Full disclosure: I’ve never really liked “The Little Matchgirl” as a story title. It sounds diminutive and sentimental and tailor-made for someone’s romanticized notion of a quintessential “girl-child.”
That said, HTV’s The Little Matchgirl (1986) is bursting with things that that title would never suggest. As much as a made-for-TV movie musical can be, it’s ragtag and rough, blunt in its depictions of inter-class cruelty. Grim reminders of mortality hang in every corner. It’s also a feast for the eyes in a vintage countercultural sort of way. While it’s not a rock musical in the usual sense, at times it gestures toward being one: the main character’s parental figures are an aging former dandy (now alcoholic roughneck) played by The Who’s Roger Daltrey, and a warm-blooded tavern singer (and possibly also high-priced hooker) played by glamour girl and real-life chanteuse Twiggy.
In more ways than one, the main character (we’ll call her Natalie, which is the actress’ name, but the character always struck me as a “Natalie” too) is also not “little” – she’s a loud, gangly preteen who gets into fights with fellow street kids, spits at old rich guys, and has just begun to harbor desires she barely understands about a local older boy a rung or two up from her on the socioeconomic ladder. She’s also streetwise enough to know that her dad’s not above stealing now and then, and that his girlfriend has “lots of gentleman friends.”
And none of this is at odds with the source material. Despite what might be a gradual dilution of public perception of his work, as well as a popular misunderstanding of the man himself, dark and difficult themes were typical of Andersen’s oeuvre.
No doubt skeptics are now picturing a chorus of shivering Dickensian waifs bursting into spontaneous song. I can’t say this doesn’t happen in the movie, but truly, it’s SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT.
-The “have-nots” in the story are humanized but never fetishized. There’s a matter-of-fact presentation of the characters’ daily routines and the innovations that folks of scant means must engage in from day to day to stay alive. There are also complicated matters of shame, dignity and anger. It’s a strange parallel to draw, but I just saw Parasite, and that movie gets those things right in much the same way.
-The stage lighting makes it appear almost always night, and this, combined with the closed perimeter of the main set-piece, make for a spiritually accurate portrayal of lack of upward mobility. There’s a terrible Groundhog Day quality to Natalie’s waking up, hawking damp matches, getting dumped on by dad, essentially getting high on cold and fantasy, going to bed, waking up, etc. The “outdoors” literally come to corners like a room, creating a claustrophobic feeling.
-We’re allowed to indulge in wish fulfillment – to see a manifestation of the “wouldn’t it be nice if – ” and then have it cruelly snatched away, starkly juxtaposed with reality. This really hurts (and, goodness, here’s another Parasite parallel, as well as an I’m Thinking of Ending Things one!)
-There’s a running theme of painting on a coat of fabulousness and peacock-strutting to deal with pain (Natalie’s hand-me-down red shawl, Josie’s music hall costumes, Jeb’s top hat, even Arthur’s apprentice-butler uniform). Of course this is also intertwined with issues of class and aspiration, but I’m convinced this movie whetted my appetite for glam rock (as well as drag and some burlesque). Here’s a seemingly relevant quote from Todd Haynes, director of Velvet Goldmine (1998), a film that’s essentially a Valentine’s card to the early 1970’s British glam movement:
"...the music was dressed up... The violence of the music certainly was there... but it wouldn't have happened without the music hall, vaudevillian tradition - that seems to me so completely British - mixing in with that."
But I digress. I chose to cover this song from the emotional climax of Matchgirl ‘86 as a tribute to how big a formative influence the movie was on me, and as a nod to my mom who has maintained over decades that the music I write, as well as a lot of the music I’m inspired by, somehow reminds her of its soundtrack.
As with anything, your interpretation of this song will be colored by your walk of life. If you’ve been a parent or lost a parent, you will probably see one or both of these things reflected back. But for my part, it was interesting to unmoor the song from its usual context and realize it could be applied to other things. Singing it, I felt like I was addressing an illusory procession of people I have run across in my life, with whom I experienced a fleeting connection that ultimately disintegrated, and having them idealized in the Vaselined lens of nostalgia. As Thom Yorke sings in “Pyramid Song”:
All my lovers were there with me
All my past and futures
And we all went to heaven in a little row boat
There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt
I imagine such visions might swarm when one is hallucinating and on one’s way out…
You know, with this project having been on the back burner for weeks, then watching Ending Things, it took me much too long to realize that both pieces of media have someone die of hypothermia. Ah well, we’re all making subconscious connections all the time.