best Original Song at February’s awards.
There’s a scene in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name when, strolling through the quiet plaza of an unnamed Italian town, 17-year-old Elio gazes at Oliver, an older man who’s awoken new desires in him, then up at the turquoise dome of the church that stands over the square. A gleaming gold crucifix sits atop it, and your emotions quake for a moment, or at least mine did, as you wonder: is the proudly religious Elio’s lust for Oliver about to collide with his spiritual beliefs? How will the parents who gave him those religious beliefs deal with his homosexual awakening? And how will the town that sits in the shadow of that church, in an early 1980s era plagued by homophobia and the AIDS crisis, react should their growing attraction become public?
It’s a shot that teases a narrative Call Me By Your Name – the best film of the year, about the ecstatic power of submitting to love – spends the next 90 mins subverting. Unlike so many other representations of LGBTQ romance in film and television, the drama in Guadagnino’s film pretty much entirely stems from Elio and Oliver’s relationship as two human beings who are gay, rather than two gay men with narrative journeys restricted and defined by the fact they are gay. Elio embraces and explores his new urges rather than wrestling or wringing his hands over them. He seldom takes off the Star of David necklace his mother gave him as his attraction to Oliver blossoms. His parents are understanding and even encouraging of Elio and Oliver’s growing closeness. Oh, and no one in whatever town Elio lives in, nor Begermo, the picturesque city the pair visit as Oliver’s visit nears its end, seems to give a shit about their flirtatious touches. Those questions the church steeple shot invites you to fret over? Yeah, Call Me By Your Name swerves them like Oliver swerves the swooning Chiara: a playful troll, a send-up of its audience’s (or maybe just my) expectation of what lives gay characters in cinema are allowed to live.
Where tension between sexuality and spirituality is missing from Call Me By Your Name, it’s long underpinned the music of Sufjan Stevens, whose songs decorate the film’s most heart-wrenching moments. The Michigan-born artist wrote two original tracks and reworked his 2010 album Age of Adz opener ‘Futile Devices’ for Call Me, having written many songs from LGBTQ perspectives over his career. ‘To Be Alone With You’ from 2004’s Seven Swans saw Stevens serenade a man who “gave up a wife and family… to be alone with me.” On the following year’s Illinois, his narrator sang of a swim in a lake with a male friend, which ended in a gay embrace: “Touching his back with my hand, I kiss him,” he remembers on ‘The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us’.
Stevens has declined to ever talk publicly about the details of his romantic life, leaving fans (and one 30,000-strong Facebook group) to speculate. It’s a strong possibility that the breadcrumb trail of hints at homosexual relationships in his past in his songs are non-autobiographical: ‘The Predatory Wasp’, as pointed out by Jezebel writer Bobby Finger, “exists inside a concept album about a state in which he never lived, and is named after a state park where he never swam.” And anyways, there’s love songs in his canon that use female pronouns as well as ones that address men. But even the suggestion that his sexuality is fluid give his songs added emotional weight amid all their explicit nods to Christianity.
“I find incredible freedom in my faith,” Stevens told Pitchfork in 2010, a freedom he explores regularly in songs. Between tracks like ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’, with its lyrics about “all the glory that the Lord has made” learnt on “Tuesday nights at the Bible study” and the 100-plus Christmas songs released since 2006, faith sits alongside non-heteronormative relationships as one of the pillars of his songwriting. To me, spending my late teens obsessing over his music (I learned a song of his a week on piano or guitar for two years, my very own bored-between-uni-lectures 50 States project), this seemed to carry an implication, like a camera following a teenager alternating glances between a church and a man he loves. In my head, Stevens, so unknowable in interviews, became a man torn between his devotion to God and a sexuality his church have traditionally denied. Rightly or wrongly (probably wrongly), this was the Sufjan I constructed: a mirage of my own making that made every hushed note more tragic, every intimate line more devastating.
Stevens didn’t need Call Me By Your Name to send Elio into a faith-related crisis for his music to prove the perfect accompaniment. Like the film, Stevens’ songs are often featherlight wisps of heartache and hope that rarely slip into bombast: rather than explode dynamically when emotion becomes too intense to contain, they more often combust in ways as minute and subtle as tears filling Elio’s eyes as he stares into a fire (a perfect example is the way his voice bends and breaks into falsetto on ‘John Wayne Gacy Jr’).
He’s helped, of course, by the rare importance Guadagnino imbued in his contribution from an early point in the making of the film. Where for a lot of directors, music can be something of an afterthought, Guadagnino moulded his film around Stevens, having him write and submit his tracks before filming begun; he even talks about Stevens’ music as source material almost as important for the film as the André Aciman novel he was adapting. “I wanted to have a sort of narrator, without having a normal narrator,” the director told Billboard, describing Stevens’ three songs – ‘Futile Devices’, ‘Visions of Gideon’ and the now Oscar-nominated ‘Mystery of Love’ – as “the movie’s internal monologue.” If these songs feel too literal, as some have complained, articulating the characters’ inner-struggles, it’s ‘cos they were meant that way: grounding forces amid the pollen-like haze of a film in which the camera swoops in and out of focus constantly, mirroring a dreaminess that pervades every other corner of Call Me By Your Name.
‘Mystery of Love’ will find itself up against Mary J. Blige’s ‘Mighty River’ from Netflix drama Mudbound and ‘Remember Me’ from Pixar’s majestic Coco on March 4, as well as songs from The Greatest Showman and Marshall. Call Me, meanwhile, will also compete for Best Picture. A peach of a film like this would deserve to clean up any year at the Oscars. The fact the Academy has the opportunity to do so following a year in which LGBTQ rights in America were dangerously rolled back by an administration whose second-in-command openly endorses conversion therapy, feels, like Moonlight last year, meant to be. Here’s hoping they don’t overlook the song that represents its beating heart.
Al Horner is FACT’s Editor-In-Chief. Find him on Twitter.