Five films with analogue audio formats at their heart

International version of Maxell Tapes ‘Break the Sound Barrier’ TV commercial.

Here at the North West HUB of the British Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, we’re so into our analogue audio formats that it’s our mission to preserve, digitise, catalogue and share them. We’re set up to digitise 1/4 inch open reel tape, audio cassette, mini and micro cassette and transfer DAT, CD and MiniDisc.

Now sit back, relax and look as cool as Bauhaus front man Pete Murphy whilst the flying ducks are blown off the wall. Here’s a list of 5 films to watch that feature analogue audio as an integral part of each character’s journey.

Trick or Treat (1986)

Trailer for Trick or Treat (1986)

With a title like Trick or Treat you might expect a slasher film of the video nasty era. Instead we find a funny high school yarn spun from the discovery of a hidden message recorded backwards in a recently deceased heavy metal star’s final record. The high school student who discovers the message then receives instruction direct from his hero when playing the record to take revenge on his classmates who have bullied him for his love of metal fandom. This escalates when an electrical surge to the record player brings his beloved metal icon back to life, in time to play one more Halloween show.

The film plays heavily upon the contemporary distrust (particularly from the American Christian right) of heavy metal music influencing children of the 1980s and the media fascination of hidden ‘backmasked’ messages. To have such a satire buried with a vhs box title and cover that would perpetuate the fear of such groups is itself part of the joke (see also with Ozzy Osbourne taking a small part as a TV preacher).

Baby Driver (2017)

A divisive film in my household, this is as close as you can get to a bank heist musical. With the constant infectious rhythms of an iPod playlist to distract the lead character Baby’s tinnitus, he drums, dances and high speed races his way through all sorts of criminal shenanigans. Yes, it may be the MP3 of the digital world signified by his white Apple headphones but the analogue cassette is at the heart of the film’s narrative.

A suitcase full of childhood mixtapes is the first clue to his attachment to analogue audio as medium for revisiting his childhood memories. Flashbacks triggered by audio tape show his professional musician mother singing to him, unsubtly signifying the loss of both his hearing and family. Indeed retrieving this audio cassette goes on to be a crucial motivation to the final third of the film.

Clip from Baby Driver (2017) of Baby creating analogue samples and recording to audio cassette.

The Lives of Others (2006)

Trailer for The Lives of Others (2006)

In this film secret audio recording is shown to be the key tool in the East Germany secret police’s surreptitious mass surveillance of its citizens. With a Stasi officer bugging and blackmailing the partner of a prominent playwright, a dilemma unfolds with devastating consequences. The main actor Ulrich Mühe (who sadly died just after the film won Best Foregn Language Film at the 2007 Oscars) didn’t need to look far to gain inspiration for the part. He himself was under surveillance from his ex-wife and fellow actors with the East Berlin theatre.

See also the excellent TV series Deutschland 83 / Deutschland 86 ( available on 4oD in the UK). The second series includes a story line where secret messages are recorded, hidden within popular music cassettes and passed to loved ones across the wall.

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

Trailer for Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

Toby Young’s character, Gilderoy, starts a job as a Sound Engineer on a 1970s Italian horror film using various analogue recording techniques to create foley sound, such as witches’ hair being pulled out and demonic vocal effects. In the sound studio we see all manner of cabbages, marrows and chains used for the foley effects but we rarely see the film they are syncing the sounds to. This leaves the worst to our imaginations as we watch the first shocked reactions on the face of the sound engineer become increasingly desensitised. A creepy and clever film with experimental flourishes that play with the very formats themselves.

Notes on Blindness (2016)

Trailer for Notes on Blindness (2016)

My favourite film from this list is an astonishing creative documentary with all audio from the recorded diaries and precious family memories of the late academic John M. Hull. Actors recreate the filmmakers’ interpretation of scenes via lipsync to the original audio. This real life story follows the writer and theologian as he becomes blind after years of deteriorating vision and the impact on his professional and family life. The audio diaries form a rich legacy and affecting record of their intimate lives.

The film also sparked an award winning VR project based on John’s sensory and psychological experience of blindness.

This list included no cinematic car tape deck scenes so here’s a YouTube compilation of them. What scenes/films would you add? (comments below)

Compilation of car tape-deck scenes in American movies 1980-2009 by YouTube user


You can find out more about the national Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project at the British Library’s website. Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

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