Lionel Shriver on Last Exit to Brooklyn by Mark Knopfler: “Eternal notes of lost innocence”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

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Alas, I’ve only seen the haunting 1990 film Last Exit to Brooklyn once (correctly infer: it’s not on Netflix), but I must have listened to Mark Knopfler’s soundtrack hundreds of times. As most soundtracks do when viscerally married to the content they accompany, this one never fails to evoke the film in my mind: the grim warehouses, broken down cars and vacant lots of a 1950s Brooklyn that the current residents buying nori snacks at Trader Joe’s would never recognise; the unbearable sorrow of nearly every character; the horrifying gang rape of Tralala, the prostitute played by Jennifer Jason Leigh – an assault that, in an act of nauseous self-loathing, she deliberately invites.

Heavy on strings yet never schlocky, the hummable central theme captures a longing, sweetness and desire rapidly undermined by a sleazy off-key brass line and an ominous vibraphone. The feelings with which the opening track fills me are complex and contradictory: an aching sense of beauty, fullness and yearning, stunted by a sense of doom. This is a movie about characters who despite their fundamental decency will inflict the greatest injury on the people they love. Who will never rise above their circumstances. Whose best instincts are menaced not only by the malign forces you can hear pounding on kettledrums in the second track, but by their own self-hatred.

I’m not at all convinced that you need to have seen the film in order to enjoy the soundtrack, however. The heartbreaking sweetness of the more lyrical passages wrestling with and often arising from the turmoil of the darker tracks would surely affect any listener without reference to the story. I have to confess that this album often moves me to tears (come to think of it, this album always moves me to tears). Knopfler hits eternal notes of lost innocence, mourning, and mortality – of tragic waste and dreams that will never materialise. Likewise, in the track titled “Tralala”, he calls up sassiness, sexiness, and a sauntering sway down the way. You can see a pair of hips sashaying along the street, whether or not you specifically envision Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Another of my other favourite soundtracks, to Cal, is also by Mark Knopfler. Unusually talented at expressing a movie’s emotional progression, Knopfler is a dab hand, too, at ending up with a sequence of tracks that stands alone. Were I ever in a position to pick the composer for a film made from one of my novels, Knopfler would be top of the list.

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Lionel Shriver is an author and journalist. Her most recent novel is Big Brother.

This article appears in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special