Swallow Your Dreams
Nov 11, 2022
Paul McGann, Amy Bailey
There is a long standing debate which has never been fully resolved as to whether, for the artist, the taking of drugs and stimulants is beneficial, even necessary, or if in the end it is always a stifling hindrance. There is a certain level of creative genius which seems to go hand-in-hand with addiction and the image of the tortured artist trying to smoke, drink or snort themselves out of the melancholia of life is still one which exists today.
The modern generation, however, may never become familiar with the antics of Oliver Reed, Peter Cook or Alex Higgins and would perhaps only feel anxiety, embarrassment or disgust at behaviour that for those who witnessed it first hand produced joy and delight – the infamous appearance of Ollie on Aspel being a case in point. Van Gogh had his Green Fairy, Thomas De Quincy had opium, Bob Marley had weed and William S. Burroughs had morphine – perhaps the reason that most art, TV, music and film today is sterilised, stale and unimaginatively similar is because those producing it can't risk any backlash for fear of being cancelled and have therefore become constrained into being dull as dishwater.
In his new short film, Swallow Your Dreams, writer/director Dan Sloan tackles this debate, somewhat with kid gloves, through the world of Classical music and the idea of reaching for a dream. James, played in a piece of clever casting by Withnail and I's Paul McGann, is a concert pianist who believes he has something more to offer. He's recently taken to popping a couple of undesignated pills at night and he's been dreaming of a symphony which he just can't seem to get a grasp of in his waking life.
James has been becoming increasingly distant, keeping his wife in the dark about his drug taking and bunking off work to keep his concentration on the beautiful music in his head. He's been spending lots of time in the recording studio and keeps on returning to put his hands on the keys, but as yet nothing's happening and people are starting to get worried.
James' wife, Olivia (Amy Bailey) is angry about the deception and she recognises the beginnings of the vice-like grip of addiction seeping into James' behaviour. She confronts him, hoping to get him to see the irrationality of his actions, as well as how he's hurting those around him, but her intervention falls on deaf ears. The perfect, elusive piece of music is all that matters to James now and the drugs are the only way he sees in being able to access it.
Production-wise, Swallow Your Dreams is outstanding. The placement and movement of the camera, the colouring, the lighting, the backdrop of the studio and the concert hall, are all beautiful to watch and perfectly encapsulate the loneliness and yearning of the journey that James is on. Both leads, too, are excellent in their roles, with McGann perfecting his fifty yard stare as he looks right through his wife in their scenes together. Then, of course, the music by Benjamin Woodgates is suitably evocative and urgent, playing us continually through the story as we feel the ups and downs of James' search for himself through his unfinished symphony.
It is telling though, that Sloan's film is a product of its time, as he gently encourages us to look in on James' predicament without fully exploring it. The drugs are presented not as illegal narcotics garnered from a criminal underworld but as a prescription based pill of which his dosage is 'only what it says to take'. Similarly, Olivia only responds with anger, judgement and condescension, blaming James for his bad choices rather than offering up any understanding or support, much like the cancel culture of today. It is clear that the issues being raised in the film aren't being dealt with in any depth and therefore it lacks any real punch in getting to the heart of the matter. This is a shame as there is real merit to the basis of the story and the characterisation as well as the quality of the production being so strong.
Who knows? Perhaps a trip to the Amazon for a wee ayahuasca holiday might do Sloan's storytelling the power of good; but then again The Verve were most probably right when they said, 'The Drugs Don't Work'. Just Say No, kids.