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Celluloid Heroes

"I wish my life were a non-stop Hollywood movie show ..."

There’s a website called This is My Jam which asks users to select one song per week to represent themselves and their musical tastes. It sells itself, I suppose, on a principle of authenticity: if you choose only one song, you reveal who you really are. And then there’s the fun of following what your friends, or virtual friends, may select as well. Successive choices are archived and playlists constructed, over time, for each user.

This is something like BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, democratised to anyone with a computer (as opposed to celebrity guests). Whether or not you could find a single song to stand, even for a week, as some digital symbol of your consciousness, this sort of thing is fascinating all the same. It’s interesting to think about which songs you’d choose – if you had to: not songs you like casually, not songs that get stuck in your head (songs you hate can do that easily), but those that really mean something to you. Being of an historical cast of mind, naturally I gravitate to songs that thrilled me in my early life. One of them has been playing in my head relentlessly over the last few weeks (I must have heard it somewhere): “Celluloid Heroes” by the Kinks.

I first heard this song performed by the Australian singer Jeannie Lewis, who had, I later discovered, released it as a single in 1975. I found the song electrifying and brilliant; indeed I was at once obsessed with it; but (in those pre-computer days) it was some time before I knew either the correct title (I assumed it was called “Hollywood Boulevard”) or where it had originally come from: Ray Davies wrote it; it appeared on the Kinks’ 1972 album Everybody’s in Showbiz; and the band released it as a single in the same year.

“Celluloid Heroes” turns on a brilliant poetic conceit (using the word in its Eng Lit sense): the personification of the paving slabs on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. In Davies’ lyric, each slab is felt to embody the characteristics of the star it celebrates; therefore, the listener is advised to tread carefully, mindful of the ghosts which might be raised. (The “Walk of Fame” is the succession of embedded pink stars, on each of which is inscribed the name of a particular celebrity; this project dates from the 1960s and is distinct from the equally famous collection of movie-star handprints, footprints and autographs in concrete, begun in the 1920s, outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre – which, like the Walk of Fame, is also on Hollywood Boulevard. Clearly Davies’ lyric refers to the Walk of Fame, on which all the seven stars he refers to in the song feature: Greta Garbo, Rudolph Valentino, Bela Lugosi, Bette Davis, George Sanders, Mickey Rooney, and Marilyn Monroe.)

What makes the song still more impressive to me is the “frame” with which Davies surrounds the central conceit. The initial verse (later repeated with variation) informing us that “Everybody’s a dreamer, everybody’s a star …” puts in context the whole idea of stardom: it is something, Davies claims, to which we all aspire. This is the paradox of the Hollywood star system, one later embodied in pop stardom too: stars are at once special, lifted impossibly high above the audience, the masses, the “fans”; at the same time, fans must imagine that they, too, could take – or could have taken, in there-but-for-the-grace-of-God fashion – the place of the stars. (TV shows such as The X Factor and American Idol of course trade on this fantasy.)

Stardom as we know it would not exist unless it served a powerful psychological as well as economic purpose: the stars, as avatars of the audience, promise us a possibility of “meaning” denied us in the everyday world. That this promise is vacuous is neither here nor there: the same could be said of the promises of religion, and that’s never held religion back. Movie fandom – or “celebrity culture,” to bring us up to date – is religion, and religion, as Marx said, is the opiate of the masses. (We might more precisely say that stardom, like the afterlife, offers an image of freedom for those who are, more or less, enslaved. This appears on every level: in the highly publicised lives of celebrities, who seem immune from day-to-day concerns; in the unearthly glamour of both stars and movies; in the content of movies, which tell stories of becoming – hence, the star who falls in love or gets married at the end of one movie will be on the loose again at the beginning of the next. From movie to movie, stars pretend to be different people – they play different characters; but always they are really “playing” the same star persona, a persona perpetually renewed. For the stars, therefore, there is no final, settled state; new adventures stretch towards an endless horizon.)

Ray Davies recognises that the star myth is immeasurably powerful. The song is after all a celebration of Hollywood much more than it is a demolition of it. Greta Garbo is the star sketched most fully, and Davies, clearly, is fascinated with the legend rather than the reality behind it (though we might add that Garbo, who retired from the screen in 1941, at thirty-six, was still alive in 1972: more about the “real woman” has emerged since her death in 1990, not least in the amusingly bitchy diaries and memoirs of people who knew her, such as Christopher Isherwood and Gore Vidal).

“Celluloid Heroes” is deeply nostalgic, with that strangely helpless nostalgia of the belated: Davies (born 1944) writes largely about stars from before his own time. We are only nostalgic about things we love, or love in spite of ourselves. Two other aspects seem notable. One is the invocation of failure, as in the seeming does-not-compute existence of stars – that’s right, stars – “that you’ve hardly even heard of”: the immortality on offer is, in the end, no immortality at all. If success, as we are reminded, “walks hand in hand with failure,” the Hollywood fantasy provides us, in the end, with only uncertain comfort, and no security at all. But what does it matter? The song concludes with an affirmation which seems glorious for all its foolishness: “I wish my life were a non-stop Hollywood movie show …” That, after all, is what all we fans in the dark do wish, and always have.

“Celluloid Heroes” made a huge impression on me when I was fifteen. I revelled in its pathos and glamour. Hearing it again, all these years later, I admire its deep intelligence, its abiding power as poem, as story, as anthem. Few writers have captured so powerfully the Hollywood mythology and all that it means.