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Mike Leigh Meets the Cure: The Three-Chord Nostalgia of Career Girls

Mike Leigh Meets the Cure: The Three-Chord Nostalgia of <em>Career Girls</em>

“In an instant, I remembered everything.”

The Cure, “The Walk”

It’s the mid-1980s, and a student in a black leather jacket walks down the hall of Polytechnic of North London. Her hair is dyed a shocking orange, maybe to pull focus from her face, which is raw and scaly with dermatitis. She’s curled around herself, afraid to look up, but you know she feels your eyes on her—watch the way her muscles flinch, so close to her skin. Quick: What’s her favorite band?

In Mike Leigh’s Career Girls (1997), we first encounter that young woman, Annie (Lynda Steadman), all grown-up, skin clear, on her way from the Northeast to reconnect with her former uni roommate, citydweller Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge), over the course of a weekend. It’s ten years on from their first meeting, and Hannah wants to know if Annie thinks London has changed much over the past half-decade. She thinks a minute: “It has and it hasn’t.” This throat-achingly bittersweet film about time and place—about aging and friendship and the things that change and the things that stay the same—evokes the simultaneous distance and immanence of the past with the only musical act on the soundtrack: the Cure. 

No band since the three-chord revolution has been more associated with the vulnerability of youth, with emotions too private to share and too massive to keep private. Robert Smith’s gloomily masochistic love songs and look-at-me-don’t-look-at-me goth getup hit hardest when you’re at your most melodramatic and edgy. Forever after, listening to the Cure triggers a full-body shiver of adolescence, like the red-hot sear of pot smoke at the back of your throat. You feel, in retrospect, mortification and loving indulgence for your younger, new-skinned self, and the old mood of luxurious self-pity takes a different shade: Do you still listen to pop music the way you did when you were younger? Do you still get emotional over art? Do you still get emotional over anything, the way you used to? 

For Career Girls, his follow-up to the Palme d’Or–winning Secrets and Lies (1996), Leigh approached the Cure about using their music in the film, and the band accepted on the condition that they not share the soundtrack with any other act. Leigh used five tracks off 1983’s singles collection Japanese Whispers, plus the 1984 track “The Caterpillar,” to score Annie and Hannah’s college days. Such synching of his sensibility with that of a pop group remains unique in Leigh’s oeuvre, though upon release more attention was paid to the film’s use of flashbacks. Leigh was by then renowned for his extensive preproduction work with actors, developing their characters through improvisation before going off to write them into a script. Here, much of the backstory generated in that initial collaboration goes on-screen, beginning when Annie shows up to interview for the open bedroom in Hannah’s flat.

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