The Saddest Music in the World

Rebecca Benson, Feature editor

The Great Depression is rarely seen as a source for comedic fodder.  Save for the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I am pressed to find a funny movie set in the era.  Then I watched Winnipeg director/writer Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World.  While it is not a comedy in the strictest sense, there is a humor present that cannot be exactly pinpointed.  Maybe it is the ridiculousness of the plot: A Canadian beer company sponsors a contest to see, in all the Great Depression, which country has the saddest music, hoping that the publicity would boost their sales to American bootleggers.  Perhaps it is the performances, most notably Mark McKinney’s as a Winnipeg native who rejects his Canadian roots after moving to New York to be in show business, a character who oozes sleaze.  Or maybe, it is a comedy simply because it cannot be a drama, that what takes place in the film is simply too far-fetched, too strange, to possibly be taken seriously.  There is one thing that is for sure: The Saddest Music in the World is absolutely the most unique movie I have ever seen.  

The Saddest Music in the World is absolutely the most unique movie I have ever seen.

— Rebecca Benson

This was the first film by Guy Maddin I have seen, and I was completely unfamiliar with his incredibly individual style.  The movie was shot on old 8mm and 16mm film stock, primarily black and white, with brief flashes to color, giving it the appearance of actually being filmed in the 30s.  The editing is choppy, which works with the slightly jumpy narrative, making the film feel almost like a collage.  At first, the story seems like it has too many strings, that there is too much going on, but this makes it all the more effective when all the pieces come in place, and all the strings work together to weave an absolutely bizarre cloth about exploitation, memories, love, and show business.  

Guy Maddin’s style may not be for everyone, and admittedly I did not like it at first either.  After viewing, however, I grew to love Maddin’s method, and cannot picture his stories playing out any other way.  The Saddest Music in the World is often considered Maddin’s best work, and is a good starting point for anyone not familiar with his films, or anyone who likes their comedy layered and slightly absurd.