“Dear Mr. Winterbottom. Intercutting unsimulated sex scenes with concert footage does not a movie make. Love, David B.”
At barely feature length (67 minutes; it feels ten times that), 9 Songs quickly establishes its predictable rhythm: song, sex, repeat (eight times). The Brixton Academy (a musical venue in the suburbs of South London) gets as much exposure as do our two lascivious leads—Margot Stilley as Lisa, an American college student, and Kieran O’Brien as Matt, a British glaciologist (meaning he studies glaciers in Antarctica, not that he does things really slowly; there are a few scenes of him flying over the tundra to mix things up a bit… and this film needs things mixed up a bit).
Lisa and Matt’s lovemaking is raw and urgent and not without prurient interest; they’re physically attractive people, sure, and we don’t often get to see real live sex in a mainstream movie (if you can call it that) by a mainstream director (if you can call the aforementioned Michael Winterbottom that; he’s probably best known Stateside for his culinary series of comedic road trips with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon—The Trip, The Trip to Italy, The Trip to Spain).
But there’s no semblance of a story here, let alone a raison d’etre. It’s as if Winterbottom started out by making nine separate concert films but discovered, at the end of the day, that he didn’t have enough footage for one. Or, alternatively, he decided to craft an explicit sex film but realized halfway through filming that watching people coupling for an hour or so can be pretty boring (no pun intended).
Whichever: splicing the sequences together in the editing room might have solved his particular problem of presenting a “complete package” but it doesn’t solve ours. To be fair, Lisa and Matt are actually in attendance at these shows (all of which tend to blur into one another after a while). They bump and grind to the sounds of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Elbow, Franz Ferdinand, and The Dandy Warhols, then they go back to his flat afterwards to bump and grind some more.
9 Songs isn’t as grim or grimy an erotic experience (or experiment, perhaps?) as, say, 2001’s Intimacy, another NSFW British bonk fest, or as unintentionally hysterical as Catherine (Fat Girl) Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell from 2004 (with Rocco Siffredi!), or as campy as Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 film about a bunch of horny New Yorkers. Truth be told, the sex scenes in 9 Songs aren’t embarrassing, even if a little does go an extremely long way. The film’s construction, however, ultimately does it in. We, as audience members, feel manipulated. What’s the point? What does it all mean, or amount to? Who was that band I saw you with last night? (Super Furry Animals, maybe.) Maybe, like an author with a book contract, Winterbottom had promised his producers something by Tuesday week and 9 Songs was, unfortunately, the best he could come up with by the deadline.
Just a final point of clarification: this review refers to the “full uncut version” of the film. An R-rated version would probably run closer to 40 minutes.
(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth