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Director Nicole Dorsey in Toronto, in 2019. Dorsey's film, Black Conflux, is available to rent on digital TIFF Lightbox.

Della Rollins/The Globe and Mail

One of the magic moments in Nicole Dorsey’s dreamy debut feature Black Conflux has a moody loner played by Ryan McDonald coming into his own on a barroom dance floor, finally comfortable in his own skin if only for one song.

In the one-shot scene, the camera whips around 360 degrees to the swirl of lights and the atmospheric pop of Gowan’s Moonlight Desires: “Stir my soul and whet my hunger, and weave that spell that pulls me under.”

It’s one of the those winning matches of film and soundtrack, as perfect as Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs or Simple Minds’s Don’t You (Forget About Me) in John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club.

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Special as it is, the meeting of song and scene came together at the last minute, in post-production. And it wasn’t Dorsey’s first song choice.

“After we weren’t able to get the song we initially wanted, I panicked,” says Dorsey, a native of Burlington, Ont., calling from her home in Los Angeles. “But after the music supervisor suggested Gowan, I listened to a couple of his songs. Within the first two bars of Moonlight Desires I realized that not only did it fit the scene, it was better than I could have imagined.”

Because the film’s editor wasn’t around, Dorsey then clomped her way through the snow to a Montreal studio in the middle of the night to try to synchronize the song to the scene. “It lined up perfectly,” she recalls. “I truly believe some things are meant to be.”

Black Conflux is set in 1987, the same year Moonlight Desires was released.

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Written and directed by Dorsey, Black Conflux is an atmospheric coming-of-age drama set in small-town Newfoundland, starring McDonald and, as a confused, vulnerable 15-year-old, Ella Ballentine. It screened in 2019 at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it received warm reviews. A Hollywood Reporter critic noted an unpredictable narrative and hailed the film as a “constant visual delight.” It is now available to watch through TIFF.

The film is set in 1987, the same year Moonlight Desires was released. Though Dorsey calls that kismet a “happy coincidence,” the long-running revival of eighties pop culture is not showing any signs of dying out. It was announced recently, for example, that MuchMusic (which launched in 1984) would be reborn on TikTok as a digital network.

Two the world’s biggest pop stars, Dua Lipa and Canada’s the Weeknd, are unabashedly in favour of synthesized sounds from an era that happened before they were born – a nostalgic phenomenon not lost on singer-songwriter Gowan, aged 64.

“Young people seem very enamoured with that whole decade,” says the artist, who tours and records with classic rock veterans Styx and whose own hits also include (You’re a) Strange Animal and A Criminal Mind. “The audiences for my solo shows keep skewing younger and younger. I imagine they went down an eighties rabbit hole on YouTube at some point, and now they’re singing these songs at the top of their lungs.”

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Dorsey has experienced the retro love as well. “I love watching audiences sort of jam to Moonlight Desires,” says the director, who studied film at Ryerson University. “They tell me that they’re still singing it after the film is finished.”

That the song puts a bounce in people’s step is notable, given the film’s dark overtones. Dennis, the volatile co-lead played by McDonald, is prone to hallucinations and toxic masculinity. His moves to Moonlight Desires are aggressive.

“You might not like the character sometimes,” Dorsey says. “I don’t like him all the time either. But I’m not interested in making a wholly punishing film for audiences. I do hope there are moments of joy and levity, even with Dennis’s character.”

Incidentally, Dorsey’s first song choice for the dance scene was It’s a Sin by the Pet Shop Boys, also released in 1987. But the band refused to allow the track to be licensed for the film, telling the producers they didn’t want a song of theirs to be used in a film set in that year, lest they be thought of as an eighties band.

“I thought that was funny,” Dorsey says. “I mean, it’s a little too late for that concern, isn’t it?”

Black Conflux is available to rent on digital TIFF Lightbox

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