In the fall of 1985, the album that absolutely dominated the airwaves was Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits. It seemed like you couldn’t go an hour in the day without hearing “Money For Nothing” or “Walk Of Life” or “So Far Away.” Also that fall, I was a sophomore in high school and cementing my friendship with Robby. One of our main sources of bonding was music, and we spent many a contented hour in one basement or the other, listening to and discussing our favorite bands. I dug Brothers, and when I mentioned that, Robby said, “Well then, you really have to listen to Making Movies.”
So he loaned me the CD, and I listened. And then I listened again. And then I bought it myself, and listened again, and again, and again, and again. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I’ve listened to this album literally hundreds of times. It became one of the most important albums in my emotional high school life. I can still remember the school folders upon which I dutifully handwrote the lyrics to “Romeo and Juliet”, “Hand In Hand”, and “Solid Rock”. And I’ve always associated this record with Robby, which I suppose made it only a matter of time until I assigned it for us to revisit.
What is it that makes this disc so special for me? Well, certainly there’s the fact that I was 15 when I fell in love with it. That always helps to seal the deal. And because of that, I suppose I can’t find a place to stand that’s outside of my own intense emotional reaction, which by the way still happens every time I hear Making Movies. All I can do is stand where I’m standing, and tell you why I think this album is pure magic.
Let’s start with the guitar playing of Mark Knopfler. That’s a fine place to start when discussing any Dire Straits record, but this one may be the shiniest of shining examples. No, wait. The shiniest example is the first one: “Sultans of Swing”. That was the record with which Knopfler debuted his extraordinary style, in which he and the guitar perform a song-length call-and-response conversation, each continually topping the other for eloquence until the final outro solo, in which the guitar declares a decisive victory.
No, that song isn’t on Making Movies. But what it accomplished in a 5:49 single, Making Movies sustains for well over half an hour. In “Tunnel Of Love” that sounds like a continued conversation in the “Sultans” style, a trading of leads between the guitar and the lyrics. In “Expresso Love” it starts out as a riff, turning into a rhythm part that intertwines with the vocal line, each one equal partners in the dance, both of them layering onto the initial part, then welcoming another layer of a different rhythm part, which then resolves into full solo, which then gets another solo layered onto it in counterpoint, before the whole structure drops away to expose the fundamental riff again. In “Romeo And Juliet” it’s a gorgeous melody played acoustic with impeccable style and tone, threading a path into the full song, in which it keens sweetly in harmony with Romeo’s streetsuss serenade, joined at the end by an electric, echoing the melody and echoing itself.
At every point, Knopfler’s guitar sound directs the music to where it’s supposed to go, whether that’s someplace delicate or muscular, wistful or ecstatic, sometimes all in the same song. It’s the defining sound of Dire Straits — aside from David Gilmour, I’ve never heard a guitarist who can coax so much emotion out of the instrument. But more than that, Knopfler’s songwriting style pulls off this remarkable trick of placing the guitar in equal importance to the vocal, making every song into a duet even though there’s only one singer.
Still, as important as Knopfler is in the band’s sound, this Dire Straits album has a secret weapon: the incredible piano playing of Roy Bittan. When I saw who was credited with the keyboards on this album, I had to laugh. How many of my favorite records does this guy play on? Sure, he’s in the E Street Band, so there are all those great Springsteen albums. And of course (for me), he’s a fundamental part of the sound on Stevie Nicks’ first two solo albums, Bella Donna and The Wild Heart. Top that with his phenomenal work on Bat Out Of Hell. Add to that appearances with Peter Gabriel, Patti Smith, Jackson Browne, and David Bowie. He even plays on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road!
With Making Movies, his keyboards are the first thing we hear. There’s the warbly organ playing Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel Waltz”, almost more of a sound effect than a musical part, but right behind it is Bittan’s piano, doubling the melody, then dropping into arpeggios of increasing intensity until the curtain is swept aside and the full band jumps onstage for “Tunnel Of Love.” The effect is one in which sweetness, suspense, and a powerful yearning all combine to introduce a song that dramatizes those same feelings with stunning force. The piano returns midway through the song, as its mood shifts from soaring to tender. Then, as the final solo winds down, the piano appears once more, with cascading notes that are very reminiscent of the guitar part in the final moments of “Sultans.”
Bittan’s keyboards often serve this kind of threading and bookending function on the songs. They’re a perfect counterpoint to the opening riff on “Expresso Love”, fading more into the background after the drums start, but reappearing when the beat drops out in the middle, and returning to prominence once more as the song vamps and fades to its conclusion. In “Les Boys” it’s a rollicking music-hall piano that evokes the cabaret described in the lyrics. The piano is featured by itself for the introduction to “Hand In Hand”, a gorgeous and aching song from which Bittan wrings every drop of emotion, first alone, then accompanying the band, then entwining with the guitar at the end to lead into the final question mark.
As an example of excellent musicians, locked into each other, and playing at the top of their game, Making Movies is outstanding. But where it hits me straight in the heart is when that music brings to life the vivid romanticism of Mark Knopfler’s lyrics. I want to be clear that by “romanticism”, I don’t just mean Romeo-and-Juliet-style romance, though obviously that is present on this album, in fact literally so. I also mean that these songs exemplify many of the qualities associated with the artistic and literary Romantic movement: describing heightened experience, the veneration of the imagination and of powerful emotions, and a focus on the heroic individual, set into relief against a drab industrialized society.
That list is pretty much the Cliff Notes version of “Skateaway.” The heroine of the story lives in a setting of traffic, trucks, and taxis, all crawling along jammed city streets. She weaves fearlessly through these obstacles, an “urban toreador” who teases the taxi drivers and lets the trucks brush against her hip. And what elevates this heroic figure? Music and imagination. The music in her ears takes her mind into story — she’s “making movies, on location” as she transcends her mechanistic settings, finding her own world in the city, a purer one than ours.
“Les Boys” are heroic figures themselves, stepping beyond the prejudice that surrounds them into a place where they can feel “glad to be gay.” Even “Solid Rock”, as realistic and grounded as the lyrics want to be, is about the individual trusting in his inner feelings rather than the ephemeral illusions and projections of culture.
It’s romantic love, though, that occupies the bulk of the album, each statement standing brilliantly on its own and combining into an exhilarating whole. “Hand in Hand” mourns a complicated loss in progress, remembering a history together full of pain and yearning, but also full of passionate attachment. “Expresso Love” is the other side of the coin, the pure exaltation of desire, the idealization of the lover and the incredible rush of ecstasy that accompanies her presence. “Tunnel Of Love” brings them together — the carnival thrills of a new love, and the grimy souvenirs of love lost.
And then there’s “Romeo And Juliet.” This is an epic love song if there ever was one, and to try to describe it feels like an exercise in futility — I couldn’t capture a tenth of its luminous beauty. So I’ll just say a couple of things about what it means to me. I’ve felt like that lovestruck Romeo before, though I could never hope to muster the cool of “You and me babe, how about it?” And it’s one thing to want someone, but another thing entirely to find that though you may be perfect for her and she for you, the time is wrong, and no right time is coming. That is the piercing ache at the heart of this song, and its combined evocation of Shakespeare’s tragedy and of its more modern avatar West Side Story drives the knife deeper than a song alone could manage.
Romeo feels betrayed and abandoned, and can’t help but replay over and over again the scenes of passion in which he came to believe that love is forever, that promises of “thick and thin” couldn’t be broken. But Romeo is trapped in a tragedy, in which the most he can do is reach through the bars of a rhyme towards a Juliet now forever beyond his grasp.
I don’t feel like this now, and I haven’t felt this way in a long time. But as far back in the past as those feelings might be, they leave their scars, and hearing “Romeo and Juliet” takes me right back to that somewhere place. It’s time travel by music, and it’s so, so powerful, even thirty-odd years past 1985.