Bobby Womack Turns Up the Heat and the Soul in Fish Tank

Bobby Womack Turns Up the Heat and the Soul in <em>Fish Tank</em>

Midway through Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009), the plot pivots on a song. “You’ve got some weird shit in here,” says Joanne (Kierston Wareing,), riffling through the CDs in her new boyfriend’s car. It’s the morning after a boozy little dance party she threw in her apartment in the Mardyke council estates in East London, and she and Connor (Michael Fassbender) are on a spur-of-the-moment drive, her two daughters wearing bored looks in the backseat, the youngest a cigarette-smoking spitfire named Tyler, just eight. We see the film through the fifteen-year-old eyes of the eldest, Mia (Katie Jarvis), who swiped the remains of a bottle of vodka at her mother’s party the night before and whose view of things today is laced with hungover clarity, the world slipping into sharp focus.

In the driver’s seat, Connor defends his music. “You can’t call Bobby Womack ‘weird shit,’ ” he says. Moments later, he reckons aloud, “I guess I’m gonna have to educate you girls,” and slides the CD in.

Perhaps they’re expecting something a little more radical than “California Dreamin.’ ” Once a folk anthem of the nascent Laurel Canyon counterculture scene from which the Mamas and the Papas came, the song now signals nostalgia, made even more dismal and depressing when heard over shopping mall speakers and oldies stations. It has translated easily to film before, notably as a persistent presence in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994), the song that the character Faye listens to obsessively. And it was used in another movie in 1994—in the most literal way possible—playing in the background as Forrest Gump drafts a letter home from war.

Even at fifteen Mia likely has her own preconceived notions of the song, from the Mamas and the Papas’ version, or the Beach Boys’, and if so, the singsong choral harmonies likely ring as faraway from her experience of the world as California itself. The homesickness John and Michelle Phillips wrote about was straightforward: the wistfulness of West Coasters trapped and sun-starved in a winter in the East. But the working-class housing where Mia lives has a lot more in common with the Cleveland, Ohio, of Womack’s childhood, and a neighborhood that he described as a ghetto, his father’s steel-mill paycheck so stretched that he shared a bed with four brothers and dumpster-dived behind the grocery for food. 

In Fish Tank, Arnold’s choice of Womack’s cover reworks the meanings usually applied to the song, and uses it to articulate the attraction between Mia and Connor, and to articulate Mia’s own desires and awakening. “I worked really hard on the music,” Arnold told Indiewire. “The music . . . is like a character, and it’s very much part of the story. And then it’s storytelling, music, on some level.” In the film, Mia’s feelings about what she wants are beginning to surface in complicated ways for which she doesn’t yet have words.

At the sound of the first strummed chords heard over Connor’s car stereo, Mia’s ears prick up. “California Dreamin’ ” is unlike her favorite music: Nas, Ja Rule, Eric B. & Rakim, whose songs can be heard elsewhere in the film. Still, something sinks in. The English day couldn’t be more perfectly matched to its lyrics—leaves brown, skies gray, wind turbines spinning across the washy landscape as they drive past. Telephone lines and transformers recede into view, giving way to a few clouds as they near their destination, the Thames Estuary. She and her mother and sister stay mostly quiet, listening. Connor, a handsome, flirtatious security guard who appeared in their lives only recently, is still a mystery to them, and this is one of the most personal things about himself he’s revealed. In the front seat their mother looks much as she did at her own party, ready for a drink, smoking and swaying, almost as if she’s dancing to the memory of the more famous song, rather than this very different take.

Where the Mamas and the Papas yearned in harmony for L.A., Womack’s “California Dreamin’ ” is sung solo, starting off in a slowed-down, sultry cadence, trading their alto flute accompaniment for a horn section. There was one notable lyrical difference: John Phillips had always hated the “stopped into a church” verses Michelle wrote into the song and during a sound check on tour after the song had become a hit, Michelle overheard Cass Elliot singing “I pretend to pray” (Mama Cass insisted she’d heard the line that way all along). Womack, whose father was also a part-time preacher and his mother a church organist, is faithful to Michelle Phillips’s intended “and I began to pray.” He leans into the act of supplication; his drawn-out near-wail becomes a kind of prayer for deliverance, the word California a stand-in for paradise, maybe, or just elsewhere. When Mia nods in time to Womack’s tempo, another silent transaction passes between her and Connor. It compounds her growing infatuation with him. In her mind, he’s given her this song too, with its expression of desire and escape.

The song imprints on Mia’s twisted feelings about the Mardyke council estate, where she lives, a setting that Arnold resists simplifying as “grim” or “bleak.” “It’s brutal, it’s maybe difficult, it’s got a sadness to it, that particular place where they live in the film,” she told Filmmaker in 2010. “But it’s got a wilderness, and huge, great skies. It’s a mixed thing.” Like almost any teenager from any sheltered place, Mia identifies with home as much as she wants to leave it. Played by Jarvis, then a first-time actress who was discovered while arguing with her boyfriend on a train platform, she’s as much a loner and a fighter as Mona in Agnès Varda’s Vagabond. Everywhere she goes tensions flare up around her like ground fires, and impulsively she puts them out, flinging quick retorts at the neighbors, instigating and defending herself against a pack of girls—her former friends—whose dancing she deems inferior. But dancing is her secret too: privately she dances in her gray hoodie and sweats, in an abandoned apartment so high up she can see the world below. Mia is too tough to complain outright; instead, the film finds her mirror in the form of a white horse, as misplaced as she, chained to the concrete next to a caravan of travelers. Caught trying to free it, she flees and returns armed with a hammer, crossing over into real, adult danger. The traveler boys camped here set upon her roughly, tearing at her clothes, stealing her backpack.

Even later, when she forges a relationship with one of the traveler boys, the only nice one, she keeps her dancing secret. After Connor’s initial introduction of the song, “California Dreamin’ ” turns up again in one of Mia’s loner dancing scenes. Maybe dancing could liberate her, she believes; right now it just helps her dream. It also wins her the only grown-up encouragement she’s ever earned, from Connor, who has urged her to enter a local dance contest for which she’s chosen Womack’s cover. “It’s my favorite song, ever,” Connor says. One night, after her mother is passed out upstairs, he coaxes her to perform for him. “How are you going to do it before all those people if you can’t do it in front of me?” he says. Connor is the only person she’s let see this side of herself, her real desire, as he sits in the shadows, a bottle in his hand, suddenly appearing like a strip-club customer who’s ordered a lap dance. Mia dances shyly, awkwardly, to the seductive opening strains of the song. She’s not the type to dream of palm trees, but a beachy sunset mural covers an entire wall of the apartment’s living room, and a streetlight flashes like an orange sun on her halting performance. “That’s all I’ve got,” she says, hitting stop on the player before Womack reaches his cover’s upbeat apex. It’s enough for Connor, who motions Mia to the couch beside him.

The film doesn’t demonize Connor for what happens next, or Mia for the impulsive revenge she seeks the day after. But the scene cements Womack as an even more salient choice. Music got him out of the place he called the ghetto in the way Mia hopes dance will deliver her. The Valentinos, the gospel and R&B group he and his brothers formed as kids, toured frequently with the Staple Singers and with Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. One popular 1964 blues-country song of theirs became the first big international hit for the Rolling Stones, “It’s All Over Now.”

Though Womack’s childhood has some similarities with Mia’s, he became a bit more of a Connor. Days after his mentor Sam Cooke was shot and killed in Los Angeles—probably around when Cooke’s own most famous song, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” was posthumously released—Womack began a relationship with Cooke’s widow, Barbara. They were married three months later, which backfired on Womack. For several years he did session work for other musicians—Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Dusty Springfield. And in 1968, when at last he was able to get a record deal of his own again, he included a cover of “California Dreamin’ ” on his debut solo album. It made the Billboard charts at number forty-three, his first true hit. Two years later, Barbara fired a pistol at him after she discovered him in bed with her and Cooke’s teenage daughter; the bullet narrowly missed him. 

Later Womack entered his own version of the Laurel Canyon scene where his collaborators and friends extended to Arthur Lee, Keith Richards, Janis Joplin, and Sly Stone. His California dream was never easy—tumultuous, talented, and rocked by drugs and romantic ups and downs­—but L.A. was where he made some of his greatest albums before his death in 2014.

Just as Womack left Cleveland, eventually Mia leaves her childhood home too, not for California but for Wales, as a passenger in her new traveler boyfriend’s car. Her goodbye song isn’t Womack, but Nas, whose “Life’s a Bitch” becomes a strangely perfect salve. But to get to that moment, Mia first needed to be able to let herself dream, and break free.

“California Dreamin’ ” has helped her get to that point. The song makes a third appearance in the film in a previous scene, when Mia arrives at the dance contest, which, unbeknownst to her, is held in an adult club. In the past two days she’s slept with her mother’s boyfriend, she’s followed and confronted him and broken into his house, she’s briefly kidnapped his young daughter, but walking in, she couldn’t look more young and out of place as she takes a seat in the back of the club and watches the other, scantily clad contestants gyrate through their routines onstage. When her own name is called, Mia hands her Bobby Womack greatest-hits CD to the sound man and hops uncertainly to the stage in her sweats. A full ashtray sits on the table between the judges, a man and a woman who want to know if she’s brought anything else to wear, maybe some hot pants, instead. Mia shakes her head as the music comes on, a reminder of the night before last. The dream snaps; Mia freezes, and instinctively she jumps from the stage and runs, “California Dreamin’ ” following her as she walks under magenta lights through the bewildered room and out the door.

Fish Tank is available to stream in an Andrea Arnold retrospective now playing on the Criterion Channel.

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