Few would argue with the statement that writer/director Emerald Fennell’s latest feature Saltburn is an enigma: a blackly comic film about an obsessed and jealous Oxford University student who—spoiler alert if you somehow haven’t seen it yet, or even heard about its climactic finale—kills every member of his classmate’s aristocratic family, one-by-one, until he’s able to take ownership of their palatial estate. Once Oliver (played magically by Barry Keoghan) has his savage victory, the spoils come in his dancing naked throughout the expanse of the grand house in an extended and uncut tracking shot set to the full-blown disco reverie of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor.” While Saltburn’s visceral finale is an epiphany of freedom and celebration, it’s Ellis-Bextor’s hedonistic dance track that richly ices an already headily dense and decadently sweet cake. “It was the only song that seemed fitting to tie the end of the film together,” Fennell told Variety in November of last year.
Now, Ellis-Bextor is getting her own just desserts as her viral hit—a UK smash when it dropped as part of her 2001 debut solo album, Read My Lips—continues its rise to global chart success ahead of the February release of the Murder on the Dancefloor EP with a limited-edition blood red vinyl package to follow. “It’s amazing to see and hear how much life that song continues to have,” Ellis-Bextor shares over Zoom.
Actually, it’s cinema rather than music that’s always been in Ellis-Bextor’s—dare I say—blood as her parents, step-parents, and grandfather were all in the film and television business. “The good thing about that is that I was surrounded by creative people with not-so-typical jobs,” she explains. “The advantage growing up was that I never had to explain any particular career path or job. I loved cinema, and think visually when I write music—I can picture a landscape and see a particular scene. And if you had asked the 15-year-old me what I wanted to do, I would’ve said acting. My mother described acting to me and said there were certain moments on stage where I would feel powerful, but I never felt that—until I sang on stage with a band at age 16. That’s when I got the feeling that she was talking about. Music was my thing.”
“I like pop songs that aren’t desperate, but rather cheeky... ‘Murder’ was playful, a flirtation on a packed dance floor, quite happy to see where the night could take you.”
At the tail end of the 1990s, that thing of hers wasn’t so much dance music or disco house, but rather post-punk and alt-rock during the height of Britpop and giants of the movement such as Blur, Oasis, Suede, and Pulp. “I was a proper indie girl, absolutely obsessed,” she says. “My first band at age 18, Theaudience, had Top 40 hits [“I Know Enough (I Don't Get Enough),” “A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed”] and were signed to Mercury. But the album didn’t do well and we were dropped by the time I turned 20, high and dry.” When she recorded her first solo album in 2001, it was “done out of rebellion” toward the indie-rock thing. “Dance music was a breath of fresh air for me, flipping the script a little bit,” she continues. “And I had no idea how much I would wind up loving dance music and disco. You didn’t have to have any rules. I could write songs with Alex James from Blur and Bernard Butler from Suede. You could go where your heart wanted.”
Her heart wanted “Murder on the Dancefloor”—a dedicated, deliberate musical act that feels the religious joy of disco and house at its purest and most euphoric. “I used to not like dance music, and said as much often to the chagrin of my press people when I had my first band,” Ellis-Bextor says. “Once I started doing dance, though, my eyes were opened. I began listening to Larry Levan DJing at the Paradise Garage and Cher’s ‘Take Me Home.’ Disco allowed you to tell a story. The music is seductive. It wants to whip you up. I couldn’t get enough of that feeling once I started.”
“Disco allowed you to tell a story. The music is seductive. It wants to whip you up. I couldn’t get enough of that feeling once I started.”
Co-written by Gregg Alexander, “Murder on the Dancefloor” was steered by Ellis-Bextor’s glee for the ardor of hedonism. “I like pop songs that aren’t desperate, but rather cheeky,” she says with a laugh. “As a singer, that’s a fun character to have. ‘Murder’ was playful, a flirtation on a packed dance floor, quite happy to see where the night could take you.” That song and her take on Cher’s “Take Me Home” were both hits, the former staying atop the UK pop charts for 23 weeks in 2002. But rather than stick to hit disco, the singer moved about the pop continuum from genre to genre, from 2014’s folky Wanderlust to 2016’s Latin-inspired Familia and the introspective pop of last year’s Hana. “Through the navigation of my solo career, I’ve been selfish,” she says. “I want to have a nice time, work with incredible people, am constantly curious, and can put all of myself into it because I feel safe doing so. I quite like the bonkers nature of all that.”
“Bonkers” could very well describe what filmmaker Fennell had planned for her new film’s mesmerizing finale and its full-frontal romp through a family’s palatial home. “Like any time we get a question about using one of our songs, we got a note from our publisher looking for approval” Ellis-Bextor recalls. “There’s never any emotion, just a synopsis as to how they intend to use a song. I forgot to tell anyone—my husband or my manager—about it. I just thought it sounded fun. I’d seen Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, so I knew she was good. They were clear that the director wanted to use the entire song while someone was dancing through a house with no clothes on. ‘Wow, that sounds fun, sure.’”
“They were clear that the director wanted to use the entire song while someone was dancing through a house with no clothes on. ‘Wow, that sounds fun, sure.’”
As provocative an ending as Saltburn’s is, Ellis-Bextor recalls how her own original music video for “Murder on the Dancefloor” found the singer being “really nasty.” “I’m in a dance competition and I’m killing off everyone else on the floor so that I could win,” she recalls. “There are some parallels, then, between Oliver’s character in Saltburn and my video. Which is great. Emerald said that my song had this camp, mischievous feel, and I agree.”
Now charting again and the centerpiece of an EP set for release later this month, Ellis-Bextor states that the universe of “Murder on the Dancefloor” circa 2024 is serendipitous, as she was planning for her next album to be dance-pop after the ruminative drama and subtle emotions of Hana. “I wanted to have fun this year, and write some glorious new disco music, so I’m right on schedule.”
That said, though Oliver’s dance is bold, if you turn the sound down it isn’t nearly as special without Ellis-Bextor’s haughty, evil grandeur. “It’s a song I know so well and then, ‘Ooh, there it is.’ I just loved how liberating it all looked and sounded on the screen. It’s just so wild to see this naked dancing in all of its abandon, and the ownership of it all. I love how extreme it all is. I did not see it coming.” FL