Imelda Marcos the Musical

Here Lies Love, David Byrney and Fatboy Slim, Imelda Marcos'Like most politicians, she was driven by psychological angels and demons', writes US-based musician and artist David Byrne of Imelda Marcos, the former first lady ofthe Philippines. 'Sometimes one side would win, and sometimes the other.' Byrne visits both angels and demons in Here Lies Love, a concept album 'musical' about Imelda Marcos' life.

From the outset, Byrne runs the risk of deifying a monster. He presents a largely upbeat package of songs, and this would seem to conflict with the historical reality. According to human rights groups, more than 1000 people were assassinated without trial, and up to 35,000 were tortured, under martial law instigated during the Marcos reign. Imelda's infamous 3000 pairs of shoes were only the most benign symbol of the regime's excesses.

But Byrne is aware of the inherent ironies. The glorious title track (performed by Florence Welch) has Imelda recalling her early life from a modern-day dance floor. The phrase repeated during the anthemic chorus, 'Here lies love', is the epitaph Imelda famously wanted inscribed upon her grave stone. Immediately the album conflates themes of death and celebration. This is ostensibly a rags-to-riches story but, in Byrne's fable, ambition and excess are the hallmarks of the fatally flawed.

Byrne distills historical record, quotes and his own insights into 22 vignettes that signpost the significant events in Imelda's life and career. With English DJ and producer Fatboy Slim he has created songs that evoke the disco, funk and soul music of the 1970s (Imelda was, importantly, something of a disco junkie) while being thoroughly modern, even otherworldly in their theatricality.

We witness Imelda's troubled childhood, her friendship with housekeeper Estrella, her rejection by youthful beau Benigno 'Ninoy' Aquino, and her success as a local beauty queen. We are shown her marriage to future president Ferdinand Marcos, the early beneficence of their leadership, the eventual corruption of their regime, and the country's descent into chaos under martial law and the notorious Order 1081 established in 1972.

By casting a different performer for each song, the album caricatures the different emotional and psychological states of its characters at different stages in the story. Martha Wainwright croons Disney-like as young Imelda preparing to go out and face the world ('The Rose of Tacloban'). Santigold strikes a coquettish sneer as Imelda the 'champagne diplomat', drinking and dancing with world leaders as a means of forwarding Filipino interests ('Please Don't).

At times the casting is vital. 'The Whole Man' would be a poor stand-alone song; it expounds Imelda the politician's childish philosophies about the true, the good and the beautiful. The song is helped by the vocals of Kate Pierson, who is recognisable as the female voice from 1970s new wave band the B-52s. That band made a serious job of being silly (think 'Rock Lobster'); in Pierson's hands 'The Whole Man' becomes a straight piss-take, and Imelda a half-lucid would-be guru.

Byrne's portrait of Imelda is nuanced and memorable. Amid the funked-up name-dropping of 'Dancing Together' (sung by Sharon Jones), Imelda parties with celebrities on New York's club scene, apparently under the delusion that she is doing her political duty by living out the aspirations of fellow Filipinos. 'Please Don't' hints that her desire to see the Philippines excel on the world stage has its roots in her snubbed existence as a youth. 'Walk Like a Woman' (Charmaine Clamor) reveals Imelda's emotional turmoil at being remade by her husband into the political and social asset he believes she can be.

Byrne's supporting characters are sketchier. Notably Estrella, whose substantial subplot merely shadows Imelda's story, and therefore tells us more about Imelda than Estrella herself: she witnesses Imelda and Ferdinand's marriage from the fringes in the lovely and naïve 'When She Passed By' (Allison Moorer); an older, plagued Estrella is rejected upon the doorstep of her former friend in 'Never So Big' (Sia).

Estrella's best song (and one of the album's) is 'Order 1081', in which she (played by an aching Natalie Merchant) witnesses the often violent effects of martial law. Estrella's shack is bulldozed, along with thousands of others in the slums on the edge of Manila, as part of a clean-up campaign led by Imelda: the extent to which Imelda has lost her humanity is reflected in this unknowing destruction of her childhood friend's home.

Ferdinand's one song is one of the weakest on the album: in 'The Perfect Hand' he drawls on, via country singer Steve Earles' tobacco rasp, about the mutual advantageousness of his union with Imelda.

More poignantly, Benigno Aquino, Imelda's former lover and now a political rival to Ferdinand, duets with Imelda on 'Seven Years'. The song begins during his time in solitary confinement under Order 1081 and ends with his assassination. The latter event led to the downfall of the Marcos regime in the face of the formidable People Power Movement. This song, sung by Byrne and the eerily shrill My Brightest Diamond, drips with portent.

Here Lies Love concludes with an imagined duet between Imelda and Estrella, 'Why Don't You Love Me?' (Cyndi Lauper and Tori Amos). For Imelda, the question is directed to her fellow countrymen, whom she sees as having betrayed her. Estrella's question is for Imelda, the friend who abandoned her during repeated times of need. It is a simple human plea directed to a woman who, it seems, has little of humanity left to give.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: David Byrne, Fatboy Slim, Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love, Florence Welch, Martha Wainwright, Tori Amos



submit a comment

Similar Articles

Anzacs underground

  • Tim Kroenert
  • 22 April 2010

War films tread a fine line if they are to respect the experiences of soldiers without glorifying war. Beneath Hill 60 is the true story of Australian miner-soldiers tasked with tunnelling beneath the front lines during World War I. It is not unkind to the Anzac myths.


Learning how to die

  • Tony London
  • 20 April 2010

The old people in the mortuary silence of the doctor’s waiting room, rehearse the look, the patois, become familiar with the creeping symptoms, the medicines of resistance, the gentle small steps on the way.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up