The Paul Newman movie that inspired a classic song by The National

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Unlike most contemporary indie bands, The National manages to keep the genre alive through a distinctive and graceful bridging between nostalgia and modernity. Although the band, thanks to frontman Matt Berninger, is very adept at staying fresh and relevant, most of their success stems from a deep-rooted love for film and literature.

While most indie bands are fronted by seemingly try-hard figures whose exterior “coolness” is nothing more than a façade, Berninger, by contrast, comes across as authentic and a genuine lover of the arts. In interviews and on stage, he’s never shown holding up a pretence, which aligns well with the band’s raw, exciting and innovative sound.

The band’s third album, Alligator, epitomised early 2000s indie while representing the power of musical and political convergence. This was proven when they supported Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, which was heavily soundtracked by the closing song on the album ‘Mr. November’, appropriate mostly for containing the lyrics, “I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November.”

‘City Middle’ also demonstrated Berninger’s fixation with literary sources, which addressed Newman’s idea that drinking alcohol can bring peace. This is particularly alluded to through its reference to Tennessee Williams’s play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. However, rather than taking inspiration from the original, Berninger actually refers to the 1958 movie adaptation featuring Paul Newman, as he feels more of a connection to that version instead.

Paul Newman forged an iconic legacy not just in Hollywood but across various creative industries. Many called him an acting prodigy due to his approaches, which often prioritised observational and pragmatic styles in order to pull up various emotions, which he felt he wasn’t always readily in tune with. Perhaps it’s more understandable, then, why he received his first Best Actor nomination for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which he played a drunk with a certain overt coolness that proved his ability to play complexities with the utmost finesse.

In the movie, the concept of chasing alcohol and finding “the click” exists, at which point you experience peace. ‘City Middle’ addresses this concept, but instead of reaching the much-desired point of bliss, “it doesn’t kick in.” Clearly, Berninger resonated with Newman’s portrayal of the strange, almost ethereal implications of alcoholism but struggled to enjoy its promise of relaxation when applied in practice.

In fact, unlike Newman’s character, Berninger’s path took on a direction of “untangling” to overcome his reliance on substance. For Berninger, alcohol and drug abuse opened doors to greater depression and writer’s block, not tranquillity. Once discussing writing sad music at the root of The National, he admitted, “When it really hits me, when it all really catches up to me, I didn’t want to write about it any more.” However, he began to take his mental health more seriously after the fact, choosing to cut down on alcohol and marijuana and taking antidepressants instead.

Although much of the music he writes centres around deep, personal struggles and the oftentimes tempting allure of alcohol and drugs to cope with mental difficulties, the themes conveyed contribute to The National’s overall resonance, making such topics less taboo and helping others in the long term. Berninger doesn’t glorify or celebrate mental challenges in his music. Rather, he presents it in its most open and honest forms.

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