With all the ink that's been spilled on "Precious," there still hasn't been enough said about the way Lee Daniels uses music in this film, so I'll start the conversation simply by saying how beautifully bold he is about using non-score music as emotional content in his work—just totally fearless about turning up the volume on music and really letting it take over for a good stretch of time. If that doesn't sound like a particularly impressive filmmaking skill to you, note how few directors can truly do it. The garden variety ones can often be recognized by how timid they are with licensed tracks, venturing out only with sorry little snippets—teaspoons of feeling they dribble into a scene like they're dropping a name.
And then there's Mister Lee Daniels, with his great big bounding heart, who sees and feels it all and who uses music like a lantern designed to help us, the viewer, see our way clear of the cavernous despair that permeates this story. In a film filled with outrageously strong film-music moments, there are two particular stand-outs.
Number One. For the moment when Precious approaches Harlem's Hotel Theresa where her new alternative school is located, Daniels kicks in with a wide-eyed doe of a track called "Did You Ever Hear a Dream Talking?" written by Harry Revel and Mack Gordon. The song was popularized by Bing Crosby in the 1933 and Sunny Gale's version, used here, is even bouncier than the original. The fact that this upbeat, sugary number appears so unexpectedly in the midst of a soundtrack dominated by R&B, hip hop, and gospel artists is what makes it a sophisticated choice. Precious looks timidly up at the floor where her new school is located while Gale's impossibly cheerful voice asks, "Did you ever see a dream walking? Well, I did!" It really pops.
Number Two. (spoiler alert!) The second stand-out film-music moment is the best possible kind: one that has been so carefully and artfully crafted that it transcends even my usual definition of "film-music moment" and becomes an actual storytelling element in and of itself—woven into the very fabric of the film through careful interlacing of action and sound. I am talking, of course, about the climactic scene in which Precious' mother deliberately pushes Precious down a flight of stairs while she is cradling her newborn infant son, then throws a TV down after them. Sometime during this bone chilling series of events, the strains of "Soul Holiday"—a gospel Christmas song of all things—are folded into the action. "Time to celebrate," it begins, "our love for one another," a bitterly ironic choice at this point in the story, but as she ventures blindly out into the night, operating on pure instinct to protect her child, Precious sees a gospel choir practicing in a church and has a brief fantasy of singing with them. As "Soul Holiday" grows louder and more joyous over top the scene, we realize this is our protagonist's pivotal moment and that this song is the anthem of her Herculean feat: walking out on the abusive monster who was running (and ruining) her life. The fact that it's a Christmas song implies sacrifice and bravery on par with the biblical Mary and Daniels' choice may also refer to a coping strategy common to victims of abuse: an ability to flee their own bodies for brief periods of time to escape the harrowing reality of what's being done to them. The fantasy of practicing with that gospel choir is the visual symbol of Precious' decision to make a better life for herself. It is a brilliant, deeply layered sequence—one so perfect that it's hard to imagine it any other way, and especially with any other music. (I believe the version of the song that's used in the film is by the group Sounds of Blackness. <--YouTube link. )
Daniels has said that he really loves working with musicians—there were three prominent ones cast in roles in this film—and clearly he has a special feeling for music as a cinematic element on par with script, cast, photography, and everything else. I'd love to listen to his favorite records with him and hear him talk about why he loves them. Not many people, particularly filmmakers, think as deeply about music as he does.