Chris Jackson is an Associate Professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She teaches writing, literature, and music history.
The Music of Inner Justice in Ally McBeal
by Chris Jackson
What? Ally McBeal is not a role model for future women litigators?
John Denvirs commentary on Ally McBeal and Michael Hayes finds Ally to have much in common with Mary Tyler Moore. In her essay Dont Call Me Ally, Lisa Friedman makes a strong case that Allys short skirts and personal trials are no way to win an actual trial. Denvir is right about Ally having more to do with relationships than the law. Friedman is also correct that David E. Kellys "other" show, The Practice, presents more verisimilitude about the legal profession.
However, Allys character indeed presents a strong "professional in progress" role model. Her courtroom tactics may be feeble, but she struggles to arrive at truths she can believe in. The shows extensive uses of music direct our attention to how Ally puts herself on trial. Ally McBeal is more about personal law, finding a balance between professional and private goals, hearing the music of inner justice.
Obviously television shows have a long history of using musical soundtracks, primarily to define the situation, mood, and style of the show. In Perry Mason, for instance, questioning woodwinds play behind suspenseful scenes, and scenes end with dramatic brass flourishes. In the shows theme song, the understated low brass creeps into a forthright trumpet solo, a sort of musical analog to Perry himself, a go-ahead, definitive guy. Under this musical conflict beat those menacing piano triplets. This Cold War-era justice takes itself seriously.
More recent television shows make more complex musical references for character insights or thematic commentary. Murphy Brown, investigative reporter on FYI and seeker of justice, is heavy into Motown. Her musical taste echoes her politics and social values. In Homicide: Life on the Streets, Andre Braughers character Frank is unwilling to participate in his baby daughters baptism. He questions a nun about where to find his lost faith. Back in the squad room, Death summons him yet again to a dreary apartment house. There he finds a very old woman, dead of natural causes. Ravels Pavane for a Dead Princess plays on a radio in the background. The music propels Frank to an epiphany as he recalls the nuns words about finding the sacred in the everyday. At that moment, his character receives at least a moment of grace, a partial restoration of faith.
From the extensive uses of music in Ally McBeal, it seems that David E. Kelley has learned from these techniques and more. Most of the songs we hear on the show fall into the Classic Oldies category. As Lawrence Kasdans The Big Chill showed, recycled hits from the sixties and seventies have a strong appeal with baby boomers.
Ally McBeal uses music on many levels to convey truths about living and working in law. The loudest example often comes last on the show. After working all day as members of the Bar, lawyers from Cage and Fish practice lifting elbows at another kind of bar. Here, dancing and singing provide a harmony to resolve office conflicts. The law office is upstairs, while the bar is in the same building on the ground floor. This set-up presents the metaphor of the well-rounded lawyer, exercising upstairs logic on cases, and accessing a more visceral "lower level" to defuse daily tensions.
The excellent singer Vonda Shepard appears nearly every week as a bar regular to provide a free-wheeling, party atmosphere. Her piano is a versatile magic barrel with upbeat rock, soul, and blues on tap. Shepard even has her own best-selling CD featuring songs from the show, with a new release just out called By 7:30. In a few episodes, the big-voiced Jennifer Holliday joins the cast as the Cage and Fish group attends a church with a mostly African-American congregation. This situation is similar to when Murphy Brown, the quintessential WASP, tries to "get down" singing Natural Woman with Aretha Franklin. Whereas Aretha ends up telling Murphy not to sing so loudly, the Ally McBeal characters let loose along with the rest of the congregation. The episodes of singing and dancing in the church are similar to those in the bar. Both places are "big tents" of democracy, cathedrals of expansive acceptance.
Office grind evolves into bump and grind at the bar. The women employed at Cage and Fish all rock together for girlfriend bonding and to rise above petty squabbles. With their graceful spins, Fish and Ling display a less idiosyncratic courting ritual than finger licking, hair spreading, or knee pit massage. Georgia and Billy dance close and make up from their argument du jour. The anal retentive John Cage can forget "taking a moment" and discover why he is "drawn" to Nell. On a recent show (aired April 19, 1999), Nell presents The Biscuit with a birthday surprise at the bar, a live appearance by Johns musical idol Barry White.
Office pratfalls show clumsy surface embarrassments, but dancing is the way to get in synch psychologically. Ensemble dancing provides a metaphor for the blend of individualism and teamwork required of members in a large practice. In the unisex bathroom, John Cage often bolsters his self- confidence by solo dancing to an inner Barry White rendition. In one episode, Richard Fish walks in on John. Instead of reacting with the expected ridicule, Fish joins his law partner in dance. Then Elaine sees the two and falls into step with perfectly choreographed kicks and turns.
We are not surprised at Elaines participation. She haunts the bathroom, waiting for juicy gossip and sensuous dance moves. Several episodes have featured a talent show at the bar with all the people from the firm showcasing their talents. Elaine generally coordinates this effort so she can star. "This show is all about me," she says.
But we are surprised when Ling arrives and adds her high-booted leg to the chorus line. She will practice law with them, so the group also makes room for her in the dance. It is noteworthy that Ally has never been a member of this musical collaboration. More on that later.
Music expresses each characters ideal for developing a workable personal style. In an episode aired the first season, John Cage tells Fish to listen for the bells. When those golden bells ring, the character is ready, prepared to fight in court with the best defense for the client. For Fish, the bells clunk together more often than they ring. This clunk has happened so many times, the sound effect has an additional connotation, less golden bells than brass balls. This motif fits Fish perfectly as he blatantly asserts his masculine power in a way that is never separated from sexual or monetary gains. In one episode (aired April 5, 1999), Fish says that getting fees from both sides is "music to my ears."
The Biscuit used the bells to supplement his smile therapy. What began as a parody of self-esteem exercises has evolved into a more poignant search for understanding. Tracey Ullman has put in a few star turns as Allys wacky therapist recommending that each person have a "song" to boost the ego. How can we forget Traceys own bubbly dancing to her song entitled, of course, Tracy? Traceys flamboyant style contrasts starkly with Allys feeble attempts to find inner music.
Eventually, Ally conjures up I Know Something About Love, but it plays in her head only at half-tempo. Later in the series, we see the song work its magic, and not just on Ally. Ally stands on a street corner in downtown Boston waiting for the crossing light. She thinks of her song and falls into the energizing beat. Her shoulders shrug, her knees bounce, and before long, all the folks waiting with her bebop to their inner songs. By the time the light changes, the sea of humanity crosses the street in a scene reminiscent of the Monty Python sketch featuring the Ministry of Silly Walks.
To be sure, the scene is comic, but in context, it might be viewed as a metaphor for all of The Law. What starts out as an individual aberration, if believed with enough fervency, has the power to change others. If enough join in, the right aberration becomes mainstream.
For Ally, hearing a smooth music track in a group of strangers is one thing, but to hear it in the office is quite another. I do not recall any scene in which Ally joins her colleagues in a dance number. She dances, but with the blow-up doll or alone in her apartment.
At one point, her solo dance is frantic, almost spastic. She is Nora in Ibsens play A Dolls House. Then Allys roommate Renee walks in, and the needle shrieks across the track. The "scratching needle" sound effect breaks into her psyche to tell her that her dream music and reality are too far apart. Allys budding confidence is quashed.
Allys roommate Renee already possesses a powerful inner song. As a present for Ally, Renee sings a duet with Allys doctor boyfriend Greg Butters at the bar. In their luminous, untroubled faces, we see that Renee and Greg are happy inside the music. They are a better-matched couple than Ally and Greg, or Ally and Billy, who have never sung together. The camera pans to Allys abandoned place at the table.
Poor Ally! Whenever she starts on a musical flight of fancy, the needle inevitably scratches across her inner LP. She achieves some transcendence dancing on a wintry street in her sheep-print pajamas. She cannot feel the snow dance in her waking life. She tells Tracey the song therapist that she has day dreams in the office. She cannot wake up. Her inner voice is all wrong for the world out there. The scratchy needle interrupts, and she startles with her trademark big eyes and shocked gasp.
In the courtroom scenes of Ally McBeal, justice is not always served. As in reality, money talks, the guilty may walk, and law practitioners are fallible. However, to minimize these imperfections, David Kelley uses music to bring a degree of resolution to each show. Music carries its own internal scale of justice. Harmony, consonance, and the tonic key, or the musical "home," all push a melody to its resolution. The familiar melodies of these classic hits capture the vitality and assertiveness of the human spirit.
Ally shouldnt worry. Her inner music is already there. She just needs to listen. The melody most true to her heart is the Ally McBeal theme song that introduces every episode: Now Im ready to sing, I been searchin my soul tonight, I see theres so much more tonight, Now I know I can shine the light, To find the way back ho--ooo--ome."