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Remembrance done right: How TCM has perfected the 'in memoriam' montage

We're entering awards season, and for those of us who watch these ceremonies every year either for work or for fun, the one reliable constant is that, sandwiched somewhere between corny presenter banter and the occasionally rousing winner's speech, there will be an "In Memoriam" tribute. These segments are rarely satisfying; some pretty important figure is inevitably left off the list, while the whole affair's usually rushed and sloppy. (Or edited in such a way that the honorees are overshadowed by the dignified performance of an obvious Sad Song by an industry-approved John Legend-type, orJohn Legend himself.)

During these pomp displays of mourning I appreciate even more TCM's own annual tribute to the dearly departed within the film industry,TCM Remembers, the latest of which dropped a couple of weeks ago. It feels a little gauche to say I look forward to the release of these short videos every December, but I do; there's an art to montage, and it's especially tricky to refine when it's a montage reflecting morbidity, an inherently maudlin exercise.

One of theearliest iterations of the classic movie network's efforts proves this. It's not terrible, but it's ... pretty boring? Almost as though someone were reading off a list of names while standing in front of a screen projecting clips. Happy recollections of your favorite classic movie performers alone aren't enough to make a montage like this really sing.

Over time, however, TCM has become the gold standard for these sorts of exercises, understanding that to achieve an effective in memoriam, you have to strike just the right balance between sentimentality, fond remembrance and aesthetics.

Sound is crucial. With TCM's memorials, the song selections are certainly sad and wistful and lamenting, capturing some sort of universal feeling about being young once or wishing to go back to "the night we met" – but they're not instantly recognizable funeral songbook standards. (If I'm forgetting an instance where the producers resorted to "Hallelujah," to that I'll quote Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond:Nobody's perfect.)

For me at least, the lack of familiarity means the song doesn't distract from the visual tribute itself, which is meticulously timed to include film clips, audio, and themed Insta-worthy stock imagery (or in the case of this past year's, an aerial performance) to coincide with the music. There's usually very little dialogue interspersed, maybe an isolated line from a film here or a quote from a filmmaker there.

On occasion, the lyrical cues can inspire an eyeroll for being so on-the-nose – from2009: Days, up and down they come/ Like rain on a conga drum ... cut to Nuyorican actor Olga San Juan, who was usually typecast as a "spicy" Latina in her heyday – but it's rare that tension is too fraught. I just about fall to pieces, in a good way, whenever I re-watch the2008 edition, when Joe Henry sings, "It seems we never were so young," as Heath Ledger, in a scene from Brokeback Mountain, suddenly flashes upon the screen.

And unbeholden to the time constraints of live TV and the vanity of live musicians in accompaniment, these videos also seem to include a greater mix of marquee names, character performers, filmmakers, and craftspeople, and each gets their moment. Sure, some of those moments are drawn out longer than others and each person's placement within the mix isn't without its politics. But of course, Harry Belafonte landed the grand finale spot in 2023, as did Paul Newman andLiz Taylor in their respective years. Could it be any other way?

Inevitably, this combo of sound, image, and memory will leave me utterly moved to tears or near-tears, even if the beats at this point have become familiar to any longtime TCM fan. I think it also probably stems from the way this template really echoes the medium it's honoring, and understands that the power of montage is in its persuasiveness and ability to stir up feelings when done thoughtfully. I don't think any awards show in memoriam has made me feel this way, and I'm not sure any can.

So long as I have these videos to look forward to, that'll more than make up for the rest.

P.S.: If you're curious about how they're made, I foundthis article from 2011 that provides some insight through interviews with then-on-air producer Scott McGee and Pola Changnon, who at the time was VP of on-air production. Theteam behind the 2023 segment included producers and editor David Byrne (not that one!), Christian Hammann, and Gordon Gyor.

This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.