The Subtle Brilliance of ‘Groundhog Day’
How religion, Belgian pop music, and Rachmaninoff elevate the Bill Murray classic
I will never tire of watching Groundhog Day. In fact—and, perhaps, fittingly—the film only seems to get better with each repeat viewing. That would help explain its steady rise in popularity, from mild admiration at its release in 1993, to near-universal acclaim today. “ ‘Groundhog’ will never be designated a national film by the Library of Congress,” the Washington Post infamously predicted. Yet there it sits, enshrined forever in the National Film Registry alongside Casablanca and The Godfather.
Groundhog Day defies categorization. It is, on one hand, a comedy. Bill Murray is at the top of his irreverent game, funniest when he is most misanthropic. Like when the insufferable Ned Ryerson (“Needlenose Ned, Ned the Head”) asks Murray’s Phil Conners what he’s doing for dinner, and Phil responds, “something else.” On the other hand, the love story between Phil and Rita (Andie MacDowell)—the way he exploits the time loop, learning everything about her, to fabricate the perfect date—makes for a terrifically satisfying rom-com.
Then there’s the philosophical, or religious, angle. Phil is caught in an endless cycle of death and rebirth—what Hindus and Buddhists call samsara—a cycle he strives to escape. The ending could be read as the hero—the bodhisattva, enlightened one—finally achieving nirvana. Some Christian viewers see the time loop as a kind of purgatory, in which Phil must undergo moral purification. By the end of the film he becomes almost an angel figure, interceding on behalf of the people of Punxsutawney, even saving a life or two. I’m not making this stuff up. Groundhog Day was screened at MoMA as part of a series called “The Hidden God: Film and Faith.” It’s being taught in religious studies classes as I write this.
Watch Groundhog Day enough and these interpretations won’t seem so outlandish. The film rewards repeat viewing. You notice things you may have missed the first (or second, or tenth) time around. There’s the slyly perverted joke that the cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliot), slips in after Phil kidnaps the groundhog. “Why would anyone steal a groundhog?” Rita wonders. “I can think of a couple reasons…pervert,” says Larry.
Or how about when Phil quotes 19th century French poetry in one of his many attempts to woo Rita.
First of all, that’s not poetry he’s quoting, it’s a lyric from the 1957 Belgian song, La Bourrée Du Célibataire, by Jacques Brel (the best-selling Belgian artist of all time). But it’s the specific lines Bill Murray quotes that make the reference so clever.
“La fille que j’aimera
Sera comme bon vin
Qui se bonifiera
Un peux chaques matin.”
“The girl I will love
Is like a fine wine
That gets a little better
The film is filled with little gems like this. Here’s my favorite, a reference so obscure, I can find no mention of it on the internet. It’s why I’m writing this essay, why I’ll never stop watching and enjoying Groundhog Day.
On my most recent viewing, in the scene where Bill Murray learns to play the piano, I was struck by the choice of music his character is given to learn. I recognized it as one of the variations from Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. The passage, a fixture in classical compilation albums (“The 101 Most Essential Classical Music Pieces Ever”—and you thought UpWorthy was bad!), entered mainstream cultural consciousness in 1980, thanks to the Christopher Reeve movie, Somewhere in Time.
Harold Ramis, the director and co-writer of Groundhog Day, might have chosen any piece from the piano repertoire. (It’s Mozart’s Sonata No. 16 that Phil hears on the radio, inspiring him to take piano lessons.) But he goes with Rachmaninoff’s 18th variation. Why?
The answer has to do with musical theory and a particular form of classical music known as variation. Rhapsody on a Theme adheres to the variation form. It begins with a theme, a single musical idea, in this case a simple melody, which Rachmaninoff borrowed from another piece of music (composed by Niccolò Paganini, hence the name). The rest of the piece is comprised of 24 variations on that musical idea. Each variation differs slightly—in harmony, rhythm, tone, or orchestration—but the fundamental musical idea is constant, repeated over and over and over. It’s the musical equivalent of Groundhog Day.
But that’s not all. Phil’s first reaction to his predicament is to go wild, mocking people, stealing money, sucker-punching poor Ned. Similarly, Rachmaninoff starts his variations out on a lighthearted, almost playful note, marked by daring, inventive flourishes from the piano. But as the piece goes on, and the variations mount, the tone shifts to become darker and more ominous. The seventh variation introduces the Dies Irae, a medieval hymn associated with death. This parallels Phil’s descent into depression, leading to several (unsuccessful) suicide attempts and the most memorable shot in the film.
Here’s where the 18th variation comes in. That heart-swooning melody, shining out like a lighthouse in a storm, has an important relationship to the original theme. It is the same A minor theme, but inverted and transposed to a major key. The notes are literally flipped upside down.
Rachmaninoff takes what was dark, brooding, and melancholy, and transforms it into something beautiful and transcendent, simply by reversing the initial condition, by seeing things from another point of view.
This is exactly what Bill Murray’s character does in Groundhog Day. To undo the curse, to achieve nirvana/grace/freedom, Phil must learn to make the best of his situation, to turn sour grapes into wine, the worst day of his life into one he (and we) will never forget. The very elements that caused Phil such annoyance in the beginning (Ned’s nagging, Punxsutawney’s quirkiness, Rita’s piety) are inverted—he buys every policy Ned offers, embraces Punxsutawney’s people and their crazy Groundhog traditions, and adopts Rita’s rosy outlook on life as his own.
Whether a deliberate choice by Ramis, or just an interesting coincidence, the inclusion of the 18th variation, with its many layers of meaning and significance, is one of the more remarkable surprises in the film. It is details like these that elevate Groundhog Day from an entertaining 90s comedy, to a masterpiece of film, one we can’t stop watching.