Mood Music has a “ripped from the headlines” appeal, particularly in the searing light of the #metoo campaign. It provides a platform to debate how powerful male producers and artists control other artists, particularly younger female artists, in the music industry. It also raises questions about how the creative process works in songwriting. Whose song is it? Who writes the lyrics? Who writes the melody? Who creates the riffs? Most creative industries, particularly the music industry, are necessarily collaborative. The songwriters, musicians, arrangers, producers and engineers all work together to create the song, but who has created what? In Mood Music, it is ambiguous, which probably reflects the songwriting process in real life.
Ben Chaplin is the swaggering Bernard, a male record producer who has been successfully established for decades. Cat is a new female singer-songwriter, who collaborates with Bernard to produce an album. Bernard frequently works with young female artists, whom he regards as his muses, but who contribute to and more often instigate the creative process. We join them at the end of the collaboration when Bernard and Cat are in dispute about the intellectual copyright of a song they wrote together.
When asked by Ramsey, Bernard’s latest psychiatrist, why he chooses female singers, Bernard unashamedly retorts, they are cheaper, because female singers don’t want to be seen as greedy or ruthless, male singers have no problem with being seen in that way. Bernard is very aware of how the music industry works, after all, he is a big player who likes to be in control; a narcissist and sociopath who charms and manipulates people to get what he wants.
Cat, excellently played by Seana Kerslake, whose character develops from someone who is naïve to a burnt out cynic, is used by Bernard to get inspiration for the music he produces and probably to make him more relevant. Cat as a young newcomer has enough self-awareness to later reflect with her psychiatrist, that she was so in awe of Bernard, whom she revered as a child, she didn’t have the confidence to challenge him when he wanted to change the arrangement of a song they were writing together. At one point Cat is persuaded that “in the end some of it was his and some of it was mine.” However, looking back she thinks that he exploited her. Bernard at first dismissively concedes that Cat “maybe came out with a line or two about a boyfriend” for the disputed song, but continues to belittle her contribution. Bernard admits to his lawyer that he only insisted on changing the song because he didn’t want to share the royalties.
Mood Music is a tightly written witty script, brilliantly performed by the cast with rapid-fire delivery and intensity. It also contains many funny one-liners from or about Bernard which reveal much about his personality and attitude to life. Bernard’s bullying behaviour is underlined, when he repeats the question “am I controlling? Only if I don’t get my way.” He is proud of his behaviour and his misogyny claiming that “Younger women easier to control, older women easier to catch.”
Jemma Redgrave plays Vanessa, Cat’s psychiatrist with the right amount of dispassion mixed with outrage at the way Cat has been mistreated. Vanessa discusses how people who become hugely successful and famous at a very young age suffer from arrested development. Mentally they never reach maturity so their cognition, emotions and personality are stunted, stuck at the age they become famous. This explains how, when Ramsey asks Bernard whether he is “a bit of a bully and cruel” Bernard replies, “When you sell millions of records and you are in front of an audience you assume everyone is the same…I can do no wrong…so why listen to collaborators.”
Bernard’s amorality is demonstrated by his lack of remorse about the effect his behaviour has had on other people, even when challenged by Ramsey, and his lawyer. But he also believes that he is the victim, despite his lawyer pointing out that he has betrayed Cat: “You’re destroying her but you are also destroying yourself and your own credibility.” Is it inevitable that some artists have narcissistic personalities which are toxic to the people in their lives? This is suggested when a character remarks that “Artists ruin their life for their art. It is nothing to ruin someone else’s life.” Mood Music has several sayings such as this, much of them emphasizing what is wrong with people like Bernard, who unrepentantly revels in his power, often saying things which are both appalling and amusing. He believes it when he says “I’ve never exploited anyone who doesn’t want to be exploited.”
It is deliberately unclear about what happened to Cat during the tour with Bernard and the band. Did Cat self-medicate with prescription drugs and alcohol to cope with touring, and/or was she kept on drugs and repeatedly dragged from plane to hotel room and back again? Was she psychologically abused as Vanessa asserts? Vanessa also provides various homilies about the music and entertainment industry including that “Talent redeems all sorts of awful behaviour.” The repeated observation that “there are a lot of very damaged people drawn to the music industry”, encapsulates Bernard’s and also Cat’s background and upbringing. Cat was always seeking her father’s approval, even though her dad was a mess and full of bitterness because he was never a successful musician. She believes that she never got the chance to prove herself to him, as he died when she was 13.
Mood Music is intelligently and cleverly structured. The cast are all on stage contemporaneously playing different scenes from different timelines. When Cat is talking to her therapist, sometimes a response is made by Bernard whilst he is talking to his therapist or lawyer about something else in a different timeline. The cast’s impeccable timing is in their ability to perform these exchanges so smoothly, whilst retaining the sense of what is happening in each scene.
Mood Music closes its run at the Old Vic June 16th. Through the remainder of the run save up to £50 on tickets with London Theatre Direct.
You can book your discounted Mood Music tickets here.
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