Total eclipse of the plot: Bruckheimer, Schopenhauer and the essence of music in Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Ask yourself this question: can you rehearse to yourself the plots of Eddie Murphy flicks Trading Places (1983) and Coming to America (1988)? How many scenes come to mind? Maybe you’re thinking of the one scene in Trading Places where Murphy’s character is pretending to be blind. Or you might be thinking of the barbershop scenes from Coming To America. Now ask yourself whether you can remember any particularly funny scene from Beverly Hills Cop (1984)… No? Try searching YouTube to refresh your memory: it just doesn’t yield anything memorable. Well… except for the theme. That one you can remember, right?

The plot from Beverly Hills Cop (directed by Martin Brest, starring Eddie Murphy, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer) is remarkably forgettable. I rewatched it yesterday and already the details are starting to fade from my mind. Eddie Murphy plays Axel Foley, a New York cop (or was that Detroit?), whose friend is killed early on in the film, carrying stolen bearer bonds (or was that cocaine?). It doesn’t really matter, the point is that he travels to Beverly Hills to investigate the murder. Of course, Foley finds the murderer: a Russian (or was he German? English?) mobster dealing in drugs (stolen art? illegal arms?) and defeats him in a “thrilling” action scene conclusion. The extent to which plot points like these are interchangeable is baffling enough, the action is boring, the humor not particularly funny. On top of all that, the whole story itself feels stale, unimaginative: a mere cash vehicle meant to ride the wave of Murphy’s popularity during the 80’s. But still… the film is weirdly enjoyable.

This is because Beverly Hills Cop illustrates, acoustically speaking, the eclipse of plot through music. It does so with overpowering brutality, like no other film ever has. There have been similar experiments in the history of film, I am thinking of Lola Rennt, but even this film was carried by a plot that still meaningfully sustains a hold on the mind: we remember what the film was about. Not so with Beverly Hills Cop, it took a master of mass consumption like Jerry Bruckheimer to realize that storylines and character arcs do not recede into the background per se, i.e. whenever the music is memorable enough. On the contrary, think of a film like Once Upon a Time in the West (directed by Sergio Leone). Leone actually directed the movie around Ennio Morricone’s original score, instructing his actors to listen to the music and act so as to fit their assigned themes. The result was a film that became all the more memorable in spite of, or more probably just because the music was so important. A distinctive score, in this case, strengthens the plot.

What Bruckheimer c.s. did, amounts to precisely the opposite movement: they made every part of Beverly Hills Cop immaterial, interchangeable and fleeting, including the music. There is nothing distinctive about the theme, it’s just catchy. Absolutely no thought went into the film’s score, as long as it was danceable (apparently, the music during the strip club scene was chosen by the dancer herself). In so doing, Bruckheimer realized what Arthur Schopenhauer had more than a century before: that there is a fundamental asymmetry between music and the other arts.

Schopenhauer villain
Not at all a James Bond villain: Arthur Schopenhauer (via Wikimedia Commons)

For Schopenhauer, the primordial principle of life is will: every live being mantains its existence through willing. However, according to Schopenhauer, willing at the same time amounts to suffering (showing a slight Buddhist influence here): that which wills, is needy, lacking, incomplete and therefore suffering. Art is special because it allows us to contemplate this principle of suffering: through the arts, we are allowed a fleeting glimpse of the tragedy of existence, without being subjected to it. However, among the arts, music is more special than others. Whereas arts like painting, sculpture, literature, etc., present to us the awful situation of the human condition, music does not represent or present anything. The former arts act like a vessel by which we can contemplate from afar the principle of life (or: suffering). By contrast, through music, we are allowed to intuit the principle itself, still without being subjected to it.

Thus it was inevitable for Beverly Hills Cop to turn into something more akin to a soundscape rather than a film: once every single aspect of this Gesamtkunstwerk attained the same level of mediocrity, necessarily the music came to block out storyline, acting performance, set design and whatever else they award Oscars for. Merely by ensuring a steady flow of catchy beats, Bruckheimer was able to produce the single most solemn meditation of human suffering on earth. Watching Beverly Hills Cop is entertaining, but it’s also torture, a real ‘delightful horror’.

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