Dreams and stories: Adam Curtis’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’

In ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’, Adam Curtis tackles the dark history of modern society with extensive use of archive footage, eerie audio and his own distinctive narration. It is utterly unlike anything else apart from every other Adam Curtis documentary.

Maybe that’s unfair. Curtis’s key theme in this six-part series is our inability to imagine another tomorrow. He traces the decline of the great twentieth century revolutionary dreams – communism in Russia and China and democracy and individualism in the West – to the crises of confidence and imagination they currently face. 

Still from Adam Curtis's Can't Get You Out of My Head
Credit: BBC

According to Curtis, no-one knows how to escape this paralysis: there is a lack of vison. The whole thing is steeped in a surreal nostalgia. There’s something ironic in bemoaning the absence of the future while making a series about the past, especially one in his own tried and tested style.  

Nevertheless, Curtis’s point about stagnation is subtly illustrated in the first episode. Videos of violence at an anti-immigration rally in Britain are accompanied by the song ‘Recharge & Revolt’ by The Ravonettes. It is a song about desire and broken dreams. The guitars are jumpy and discordant and work brilliantly alongside the anger and uncertainty in the footage. They are images of a country struggling to come to terms with post-war stasis and imperial decline.

There’s something ironic in bemoaning the absence of the future while making a series about the past

The song was released in 2011 by a Danish garage rock duo whose sound deliberately imitates that of the 1960s. Everything that Curtis is evoking – the lack of creative ambition, the nostalgia, the reworking of the past – seems crystalised in this song. ‘Recharge & Revolt’ sounds and feels like the past: it could have been made in 1968 – the year the footage is from – but it wasn’t.

Perhaps it might be better to think of Curtis as an ‘audio-visual artist’, collaging sounds and shapes to form stories. His style is compelling, but ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ is not exactly a detailed documentary. Figures as diverse as Lee Harvey Oswald, Margret Thatcher, Eduard Limonov and Jiang Qing arrive on screen without context, all carrying the same size and weight. They feel like characters in a film or a novel. Rather like the archive footage, they just appear.

Still from Adam Curtis's Can't Get You Out of My Head
Credit: BBC

There is an explanation for this. When discussing the rise of conspiracy theories – another important theme – Curtis states that, for the conspiracy theorist, it is: “pointless to try and understand the meaning of why something had happened, because that would always be hidden from you. What you looked for were the patterns”. Ironically, Curtis could just as well be describing himself: again, the form mirrors the content.

As the narrative progresses, lines drawn between dreams and reality begin to blur. The third episode ends with ‘Starry Eyes’ by Cigarettes After Sex; its dark, woozy sounds speak to the America depicted by Curtis: one with delusions of grandeur, hooked on Valium and Oxycontin, drugged to help it cope with the isolation and chaos of reality. The dreams of capitalism and the free individual have begun to fall apart.

Other dreams are collapsing, too: communism and empire. Curtis should be commended for engaging with colonialism on national TV. There is not enough of that around, and he exposes the stark gap between Britain’s conception of itself as a free and fair society and the violence perpetrated in Kenya, China and – closer to home – the cities of the industrial north.

Still from Adam Curtis's Can't Get You Out of My Head
Credit: BBC

Another song, ‘With Tomorrow’, by This Mortal Coil, opens episode five. The lyrics include: “it was more like a dream than reality” and “in another dream, with another tomorrow”. In this penultimate episode, Curtis shows new stories rushing in to fill the old void. He describes the rise of dream-like visions of an imagined past: tales of an old, rural, aristocratic England and the nostalgic, white-nationalism of America. They culminate in the votes for Brexit and Trump.

For Curtis, these comforting, conservative stories are – rather like Valium and Oxycontin, or cheap consumer goods – attempts to escape complex present realities.


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In a two-hour long final episode, Curtis arrives at the internet. By now, he been has tracking the rises of behavioural psychology and complexity theory for hours, which broadly state that humans cannot understand the complexity of the world and that what matters is not what we think but what we do. These beliefs become central to monetising the internet, with companies compiling data in order to allow algorithms to look for patterns and advertise more accurately to users.

There is a dystopian vision of where this might lead: societies of “offer and condition”, in which individuals are governed by algorithms and surveillance, ranked according to compliance, and managed by politicians who allow the systems of information to give or remove personal privileges. According to Curtis, this is the society that has replaced communism in China.

Curtis exposes the stark gap between Britain’s conception of itself as a free and fair society and the violence perpetrated in Kenya, China and – closer to home – the industrial cities of the North

In the West, a belief in personal freedom has been conditioned into us, whilst – simultaneously – we have been integrated into enormous systems like the internet that operate beyond ordinary human consciousness. This is the argument made about contemporary capitalism by Maurizio Lazzarato in Signs and Machines, and Curtis gestures towards a similar point.  

But, unlike Lazzarato, Curtis has no means of telling us why this has happened. Curtis loves to talk about the ‘old systems of power’, but they always remain given, never analysed. Like his characters, they emerge in his story without context, like pictures, ‘as they are’.

Still from Adam Curtis's Can't Get You Out of My Head
Credit: BBC

“The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.” This is Curtis’s conclusion and it offers some hope that we might, if only we try hard enough, remake the world.

For Fernand Braudel, a famed French historian, the movements of history were governed by deep, underlying forces, upon which floated the flotsam of people and events. Curtis is great at compiling this flotsam: striking footage, lovely music, compelling personal tales. He can knit ideas into a narrative, but he never really gets beneath the surface.

Maybe Curtis thinks that context is beyond his scope (although, if you haven’t got the space for depth in five hundred minutes of screen time, you have to wonder when you ever will). All in all, we can probably forgive him. ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ is nothing if not sweeping, and – in a world full of broken dreams and fragmented stories – you have to respect the ambition.

‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

Featured graphic by Nia Thomas.


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