The sound of satire; or, trading places with Mozart

Winters, Ben (2016). The sound of satire; or, trading places with Mozart. In: Evans, Mark and Hayward, Philip eds. Sounding Funny: Sound and Comedy Cinema. Genre, Music and Sound. Equinox Press, pp. 29–50.




Taking the ‘Prince and the Pauper’ story as the basis for a money-fuelled ’80s comedy, Trading Places (dir. John Landis, 1983) skirts around issues of class, race, and gender. Its cultural satire, though, is primarily catered for through its casual dialogue references to operas (Porgy and Bess, La Bohème) and an Elmer Bernstein score that parodies classical favourites alongside continued references to the parallel world of Mozart: opening with a curtailed version of the Marriage of Figaro overture, the film can be read in part through the lens provided by its more illustrious operatic precedent.Interpretations of the film, however, are faced with an important question: is it a promoter of conservative Reaganite capitalism, or a satire that draws attention to the social inequalities of Reagan’s first-term America? In considering the music, I suggest that that there may be a subtler satirical process happening that sidesteps issues of social injustice to make a point about the overdrawn opposites inherent in Reagan’s social policy. Like the eighteenth-century genre of opera buffa to which the film makes reference, though, these satirical aspirations are ultimately secondary to the film’s primary function: to entertain.

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