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Sights, sounds and images: catching the metropolis in/at work(s)

Dealing with the analysis of fictional images of the city in music and movies
Séverin Guillard and Bertrand Pleven


In French and English-speaking geographies, movies and music works are widely recognized as elements which contribute to shaping the imaginaries of cities and urban spaces. However, these two art forms have long been regarded separately within the discipline. With the idea of contributing to the development of a more global urban geography of art, we would like to show the interest of combining a musical and cinematic perspective to understand fictional images of the cities conveyed in specific art works. We’ll illustrate our point through the study of two fictional movies released in the middle of the 2000’s: Larry Clark’s Wassup Rockers and Chris Robinson’s ATL. Each of them being set in an American city, respectively in Los Angeles and Atlanta, they share the will of using music as a tool to describe the urban context. Through this study, we’ll show how the filmic and musical aspects of these movies complete each other to frame an imaginary on the American metropolises. We’ll make the connection with the goal of each movie, highlighting how the images conveyed in these works are dialoguing with an already existing body of representations about these cities, leading to its reproduction or its subversion.

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“BKN News: Rap music often has a bad image: violence, guns, bad language…

1Sadek: Yes, but this is not an issue. When I’m rapping, it’s like a Tarantino’s movie. Whether it is violent or shocking, it is an art form, it doesn’t reflect our personality. I don’t think that Quentin Tarantino is a serial killer. However, his movies display blood from the floor to the ceiling. When people will accept to give us back the irony that is ours, they’ll get it” (Sanchez 2013, translation is ours).

2In 2013, the Parisian rapper, Sadek was invited to talk at a workshop about rap music organized by the University Paris 3. Before his talk, he was interviewed by a blog about his view of rap music. To answer a question from the journalist Sadek used an explicit comparison between two types of art forms: music on the one hand, and cinema, on the other. The way this comparison is made reveals a lot about the image that these two genres convey, in the context of French society.

3First of all, this quote reveals a certain representation of rap music: according to the journalist, some aspects of rap music (bad language, guns) would lead this music to be a “violent genre”. This question refers to an association that has long been made by French journalists between rap music and urban minorities: since the 1990s, this musical genre has often been addressed in mainstream media as a reflection of the way of life of the youngsters from the French “banlieue” (Hammou 2012). This context explains the strategy adopted by Sadek: he highlights that his rap should not to be regarded as a clear description of reality, but as an aesthetic. To this end, he uses a comparison with cinema, as if this genre was based on a looser relation to reality than rap music.

4However, from a cinematic point of view, using Tarantino is far from being innocent. Despite much popular and critical success, Tarantino's movies have faced a lot of criticism for glorifying drugs and violence, and depicting them in a too “realistic” and “easy” viewing way. His aesthetic of violence, located in a de-contextualized picture of urban life, has been criticized as somewhat gratuitous; morally and politically open to criticism. But, as a matter of fact, Tarantino has described his work as the one of an “editor” who actually “shows” things at a literal level, playing with the image of violence associated with the U.S. cities, juxtaposing “songs from popular culture with violence thus producing strange, divergent, affective spaces” (Lukinbeal and Zimmermann 2008). To that extent, the reference to Tarantino can allude to a “hypergeography” (Kirsh 2002) who, far from manipulating real artifacts, plays with spectacular representation (cinematic imagination) of the geographical imaginary.

5But most of all, this quotation echoes some of the issues that have been surrounding the study of art works in Geography. In this discipline, music works and movies have long been regarded differently. The study of these two art forms gave birth to two specific research fields that are rarely connected. However, this paper will demonstrate how music and cinematic perspectives can appear as complementary in the studying of common material. This demonstration will echo some rising assertions in Film and Popular Music Studies regarding the interest of focusing on the use of music and sounds in movies (Goldmark et al. 2007 ; Kärki and Saarikovski 2016). But it will bring also a new perspective to this debate, by focusing on the way music and film are used together to build and transfigure the imaginary of one specific space: the American metropolis. To this end, this paper intends to bring a contribution to a more global urban geography of arts.

6This paper will address this issue by adopting a spectator-researcher form of inquiry, which leads to consider movies as a geographic sensitive and social text. This approach is strongly linked with each of our own research backgrounds, which takes its origin in French cultural geography. Having carried out some extended research on the geography of cinema (Pleven 2014, 2015) and music, through the example of rap music (Guillard 2016), we have noticed how most of the analyses on these topics were limited to one type of artistic production. However, we also observed that, these different approaches could be combined in order to highlight the different dimensions of some specific art works.

7To this end, we’ll proceed in several steps. Firstly, we will place the discussion on a theoretical level, comparing the common points and the differences existing in the geographical and urban research on music and cinema. Having started our research works within a French research environment, we will pay specific attention to the differences existing between Francophone and Anglophone literature. Secondly, we will test the music and cinematic approaches on two fiction movies taking place in an urban context, Chris Robinsons’ ATL and Larry Clark’s Wassup Rockers. We will particularly focus on how music and images are used together to depict the American city, and the relationship its inhabitants are building with it, and how this assemblage grounds the spectator’s (and the scholar’s) experience.

Dealing with spatial issues in music and movies: two academic fields with converging issues

8If movies and music often had a strong link in the cultural industries (Mundy, 1999), these two media have long been approached separately in social sciences. This separation is particularly acute in Francophone and Anglophone geography, where the study of music and film gave birth to two different research fields.

9Building an approach at the crossroads implies, firstly, reviewing the studies of these fields and observing the common points and differences that arise. In particular, they appear to share some issues regarding the status of the art works.

The status of musical art works in the geography of music and cinema

10When it comes to dealing with the spatial dimensions of the music works, the heart of the debate in Francophone and Anglophone academic works has often been about whether the images conveyed by the artists are a natural reflection of reality.

11In French-speaking geography, the rise of a significant body of studies on music is a quite recent phenomenon (Canova 2013). Moreover, when it comes to dealing with the status of art works, most scholars have been adopting a realist perspective. In several studies, geographers heralded music as a “geoindicator” (Romagnan 2000, Raibaud 2014) of space and place. This idea is based on a comparison with the field of Biology, where a “bioindicator” refers to a group of species whose way of life reveals the status of a specific environment. In the same way, music has been seen as a way to highlight some “senses of belonging, some mobilities, some values and some social behaviours” (Guiu 2006: 21) or to “decode space and place” (Guiu 2006: 21).

12In English-speaking geography, however, more emphasis has been put on the musical construction of place. This difference can be explained partly by an earlier development of the studies: whereas geographers have shown an interest in music since the 1960s, several scholars asserted in the 1990s that music geographers should not limit themselves to “map the diffusion of musical styles or analyze geographical imagery in lyrics” (Leyshon et al. 1995: 425). Therefore, a whole body of literature addressed different aspects of the geography of music, observing “the multiplicity of ways in which musics are experienced, produced, reproduced and consumed” (Anderson et al. 2005: 640). But the differences with the French context also result from closer relations with research carried out in Cultural Studies and Sociology. In the 1980s, the Anglophone world saw the rise of a specific field, Popular Music Studies. In this field, the idea of “authenticity” was introduced as a way to move away from a realist perspective (Peterson 1997, Forman 2002): it showed how the idea of “real” conveyed in music works didn’t have to be regarded literally, but more as an attempt for artists to “authenticate” (Moore 2002) themselves within a specific and evolving music genre. Despite being carried out outside of the field of geography, these studies were used as a basis for ensuing works by geographers, being quoted frequently in the recent works produced in the discipline (Connell and Gibson 2002, Johansson and Bell 2009).

13Movies and cinema have also been approached quite differently in French and English speaking literature. In France, the geography of film is a young but dynamic one (Staszak 2014). As for music, it stays somewhat tied up with realist ontology. Geographers often viewed the screen as “a window open onto the world” following in the footsteps of the French theorist Bazin (1976). Basically, movies would give access to a reflected reality (a preexistent reality) the researcher can discuss (Landy 2009) or a mythical geography made of a cultural and political (un)conscious that one can explore through images and narratives (Mauduy and Henriet 1989). Nevertheless, going “beyond realism” (Desbois et al. 2016) allows new horizons about what fiction enlightens and opens methodological debates about how to capture it in research protocols.

14In English-speaking geography, film has been a significant topic in Geography for several decades. It emerged in the 1990s, with a strong link with Film Studies (Aitken and Zonn 1991). In this perspective, cinema has often been seen as a language (Metz 1971) matching up the concerns of the new Cultural Geography arising at this time. For instance, Don Mitchell argued that the inquiry of the cinematic landscape can “develop as both a product and a means for guiding the social and spatial practices of production and reproduction in an area” (Mitchell 2000). Cinema is seen as a code, a “cognitive map” (Jameson 1992) hiding, revealing or subverting the discourses that frame contemporary geographies.

15During the 2000s, the idea of a “cinematic” or “celluloid” city became a prolific subfield within film studies and social sciences (Penz and Lu 2011). Two main approaches surface nowadays: some authors work on the film as a representation (a “city text”), others focus on context of reception, that is to say a more or less singular experience. A third option combines these approaches, considering the way urban space is staged in what is often called as an “author centered” point of view.

16Therefore, the French and Anglophone perspectives have often shared the idea of addressing films as a representation somewhat distant from geographical writing. Recently, however, important research views the filmic images in a larger way. There is, on the one hand, an interest in tackling cinema as a creative practice embedded in a cultural industry, observing the impact of the profilmic (filming location, film-maker practices on the field…) on the cinematic representation. On the other hand, phenomenological approaches (Zernik 2012, Gaudin 2015) open new horizons to contemplations of movies as a geographical experience for the spectator. Works which focus on how films shape and make “filmic place” (Lukinbeal and Zimmermann 2008, Fletchall et al. 2012) can be fruitfully fed by these perspectives.

17Following these studies, we can then consider film as geographical writing which shapes geographical materials (Rhodes and Gorfinkel 2011), but also as a process which favors an experience. Then, “cinematic writing” appears not only as a discourse but also as a geographical allegory, a sensitive surface which affects the spectator experience. However, in this concern, it appears necessary to develop a global approach which articulates images and sounds, the latter playing a great role in supporting sens of filmic spaces and filmic places.

Building a perspective: a common ground between image and sound around geographical imagination

18While focusing on two different types of art forms, the geographies of music and cinema share a lot of common issues. Being both concerned by the “realness” of the art works, these frames led us to build an approach that could overcome this issue. These perspectives can offer a starting point for an analysis at the crossroads of music and cinematic geography.

19Regarding the music field, Guillard (2016) intended to read the performances and discourses conveyed by French and American rappers through the lens of “imagination”. Far from reproducing the real-fictitious dichotomy, imaginary can be defined as a body of mental images that can “refer analogically to reality, without being its perfectly faithful reflection” (Debarbieux 2004). What matters, then, is not the amount of “realness” in musical work, but to what extent it refers to a coherent body of representations.

20Regarding cinematic field, Pleven (2014, 2015) decided to look at the settings and narratives presented in movies in terms of a “credible” world. In this perspective, the cinematic place is a fictional place: it is neither real nor fictitious, neither true nor false. Cinematic imagination can actually be seen and heard as a negotiation between what Deleuze (1983) calls the “clichés” and the moving iconography. Therefore, films can be analyzed as “worlds” in themselves, allegories rooted in concrete places and shaped by cinematic fabric. As a spectator-researcher, it is then possible to explain and share the cinematic geographies created in these movies, considering our own experience as one possible among others. This statement implies giving attention to both sights and sounds.

21All these reflections offer a common ground for observing the complementary use of the image and the sonic dimensions in art works. Making this connection seems all the more significant in Film and Popular Music Studies where some scholars have also recently pointed out the important relationship between music and cinema, by observing, either how music is used to create a mood or an atmosphere in movies (Goldmark et al. 2007), or how videos serve as tool to promote specific types of music (Mundy 1999).

22These links are especially important when it comes to addressing the spatial dimensions of music and films. On the one hand, image can play a huge role for the spatial imaginaries of music art works: in music videos, especially, the image has often been used as a way to extend the imaginary associated with the music, by illustrating mental images expressed in the lyrics with physical spaces or by displaying a context of practice for specific types of music. On the contrary, using a certain type of music in a video can help to describe a certain place: it can refer to the whole body of images that has been associated to this specific type of music, from the fantasized American countryside of country rap music (Peterson 1997) to the urban “hood” of west coast gangster rap (Forman 2002).

23On the other hand, in movies, music, but also noises and voices, can be considered as a cornerstone of the shaping of filmic space: sounds echo the world, and strongly take part in the dialectic emplacement/displacement. That is to say, it is not rare that music or sound guide our perception of place and space in film. As Lukinbeal and Zimmerman argue “audio guides affective response, it saturates film and sutures the “seen” into the [cinematic] “scene”” (Lukinbeal and Zimmerman 2008). In the cinematic mapping from and of the word, music can expand or retract the sense of place. It tends to play a huge role in the filmic “condensation” (Debarbieux 1995) of the world and deeply affect the spectator’s experience. However, few studies put together sounds and images in cinematic space and place analysis. It seems, then, that there is a need to cover this gap by exploring the combination between visuality and musicality within film spatiality and what it creates, and analyze the way images and sound affect spectatorship position and participation.

The American metropolis at the crossroads: the examples of ATL (Chris Robinson 2006) and Wassup rockers (Larry Clark 2005)

24To illustrate the way music and movies are used in a complementary way to build the imaginaries of specific spaces and places, we will focus on two movies directed in the 2000s: Wassup Rockers, by Larry Clark, and ATL also, by Chris Robinson. Indeed, these movies are particularly interesting for observing the relations between music, cinema, and cities on several levels.

25Firstly, they focus on a type of space that has been highly represented in music and cinematic productions: the American city. Today, while American music is consumed far beyond the limits of the United States; over the decades, it has kept a strong rootedness in specific locations. In American music history, these associations have been expressed both by labels (who have long been using fantasized images of places as a way to sell their artists), journalists (who have often asserted the existence of a link between cities, scenes and sounds) and artists (who have often claimed their belonging to certain places in order to build their authenticity in a specific music genre) (Grassy 2010).

26Similarly, Jousse and Paquot (2005) assert that the strong link between cities and cinema is particularly relevant when we deal with American cities. People travel and dwell in American cities through cinema since American cinema became dominant worldwide. Considering American cities and mainly, Los Angeles, Baudrillard (1986), famously argued that the dichotomy between reel and real, between screen and concrete site was no longer relevant. Images of the city have been the products (and the matrices) of film genres (film noir for L.A, mob movies in the case of New York…) but also the matrices of particular ways of filming (Shiel 2012). Concomitantly, Eric Gordon, with his concept of possessive spectator shows how cinema has shaped the way one looks, inhabits and even plans American cities and continues to do so (Gordon 2010).

27Following this history, Wassup Rockers and ATL contribute to its renewal in different ways. Set in Los Angeles and Atlanta, respectively, these fiction movies focus on cities that have a different history in American music and cinema. If Los Angeles has been an important center for the music industry, hosting the headquarters of many major labels, it has especially been the capital of the film industry in the United States since the 1910s. This history has largely contributed to shaping the imaginary of the city: if the first movies observed Los Angeles only as a site for the film industry, this first depiction has been progressively extended to other parts of the city, and the idea of the “dream factory”, once associated with Hollywood, then became a way to qualify the city as a whole.

28Even though a couple of iconic movies have been set in Atlanta, this city is quite new in the landscape of mainstream American cinema in the 2000s. This contrasts with the reputation the city has gained in the African-American imaginary: being labeled as the “Black Mecca of the South” in the 1970s (Garland 1971), the city has been progressively heralded as a capital for African-American arts and culture in the United States. Therefore, it is not really a coincidence if this city recently gained significant exposure in American music, becoming a new epicenter of the rap music genre. Through rap music, Atlanta became highly represented in mainstream media in the 2000s and rappers played an important role in redefining the imaginary on the city.

29Secondly, ATL and Wassup Rockers share striking similarities in their plot and structure. Each fiction features a group of teenagers in “a coming of age” movie, where the urban context, and especially the figure of the “ghetto”, takes a central part. Wassup rockers pictures the 24h journey of a group of Hispanic teenagers skateboarding across Los Angeles. We follow Jonathan and his friends (who play something close to their own roles, with their own names) leaving their neighborhood of South Central to a nine stairs skateboarding spot in Beverly Hills. In this part of the city, they meet different characters from the Angelino upper-class (teenagers from a rich background, members from the artistic bohemia…), before coming back to their neighborhood. In this journey, from one “ghetto” to another, the group faces social distance and symbolic violence.

30ATL focuses on a group of African-American friends led by Rashad (portrayed by the Atlanta rapper T.I.), in their last year in high school. While the group is originally from the inner-city neighborhood of Mechanicsville, one of its members, Esquire, is now attending a prep school in an upscale northern suburbs of Atlanta, hoping to apply for an Ivy League college at the end of the year. They all meet every Saturday at Cascade, a famous roller-skating rink inspired by a real place, deeply imbedded in Atlanta rap scene history.

31Finally, in each movie, a strong emphasis is put on the relationship between the group and a specific musical genre, respectively punk rock music for Wassup Rockers and rap music for ATL. Appearing both in a diegetic (as a part of the film narrative) and extradiegetic (outside the characters’ world) way, music plays a significant role in the depiction and transfiguration of the city in the filmic space. ATL and Wassup rockers also want to raise awareness on the fact that, in both movies, music is not a simple soundtrack. In Wassup rockers, Larry Clark asked Johnathan Velasquez (the main character, a non-professional actor) to write songs with his South Central punk rock band (some of them also playing character roles), a choice he didn’t make for his latter films.

32In the same way, ATL is strongly rooted in (and so presented as part of) the Atlanta rap scene: the movie is directed by Chris Robinson, who first gained his name in the rap music world as a music video director, the plot is inspired by the teenagers’ experience of two music stars of the city (the record producer Dallas Austin and the singer T-Boz), and the cast features major representatives of the Atlanta rap scene, both as main characters (with the rappers T.I. and Big Boi) and minor roles.

33Therefore, in each movie, the filmic and music geographies converse with the visibility of the urban conditions of Los Angeles and Atlanta, in relation to the social and racial issues associated with them. From the East to the West, from the “Black Mecca” to the “Dream factory”, from a black ghetto to a Hispanic one, the comparison between these two films appears as a good fieldwork to analyze how the “mise en scene” of music and movies are used to transform, contest or reveal urban imaginaries.

34We studied each movie by adopting a specific methodology. Firstly, we carried out a detailed analysis of the representation of the city in ATL and Wassup Rockers. We established an observation grid that allowed us to observe the depiction of the cities, from the urban landscapes and spaces to the discourses on specific places. We also looked at the various uses of music in this process, both as a soundtrack and as an element of the characters’ world, taking into account the different connotations that the use of this material could refer to on a diversity of levels (as a song, a genre or a practice), and in a diegetic and extradiegetic way. We completed this analysis by a research on papers dealing with the making of the movie. The goal of this second step was to hear the discourse of the filmmakers, and to capture the meaning behind their representations of the city. This process allowed us to show how, in both movies, music and film are used to draw a picture of the cities of Los Angeles and Atlanta on many levels.

The opening credits: presenting the cinematic city along with music songs

35In each case, the link between the musical and filmic dimension of the movies can be encountered from the first scenes. In both movies, the opening credits scenes display an itinerary of some characters in an urban environment. In ATL, we follow Rashad, the main hero of the movie, driving from a shop, where he works as a window cleaner, to his home, in the neighborhood of Mechanicsville. In Wassup Rockers, we follow some Hispanic gang leaders in a generic southern L.A. landscape, until they end up killing one of the members of the group of teenagers the movie focuses on. The following image editing enlightens the city sceneries built by the two films, showing how they shape, by a succession of shots, a cinematic place.

36However, despite striking similarities, these two opening credits set the scene in different ways. If Clark’s camera is wandering within an urban landscape, the images don’t provide sufficient elements in order to locate the specific neighborhood or city, where the scene takes place. Most of the elements displayed are generic streets, crossroads or interstates, within which the characters of the scenes are driving.

37In ATL, the opening credit scenes also display a ride through the city but the emphasis is far more “cartographic”. Close-up and long shots of the car are interspersed with scenes focusing on specific landmarks of the city and the region: its skyline and its massive road traffic interchanges, the MARTA trains, the Fox Theater in Midtown, cotton bowls, archive footages from Martin Luther King or even the logo of Bronners Bro, a company based in the Atlanta’s suburbs.

38Focusing on the images of these opening scenes, it appears that they display the city in a very distinct way. Firstly, they take a different approach on the landscapes of the city. Whereas the Wassup Rockers’ opening scene is portraying a somewhat “generic ghetto”, ATL displays a specific location: a city, set in a well-defined region. Secondly, these opening scenes focus on two different scales: the one of Wassup Rockers focuses on a specific neighborhood within the city whereas the one of ATL embraces the city as a whole. Finally, these scenes take a different perspective on the issue of motion: being set in one precise location, the Wassup Rockers opening scene figures spatial immobility. Following Rashad’s ride throughout Atlanta, ATL suggests, on the contrary, a spatial mobility through the city.

39The songs, used as the soundtracks for these scenes, assist the imaginaries conveyed by the filmic dimension. The opening credits of ATL are unfolding on one specific music track, the song “Georgia”, performed by rappers Ludacris and Field Mob. This song completes the images in an attempt to qualify the city. Released as a single, 6 months before ATL, “Georgia” features lyrics referring to some specific landmarks of Atlanta and the South. In his verse, Ludacris especially uses a lot of puns to refer to the local baseball team (“you gotta to be Brave in the state of Georgia”) or to one of universities of the city (“That's why I keep my Georgia Tech in the state of Georgia”). The beat of the song is also setting the imaginary of the movie within a specific context: the instrumental is based on a song from Ray Charles, “Georgia on my mind”. In this way, the beat inscribes the song within the musical and racial heritage of the region. It also asserts the authenticity of Ludacris and Field Mob to claim a new idea of the South, set from an African American point of view.

40The Wassup Rockers’ opening credit scene is also supported by a specific track, the song “Politica Corrupta”, performed by the punk group Moral Decay. However, the meaning of the music seems to be more generic. Despite being based in Southern L.A., the group is not referring to the city in this track: sung in Spanish, the lyrics of the song focus on the difficulties of the working class youth (“no hay futuro, no hay dinero”). The sense of belonging claimed by the singer is not to a specific city but to the Hispanic community (described as “mi gente latina”). If their lyrics can be taken as a description of a Hispanic ghetto, it seems to be a placeless one.

41Far from being limited to the opening credits, the images displayed in these first scenes sets a frame that is going to be reproduced and debated throughout each film. Therefore, on other levels too, the relationship between the musical and the filmic aspects appears to offer a way to understanding the depiction and transfiguration of the urban context in these movies.

Shaping two urban morphologies: the uses of visual frames and music genres

42The musical and filmic analyses also enable to highlight the depiction of the city made all along the movie. From a filmic point of view, it appears that both movies portray a “dual city” as their backdrop. However, the movies differ in their use of these different urban environments (Figure 1).

43The cinematic space of ATL could be described as an archipelago of places. These places are strongly specified through the images, the dialogues and the music. The audience is never lost on the way: a lot of signs help to locate each place at every scene of the movie. For instance, when Rashad and his friends leave their neighborhood of Mechanicsville, in the center of the city, to escort Esquire to his preparatory school, located in the upper-class suburbs of Atlanta, the soundtrack of the movie changes: while rap music was dominating in the first place, it is replaced by a classical piano track. Therefore, during the movie, the characters pass constantly between well-defined locations. The city is a narrative network and its geography can be qualified as “creative” (Penz 2008): what is seen, how it is displayed (ellipses) and how it is heard is strongly mapping the social space.

44The method used in Wassup Rocker is slightly different: its geography is more “corresponding” (Penz 2008): the film tends to stick to the city topography and city distances. During their travels in the movie, the characters draw a loop between South Central and the Hills, where they go to skateboard. While they cross a nearly anonymous city on their way to the Hills, their return trip is framed with some symbolic images of Los Angeles, such as a panorama from the hills, a shot on Hollywood boulevard’s walk of fame, a furtive view on the skyline.

Figure 1. The cinematic space of ATL and Wassup Rockers

Figure 1. The cinematic space of ATL and Wassup Rockers

45At different stages of each movie, music guides the characters’ paths through the city. Whereas, in some other cases, the cinematic elements have been used to change the dominant representation of certain types of music (Cenciarelli 2011), here, the connotations associated with different musical genres are used as a way to map the cinematic cities.

46In Wassup Rockers, music goes along with the spatial progression: whereas punk music stands for the group of young Latinos on the move, the other universes they meet during their trip to Beverly Hills are illustrated by the use of other music genres, which are all in relation to the social background of the individuals encountered: pop music is used to symbolize some white upper-class girls the group meet, electronic music is used in the context of a party with an upscale bohemian crowd, etc. On the contrary, music in ATL is used to emphasize the differences between the areas of the city visited by the characters. Whereas classical and jazz music symbolize the rich neighborhoods of the Northern part of the city, and especially the golf club that Rashad’s best friend, Esquire, frequently visits, rap music is predominantly used in scenes taking place in inner-city neighborhoods.

47In each case, the dominant narratives associated with each musical genre are used to highlight the specific geography of the movie. Because rap music has long been associated with specific places (Forman 2002), it is used to qualify the type of areas visited by the heroes of ATL. But ATL goes even further, by making a specific use of different types of rap music. Heavily drawing on the imaginary of Atlanta in rap music, the movie reproduces in its music and images an opposition that has long been central within the local rap scene: the one between the club and the trap. In a paper dedicated to the Atlanta’s rap scene, Matt Miller noticed that "music inspired by the high-energy, bass-heavy dance music [has long been] form[ing] the core of Atlanta's thriving scene" (Miller 2010: 467). In the more recent years, this music has been completed by the rise of a new subgenre: trap music. In the regional slang, the word “trap” refers originally to a “trap house”, an abandoned building where drugs are made and sold. Being used by local rappers whose lyrics focus on drug dealing, the term “trap” gradually became used to refer to the type of music produced by these artists. Murali Balaji writes that “trap music is defined by a hard-driving bass laced with heavy synthetic beats[…] that highlights a more sinister side to the artist” (Balaji 2009: 99). Created in opposition to the more danced-oriented styles existing in the scene, trap music displays a darker side of the city. These differences in the music and the imaginary are reused in Chris Robinson’s ATL. Whereas an important part of the movie focuses on the interactions taking place in Cascade, the skating ring, some scenes also lead Rashad’s little brother, Ant, to visit an abandoned house, labelled in a specific subtitle as the “trap”. Different types of rap of the Atlanta’s rap scene are used to illustrate these moments: while the scenes in Cascade feature dance-oriented music, the scenes linked to drug dealing are illustrated by famous tracks from the trap music subgenre.

48In Wassup Rockers, the use of music also echoes some narratives linked to punk music. Contrary to rap music in ATL, punk music is not used to qualify some specific area, but a group: the one of Hispanic teenagers we follow along the movie. This can remind us of the way this musical genre has often been approached in social sciences. Whereas rap music has been analyzed trough its anchoring into different places, punk music has often been observed through the “subcultures” it would give birth to (Hebdige 1979).

49Furthermore, the group of teenagers appears as quite isolated from the environments they visit. In South Central, in the first part of the movie, they are frequently being teased for being “rockers” by the other, mainly black teenagers, who seem to prefer the cultural standards linked to the African-American community. At that point, punk is used as a soundtrack to depict the activities of a group isolated from the dominant culture of their neighborhood.

50In the second part of the movie, set in Beverly Hills, punk is not regarded the same way by the characters encountered by the teenagers. Several times during their journey, they meet some characters who seem to enjoy punk music: first a policeman, who tells them about his experience of a Ramones’ live show in 1987, and then a member of the artistic bohemia, at a party in a private house, who congratulates them for being “so fucking punk rockers”. However, these compliments hide a particularly violent environment towards these minority teenagers. Punk music is then used to signify the disruption between the group and the environment of Beverly Hills, and the music appears every time the heroes have to run from an immediate threat in the area. At that point, punk is used as way to address the power relations between social classes within the metropolis of Los Angeles.

Performing bodies: crossing spatial borders and performing the musical practices

51If Wassup Rockers and ATL set a range of well-defined areas, they also show how the city provides a way to escape from the normalized performances of these different zones. Within ATL and Wassup Rockers, two areas appear as « in between » places: in the first one, it is Cascade, the skating ring visited by the teenager; in the second one, it is the nine stairs skating spot located in Beverly Hills.

52In both movies, these two cinematic places are the sites of performances where the heroes can display their skills and engage in social and sexual interactions. Symbolically, the semi-private venue of Cascade acts as a stage where the characters can win their right to the city (Lefebvre 1968) through their performances. In contrast, the public space of the Beverly Hills spot symbolizes the negation of that right: while the teenagers are skateboarding, they are interrupted by a policeman, who reminds them about the “no skateboarding sign” posted nearby and asserts that the heroes “don’t belong here”.

53Thus, Cascade and the nine stairs spot can be seen as a metonymy of both places and spatial practices, as a “condensation” (Debarbieux 1995) which symbolizes the city as a whole. In Wassup Rockers, the scene pictures a trial of strength whereas, in ATL, is figured a pretty fluid choreography. The latter is framed as a movie clip whereas the former is more photographic than cinematic. ATL takes the spectator on stage with the music, whereas the mise en scene of Wassup Rockers is less spectacular: Clark places the spectator as a casual observer.

54These differences can also be encountered on a musical level. In addition to appearing as a soundtrack, music is also an element that is played or listened to by the characters in each movie: it is leading into a performance, which completes the spatial rootedness expressed on the cinematic level.

55Observing music as it is played leads towards the emphasis upon a different aspect of each movie. Indeed, if we focus only on the soundtrack, we can notice that music is absent from the skating scene at the nine stairs spot, despite the significance of this part in the movie. The spectator only hears the boards and the ground shocking the ground. This situation contrasts the country tune which accompanies the cop’s arrival, and also contrasts with the systematic use of punk music when the group is on the move: while punk music is strongly linked to the group of teenagers, its absence seems to underline their difficulty to anchor in a specific place of the metropolis.

56In Wassup Rockers, the characters are also musicians. However, the only scene where they are presented as performing takes place in the house of one of the teenagers, away from the constant movement of the group: while the teenagers are rejected from the different areas they visit, it seems that the only refuge available for them is in the domestic space.

57Therefore, in opposition to the difficulty of taking one’s place in the local, punk music is presented as a shelter for the group, which allows it to exist through translocal connections. In a paper published in 2004 about the Goth movement, Hodkinson showed how this idea of “translocal” was crucial to the understanding of some subcultures. While the amount of people claiming themselves as goth were not enough to form specific local scenes, the goth movement still existed through the translocal connections its members established between localities. Likewise, even though some of the bands used for the soundtrack of Wassup Rockers are locally based, the punk references heralded by the teenagers are not limited to the local groups: during the movie, one of teenagers wears a Ramones t-shirt, an emblematic punk group from New York. Likewise, during the rehearsal, a poster hung on the wall refers to the Casualties, a group from Newcastle.

58In ATL, the main characters are not musicians. However, music is not used only as a soundtrack: a lot of scenes portray bodies listening and dancing to specific tracks. Cascade appears as an emblematic place on this level: if the venue is firstly a rollerskating club, music is an important part of the performances happening there, and several shots show the DJ changing the records and interacting with the crowd.

59However, whereas Wassup Rockers portrays the connection of a group of teenagers to a translocal movement, ATL, through the example of Cascade, seems to refer to what has been defined in the last decades in Popular Music Studies as a “local scene”. In a book published in 2004, Andy Bennett and Richard Peterson defined a music scene as “the contexts in which clusters of producers, musicians, and fans collectively share their common musical tastes and collectively distinguish themselves from others" (Bennett and Peterson 2004: 1). Likewise, Cascade is displayed as a place where people can dance and gather, despite their diverse origins in terms of class and neighborhoods. The events happening every Sunday night are visited by both Rashad and his friends and by Erin ”New-New”, the daughter of a rich millionaire living in the Northern Suburbs of Atlanta. Moreover, whereas Rashad and Erin come from two different social backgrounds, they end up dating after their meeting at the club, until Rashad discovers “New-New’s” real origins.

60This depiction of Cascade, and the sense of scene that is attached to this place, has to be seen in relation with the original goal of the movie. Far from being created specifically for the movie, Cascade was inspired by an actual skating rink called JellyBeans, where several main members of the Atlanta’s rap scene used to gather as teenagers during the 1990s. According to the producers of the film, the music producer Dallas Austin and the R&B Singer T-Boz, this venue was a significant foundation of the local rap scene (Warner Bros Pictures, 2006). This context shows how, while portraying an image of the metropolises and its inhabitants, the images and the sounds displayed in ATL and Wassup Rockers reflect the overall goal each production crew had for their movie.

From the sense of place to a meaning of place

61Far from being anecdotic, the sense of place displayed in each movie serves as an indicator of a more global discourse on the American city.

62On the one hand, each movie appears as an “instance of visibility” (Aikten and Zonn 1991). In Wassup Rockers, Larry Clark plays with the idea of visibility and invisibility. The filmmaker exposes his characters in the first part of the story before making the city visible. It seems that, to quote Michel de Certeau, the city is “transformed into a space by walkers” (de Certeau 1990) or, here, by skaters. But, in L.A., in the “dreamfactory”, sounds and sights appear as a progressive, even unsuccessful, conquest of the landscapes of power, a kind of symbolic revenge. Even if Wassup rockers is not built on a Hollywood movie industry plot, Larry Clark openly adopts a counterpoint when he chooses a subjective shot, at the end of the movie, to capture the ride of the characters in the walk of fame, in the Hollywood neighborhood. Johnathan and his friends, even by night, even on the run from the cops, are inscribed in the city and Clark’s camera literally goes with them. The drums and guitars soundtrack also underlines this climax, by reminding the spectator the sound of a human heart in a rush. At this moment, Clark’s mise en scène chooses a cinematic embodiment to portray the experience of the characters, affecting the spectator’s view on one of the main landmarks of the city.

63To give visibility and substantial thickness also lead to subverting the discourses about minorities, especially in a L.A.’s South Central, often pictured as a black ghetto. In this process, music plays a role: contrary to some movies where the image of the ghetto is strongly linked to rap music, punk is used to qualify a group of youngsters who can’t find their place in all these imaginaries of the different neighborhoods of L.A. Therefore, music causes interference to the social order of the city, but also suggests the fact that the group is unrooted, placeless.

64Whereas Wassup Rockers works as a speech of subversion, ATL seems to appear as speech of exhibition. In a documentary made about the making of the movie, the film director Chris Robinson explained that the goal of the movie was firstly to put the lights on Atlanta. He linked this goal with the status the city had gained for the African-American community in the United States:

40 years ago, Martin Luther King was walking these streets to secure the right to vote. 40 years ago they were hanging people down there. And now, 40 years later, there is a New South, a city where African-American people are involved in the financial structure of a city. […] It is a city of transition and I want Atlanta to definitely be a character [in the movie] that you feel. (Source: “In the rink: a director’s journey”, 2006)

65This goal can be encountered all along the movie. At the end of ATL, It seems that the will has been to cover the city as a network of places which acts as social and spatial landmarks and reflect oppositions. What is important is the way ATL transposes the new imaginary attached the city, especially the one displayed in the 2000s by the local rap artists, in a cinematic world. Contrary to Wassup Rockers, that is challenging the various dominant imaginaries of L.A., ATL has the goal to be a cinematic landmark for the city, building on a process started in rap music works since the beginning of the decade.

66On the other hand, each film acts as instance of performativity and deals with borders. ATL can appear as a social re-mapping because, despite all the issues, the story ends in reconciliation between the characters of the different parts of Atlanta. In this way, the story has built a new spatial and urban order. While ATL performs an urban reification, creating a utopia, Wassup Rockers is more dystopic: Clark refuses to re-map the social elements; the skaters remain in a “bubble floating in the public space” (Mitchell 2005). At the end, the resolution of the narrative crisis occurs inside the group, not beyond. The film thus performs as a denunciation.

67Therefore, beyond narrative plan and space, and beyond definitive interpretation, these two films share the figure of the loop, in different geopolitical aesthetics, to deal with and shape cinematic Atlanta and Los Angeles. Images and sounds create their own cinematic-geographic order in which the spectator experiences social border crossing.

68To conclude, through the cases of Wassup Rockers and ATL, we showed how combining a musical and cinematic approach can help to reread the allegorical relation between arts and the urban context as it is displayed in movies.

69While some scholars recently highlighted the importance of music in the shaping of the atmospheres and narratives of movies (Goldmark et al. 2007), we analyzed how the filmic and the musical dimensions were used as complementary tools to highlight and transform the geographical imaginary associated with specific cities.

70However, as Wassup Rockers and ATL are dealing with two different metropolises, sounds and images do not serve the same goal. In Wassup Rockers, Larry Clark builds on an imaginary of Los Angeles that is already well structured, and has especially been shaped by the artistic works coming from this city. Therefore, in a metropolis where the difference between the artistic imaginaries and the structure of the city tends to be blurred, images and sounds are used as a medium to transfigure the dominant imaginary of the place and engage the spectator to dwell in the sim-city (Soja 1996).

71ATL deals with an Atlanta’s cinematic imaginary which is not as strong. Thus, the goal of the movies is firstly to give visibility to the city, establishing some landmarks for the audience. To this end, the movie tends to reproduce some urban elements that have long been associated with the city, from its high segregation rate to its polynuclear structure (Rutheiser 1996). However, this movie is also linked with a project for the city: whereas the goal of Wassup Rocker is to explore another side of L.A.’s imaginary, the goal of ATL is to put Atlanta on the map, in a process similar to the one used at the same time in rap music. While the local rappers are, in the 2000s, rising to the top of the charts, the goal of the film is to extend this imaginary towards a full-length fiction movie. This cultural project is also embedded in social issues linked to the city of Atlanta: whereas the image of the city has long been torn between its status of capital of the Old South and starting point of the civil rights movement (Rutheiser 1996), this movie wants to show Atlanta as a great black city.

72In this project, cinema and music are used in a complementary way. Therefore, our study also illustrates how a cinematic and musical perspective can support each other to study the same piece of art. On the one hand, we showed how the space of movie could appear as a cinematic urban world, built by geographical cinematic writing, which reorganized urban materials. On the other hand, we proved how music plays a role in shaping filmic space and place, as a representation but also as an experience. To bring attention to music seems key in considering the filmic presentation deeper than what we see as a geographer and go beyond a visual exploration of filmic representation. Thus, the comparison underlines how the social meaning conveyed by the movie was deeply dependent on the dialectic between sounds and sights, between the filmic and the musical dimensions of the movies.

73However, if this work has developed some arguments to show why it is important to combine music and image analyses, it also opens a window for going further. Firstly, while we have focused on a more cinematic oriented work, we could go further in the analysis by observing other types of medium where music and films go even more hand in hand. To this end, objects like the TV show, the video-clips or video games could provide prolific perspectives.

74Secondly, if our paper has underlined the project of both movies regarding the image of the city, we limited ourselves to an analysis of the content of these materials. Another perspective would be to go beyond this “text-centered” analysis, to include elements on the reception of these art works. This would lead to understanding not only the representations of the city conveyed in these movies, but also the impact they had on the everyday life and the attractiveness of the places. This final perspective would then help us to analyze on a much deeper level, by showing how and to what extent the images of the city conveyed in art works can impact the world.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. The cinematic space of ATL and Wassup Rockers
File image/jpeg, 146k
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Electronic reference

Séverin Guillard and Bertrand Pleven, Sights, sounds and images: catching the metropolis in/at work(s)Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 15 | 2017, Online since 07 May 2018, connection on 07 June 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Séverin Guillard

Teaching and research associate at the Université Paris Est Créteil – Lab’Urba.

Bertrand Pleven

PhD student at Pantheon Sorbonne University - Geographie-Cités and lecturer in Paris-Sorbonne University.

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