With the recent death of Whitney Houston, it’s only a matter of time before we hear rumors about pre-pre-production of a biopic about her life that will never come out. The musical biopic is an ever-present and often popular genre in film, even if many of them reek of template. This week, Dan Fields, Matthew Newlin, and I will look at some of this category’s most renowned examples.
Control (dir. Anton Corbijn, 2007)
I am not the biggest fan of biopics, especially musical biopics. The vast majority of the time, these films feel like a greatest hits album. You get all the big and memorable moments, but you rarely get the “deep tracks” of the performer’s life. Even the “darkest” points seem whitewashed. We might witness the hero’s “struggle” with addiction, but it hardly ever seems like an accurate portrayal of the life or mind of an addict, or a genius for that matter. Symptomatic of this condition, even the most acclaimed performances in these movies seem to take on the singer as an icon first and a human being second, if that.
And that’s why Anton Corbijn’s Control is such a remarkable entry. Sam Riley’s Ian Curtis (lead singer of Joy Division who committed suicide at the age of 23) actually seems like a person rather than a legend. There’s a significant depth to the role and the movie as a whole that is lacking in most other films in the entire biopic genre. Curtis’ life is not gussied up, nor is it treated with melodrama. Riley plays against conventions by making Curtis a very introspective character, which gives him a realistic broody intensity instead of being a showman even in his personal life; just because he has inner demons doesn’t mean he has to reveal them to us. And while Curtis struggles between a wife and a girlfriend, there’s no easy answer as to the right decision, a marked departure from the typical bitch v. saint in these movie. His turmoil over this love triangle adds into the depressing tragedy of his life rather than making it a perfunctory element.
Special notice must also be given to director Anton Corbijn. A Dutch photographer, Corbijn showed an amazing eye for visuals that made this a wonderful looking, black-and-white film. His style further heightens the experience by giving Control the feel of a docudrama instead of that of a major motion picture. Earlier in his career, he photographed Joy Division and Ian Curtis, and this experience aided in giving Control a strong and powerful appreciation for the humanity behind its subject.
I’m Not There (dir. Todd Haynes, 2007)
I am not the biggest fan of biopics, especially musical biopics. Even most of the most beloved ones suffer from being annoyingly formulaic. And that’s what makes Todd Haynes’ look at Bob Dylan such a welcome reprieve. Operating under the presumption that it’s impossible to tell a life story, especially one of a legend, I’m Not There adopts a more than non-linear structure as it cuts between “the many different lives of Bob Dylan.” It’s an interesting take on the “different masks” theory, which almost certainly affects people who must maintain such a grandiose public persona greater than it does most commoners. The different segments are all filmed in different styles, such as a conventional whatever-happened-to documentary, the classic Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, and an almost dream-like look at the filming of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. And each segment features a different actor playing Bob Dylan, including Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, and Richard Gere, although none of the “Dylans” carry the name of the icon.
I’m Not There presents a welcome and different approach to this tired genre. We know how lives work. Most people, celebrities and non-celebrities alike, tend to follow the same path, and if you’re trying to tell an entire story from childhood to death/present day, you’re practically forced to Cliff Notes several decades. But using different segments to concentrate on different elements of Dylan’s personal life and career- from probably apocryphal tales of his childhood to a failed relationship with his wife- ends up giving a greater and more interesting depth to the subject, regardless of the reality of the stories. Even if the film perpetuates some myths and lies, biopics can never be 100% factual no matter how they’re attempted. Yet the fictional and, at times, fantastical elements of I’m Not There could possibly lead to greater truths about the man and his experiences. At the very least, it takes us on a more interesting journey.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (dir. Jake Kasdan, 2007)
I am not the biggest fan of biopics, especially musical biopics. And that’s why I think Walk Hard is a remarkably strong comedy.
The Scary Movie and Movie Movie franchises ruined the parody film. Those movies brought a sour light on that entire genre by making it as though the only thing parodies are good for is copying a scene from the trailer of a big budget film and adding a fart sound. With the possible exception of the original Scary Movie, those films didn’t attempt to work at making the movie itself funny, they just decided to make easy jokes at the expense of other films and call it a day.
But the musical biopic parody/satire Walk Hard is more akin to Airplane! It helps to know the movies that it’s making fun of, but it’s not essential because the movie stands on its own. It mocks tropes more than it does specific films, and Walk Hard targets the overplayed standards. The 40-something John C. Reilly playing his teenage self solely with a wig, the portrayal of drug addiction, the epiphany moment when he comes up with his big hit, the bitch wife v. saint girlfriend, the instant he plays the song everything changes for society, and his tragic upbringing on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Walk Hard also does a superb job making fun of how its ilk shoehorns other legendary figures from the era, and it has an interesting soundtrack that excellently cribs numerous styles of music from the 1950s through the 1970s.
By this point, it shouldn’t be surprising how good John C. Reilly is at drama, comedy, and weird, and Walk Hard further shows his talents by letting him carry an offbeat, zany comedy entirely on his shoulders. Not a box office success, Walk Hard definitely deserves a look from people fed up with biopics, looking for a good silly comedy, or who are fans of Reilly.
The Buddy Holly Story (dir. Steve Rash, 1978)
Despite their valid grievances, the indignant rock and roll community seem to have missed the point of why this film has a right to exist. Sure, it’s historically inaccurate. It’s also boring as hell between musical numbers. Story-wise, it demonstrates exactly why the biopic (especially the musical biopic) is a flawed genre. It is very rare that an artist’s life is remotely as interesting as the same artist’s creative body of work.
What we should all understand by now is that your average musical genius got into the business because life would have been too miserable and boring otherwise. So why would we want to watch the miserable and boring parts?
Then what’s The Buddy Holly Story‘s free ticket out of Crudville? Why, the music, of course. Gary Busey’s gusto-filled performances as Holly are outstanding. This is a film well worth owning on home video, where the story filler can easily be skipped to and the performance sequences enjoyed in succession. Had this been a 45-minute re-enactment special of Holly’s musical career, everyone would treasure it. You don’t have to believe that the Crickets won over a hostile Apollo crowd with eight bars of “Oh Boy.” Just have fun!
The opening “roller rink” scene more or less captures the reaction to Holly’s music, by young and old respectively, in that cute on-the-nose way that only TV movies are allowed to get away with.
Anyway, why pick on this misguided, unassuming little television film rather than celebrated its inspired musical re-enactments? That part, at least, is anything but offensive to Holly’s memory. And where was Sir Paul McCartney when we needed someone prominent to bitch about Walk The Line?
The Runaways (dir. Floria Sigismondi, 2010)
Here’s a little movie that managed to rock, despite low expectations and a rather cool box office debut. Coming on the heels of New Moon, any vehicle for Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart was bound to face some prejudice.
I first saw The Runaways after-hours at a discount movie house, where I was working at the time of its release. My boss, a fellow cinephile and renegade, insisted we sit down and screen this film that virtually no one had shown up to watch before we returned it to the distributor.
To our surprise it was a pretty delightful piece of rock and roll pseudo-history. Dakota Fanning anchors the drugs-to-riches tale of Cherie Currie and the eponymous band with some real dramatic heft. Kristen Stewart does a good job as Joan Jett, putting to good use that husky tomboy tone of voice she adopts when upset or shouting, and which doesn’t work so well for Bella Swan. Michael Shannon does some woefully under-praised character work as bizarro manager and self-styled image/music visionary Kim Fowley. And Scout Taylor-Compton of Rob Zombie’s Halloween franchise is adorably MEAN as Lita Ford.
It’s breezy, flashy, but above all fun. It plays fast and loose with the history of the band, but not nearly as egregiously as The Buddy Holly Story. And like that aforementioned story, the singers do their own singing quite well. That at least gives it a shot at being one of the “good” music biopics. Which it is, all things considered.
Trying to make this movie longer, deeper, or in any way more involved would make it ponderous and less appealing. It is most effective as a punchy snapshot of a time when rock and roll was comfortably settled into world culture, but always on the move. The very brevity of the Runaways, and the overarching theme that the brightest flames burn out the most quickly, works in the movie’s favor.
Grab the horns and ride, because the music scene won’t wait up for you.
24 Hour Party People (dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2002)
Michael Winterbottom’s cult favorite of 2002 processes a subject for a select ground of music nerds and makes it palatable indeed to a wider audience. And in this case, I definitely fall under the heading of “wider audience.” Whether or not it purports to be especially true, 24 Hour Party People taught me more about the Manchester post-punk scene than I’d ever have learned otherwise.
Steve Coogan, a genius of oddball characters and self-deprecatory moping, takes on the role of late Factory Records founder Tony Wilson. Through his jaundiced eyes we witness the birth and heyday of a musical scene that kicked off with the Sex Pistols and saw the advent of such bands as Joy Division, New Order, and the Happy Mondays.
Enjoy plenty of dark humor, debauchery, artistic temperament, and niche musical history neatly packaged into easy bites for dabblers. It presents, in the least intimidating way possible, a chronicle that those hostile clerks in your local record store are aching to lord over you. Consider this a crash course in not getting bullied around by their “superior” knowledge anymore.
Leaving questions of history aside, 24 Hour Party People is a delightfully offbeat and entertaining choice for a Saturday night flick. It’s cool, and it knows.
La Bamba (dir. Luis Valdez, 1987)
La Bamba is the tragic story of Richard Steven Valenzuela a.k.a. Ritchie Valens. Struggling against the blatant racism of the 1950s, Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips) reached national stardom with his English version of the song “La Bamba” and the sweet ballad “Donna.” The film, written and directed by Luiz Valdez, is a sincere tribute to a musician whose career could have changed the face of rock & roll had he not died in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper just months after becoming famous.
Valens’ story is filled with ironies that would be comical if they weren’t so heartbreaking. Most frustrating is a scene in which Valens’ manager, Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano), tells him that no artist named Richard Valenzuela is ever going to hit it big. To Anglicanize his name, thereby making him more marketable, Keane suggests “Ritchie Valens” which hides his Hispanic heritage. This is comical because Valens didn’t even speak Spanish fluently. He was born in America and only learned enough Spanish to competently sing “La Bamba.”
The film’s other focus is on Valens’ Romeo-and-Juliet relationship with Donna Ludwig (Danielle von Zerneck), a white girl whose racist father refuses to let his daughter date “a Mexican.” His desperate attempts to be with her lead him to write his second most well-known song, “Donna.”
Writer/director Valdez manages to capture a great amount about Valens’ life in the film. We see the strained relationship with his alcoholic half-brother Bob Morales (Esai Morales), a gifted artist who is Ritchie’s most loyal fan. The two men had the same mother, Connie Valenzuela (Rosanna DeSoto), but she clearly favors Bob who repeatedly puts the family in danger. This neglect fuels Valens to work even harder to get his music heard.
La Bamba does have its share of problems, including Diamond Phillips’ hilarious lip syncing to Los Lobos’ covers of Valens’ songs. The film also devolves into melodrama on occasion, especially watching Bob struggle with his addiction. But overall, La Bamba is one of the most genuinely sincere biopics ever made.
Great Balls of Fire (dir. Jim McBride, 1989)
Jerry Lee Lewis was a tabloid reporter’s dream. The flamboyant piano player was full of contradictions, had an incredibly lewd personal life and pretty much didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of him…as long as they loved his music.
Great Balls of Fire! covers the majority of the upbringing and early career of Lewis (Dennis Quaid). We get a glimpse of his highly religious Southern upbringing; his devout evangelist cousin Jimmy Swaggart (Alec Baldwin); and his personal demons which lead him to drink and hate himself for the “devil’s music” he creates. The film is pretty weak on story structure (the last half is barely memorable), but Quaid’s performance is so over-the-top that it is endlessly watchable; few actors could be so engaging while over acting so much. Its saving grace is Lewis’ timeless music which is, luckily, injected into nearly every scene.
Where the film becomes slightly uncomfortable is in regards to Lewis’ relationship and eventual marriage to his 13-year-old second cousin Myra Gale Brown (Winona Ryder). Though his cousin, J.W. Brown (John Doe), disapproves of the marriage, he doesn’t stop it. His acquiescence is quite disturbing since he has every legal (and moral) justification for refusing his 23-year-old cousin from marrying his barely pubescent daughter.
Nevertheless, Great Balls of Fire! is pretty entertaining. Baldwin is terrific as Swaggart who we now know is one of the biggest hypocrites in the world. Ryder is believable as the naïve young Myra Gale who is swept up by her cousin’s fame and charisma, almost blameless in her complicity. Director Jim McBride clearly struggles with the more serious elements of the story, but makes up for it with Quaid’s brilliant performance when Lewis is on stage, the only place he ever feels really comfortable.
La Vie En Rose (dir. Olivier Dahan, 2007)
Few actresses come out of obscurity to win the Best Actress Academy Award the way Marion Cottillard did for La Vie En Rose, the story of France’s most famous singer Edith Piaf. Though the Academy doesn’t always get it right when giving out their awards, few would argue that Cottillard’s performance was not the most impressive and powerful of 2007.
The film traces Piaf’s life from a poor beggar singing for spare change to the most celebrated performer in France. Born to a prostitute and nearly starving, Piaf would sing to anyone who would listen, hoping to scrape enough money for a meal. She and her best friend Momone (Sylvie Testud) would just as soon buy food as buy alcohol with the money they made. Piaf struggled for the rest of her life with addiction.
Cottillard plays Piaf from a young girl to an old woman, convincing at every age. As an irresponsible youth, she refuses to be tamed until a brilliant singing coach teaches her that she is wasting her natural gift if she does not take it seriously. As her fame rises, she has difficulty handling the pressure and acts out just to feel like herself again. Later in life, she is more pessimistic and bitter, but eternally grateful to her legions of fans.
Director Olivier Dahan presents a beautiful picture of “The Little Sparrow,” as Piaf came to be known, and the difficult life she led. Her music is still loved today, “La vie en rose” never going out of style and “Non, je ne regrette rien” figuring prominently in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception. However, the only thing most people will remember from La Vie En Rose, besides the music, is Cottillard’s almost unrecognizable transformation and a performance she will hopefully match one day.