There isn’t much immediately noticeable structure or organization to Born in Flames, our current Movie of the Month, deliberately so. Lizzie Borden’s no-wave feminist screed was pieced together over five years of no-budget NYC filmmaking, building its narrative around the disunion and lack of cohesion among separate factions of political radicals who should all be united for a common cause. That story of gradual, incremental cohesion and those means of fractured, piecemealed filmmaking make for an excitedly dense picture, but also a stubbornly messy one. Before the disparate themes and feminist factions of Born in Flames cohere late in its runtime, one of the only aspects of the film that goes out of its way to provide the audience with a structural anchor is Lizzie Borden’s use of music, especially the repetition of the film’s titular theme song. There are needle-drops galore in Born in Flames, or at least more than you’d expect from a no-budget political bomb-thrower. Among less recognizable disco, reggae, and funk tunes that soundtrack the film’s many pirate radio broadcasts, the song selection includes more numerous, iconic needle-drops than you might fist realize: The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child,” “New Town” from The Slits, etc. Less surprising is the repetition of a track from the NYC punk band The Bloods, since the vocalist for the group, Adele Birtei, is one of the two main radio DJs who provide a mouthpiece for the film’s opposing feminist factions. Birtei is shown performing in concert & “rapping” acapella on her radio show (a faux pas that made Boomer cringe), but her biggest musical contribution is providing vocals for a track by The Bloods that repeats three times in this 80min sprint of a feature film. Somehow, though, that Bloods contribution is still less prominently used than the Red Krayola song “Born in Flames,” which is the movie’s true thematic anchor in addition to being its titular anthem.
Artist attribution over “Born in Flames” is oddly iffy, as the song itself is a kind of political collaboration reminiscent of the one at a Lizzie Borden’s film’s core. The lyrics of the song are attributed to the songwriting collective Art & Language. The track also features vocal contributions from former X-Ray Spex member Lora Logic, so significantly that it was included on the Essential Logic retrospective collection of her work, Fanfare in the Garden. Even The Red Krayola’s attribution is a bizarre issue in isolation, as the song arrived in an early era of their career when they were still billed as The Red Crayola. The band had a long journey form Texan proto-punk rock n’ rollers to No Wave scene peers with groups like The Bloods, but the pulsing, off-kilter dance punk messiness in their “Born in Flames” track is the exact right tone for Borden’s film, so much so that its repetition outshines the very similar use of the soundtrack contribution from The Bloods. The piano intro to The Red Krayola’s “Born in Flames” is the first sounds we hear in Borden’s film before a fictional news broadcast explains the sci-fi conceit of the failed socialist revolution dystopia where the story will be set. Adele Birtei warns her radio show listeners that they should get used to this political anthem, because “You’ll be hearing it wherever you go.” That’s no false promise. Each of the four times their titular anthem repeats in the film, its burrows further into your brain, making it feel like it’s the only song on the soundtrack, when that’s far from the truth. Re-watching Born in Flames specifically to pay attention to how & how often the Red Krayola song is employed on the soundtrack, this relentless repetition appears to be something much more thematically purposeful than just providing a rallying cry that echoes the film’s title. The Red Krayola’s “Born in Flames” only emerges in-film in a very specific, repeated instance, one that reinforces Borden’s central themes of women’s labor & true, ideal feminism.
Every time the Red Krayola song repeats in Born in Flames, it soundtracks a montage of women performing labor. In these montages, Lizzie Borden strings together a fractured, frantic vision of what’s often dismissively described as “women’s work,” offering a varied sampling of what appears to be documentary footage of women at work. This labor is visualized in grocery store checkout clerks, office receptionists, childcare professionals, dental assistants, nail salon technicians, school teachers, and so on. The domestic labor of pouring a husband’s coffee, feeding children, and washing dishes is presented on an even playing field with regular office work. Likewise, sex work is so normalized in these sequences it’s difficult to tell if the hand-on application of a condom is categorized as domestic labor or prostitution, since it’s immediately juxtaposed with images like factory workers shrink-wrapping chicken or hands plunging into a sink full of soapy water. In these disjointed, fractured flashes of “women’s work,” the only anchor providing cohesion is the repetition of the song “Born in Flames,” a steady constant that only appears in these specific montages. The one exception might be the song’s fourth repetition, which soundtracks a montage of political organization imagery: meet-ups, radio broadcasts, punk concerns, intellectual discussions, etc. Of course, political organization is its own kind of labor that deserves to be valued just as much as any other profession represented in these montages, a point that’s only made clear by the shared accompaniment of the Red Krayola song. As Born in Flames is a film about women’s labor and radical political organization, these montages are essential to its core concerns, creating a thematic throughline that establishes narrative cohesion out of the film’s general fractured vision of feminist unrest. There’s no question why it was important enough to Borden’s work to provide her film its title.
It’s almost impossible to imagine Born in Flames without The Red Krayola’s titular anthem driving its rhythm and providing it thematic structure. There are other songs used in the film that are just as essential to the soundtrack, but none feel like they could have held the same weight in repetition, not even contributions from other punk heavy-hitters like The Slits. That’s almost an indisputable fact, given the way The Bloods’ track repeats three times throughout, but makes for a much less memorable impact. In this case, the movie & the song are one and the same: a D.I.Y. punk collaboration meant to jolt its audience into political unity & direct, radical action. Repeating that message can only strengthen its cause, as it becomes just as much a political mantra as it is an earworm.
For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the D.I.Y. feminist screed Born in Flames, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this exploration of its place in the No Wave movement, and last week’s look at Lizzie Borden’s follow-up film, Working Girls (1986).