Monday, July 21, 2008

The New Musical Biopic

I wanted to do this post way back in the fall when all these movies were in theaters, but I didn’t complete the triumvirate until just recently, so talking about these movies in the ever-topical blogosphere may sound a bit dated, but bear with me.

I was really not a fan of Ray four years ago. I’ve found that biopics of musicians (and biopics in general) suffer from trying to stuff too much life into one movie, and end up becoming a disjointed, plotless mess. And I didn’t feel that Walk the Line, one year later, was much of an improvement. But three movies released at the end of last fall challenged the clichés and weaknesses of the musical biopic.


On the surface, this Apatow-produced film by Jake Kasdan seems to be mostly poking fun at Ray and Walk the Line, showing us how two movies about two completely different musicians are almost beat-for-beat the same by calling attention to the contrivances that make up those two films (the defining traumatic event from childhood, leaving the first wife, the drugs, the affairs, rehab, recovery…), but the roots of the genre go much further (as Walk Hard never ceases to point out) as it also parodies The Doors (1991), The Buddy Holly Story (1978), and, perhaps the origin of the contemporary musical biopic clichés (especially the trope of a baby-wrangling, overbearing first wife), Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie biopic, Bound for Glory (1976).
I’ve been very tired of recent movies that pretend to be parodies—movies like Date Movie, Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans that merely reference recent events in pop culture without attempting to bestow a new breath of criticism upon them. Parodies aren’t supposed to go for the obvious, they’re supposed to reveal clichés and contrivances of pop culture that we never realized were even there. The movies that Epic Movie and the like parody have not spent enough time in the Rube Goldberg contraption of influential pop culture to actually deconstruct that influence. Walk Hard, however, is a welcome return to the good old days of the Leslie Nielsen-style parody. Walk Hard is clever enough to let us feel like we’re in on the joke. And while the whole movie doesn’t necessarily work (it still seems like an odd choice for the Apatow clan—I’m glad they didn’t try to sneak Seth Rogen in it), some moments are very clever: ex., John C. Reilly playing Dewey as a fourteen-year-old, or his smell-blindness, or his introduction to drug culture through marijuana.

Most surprising of all, the music made up for the film is actually good. “Let’s Duet” and Reilly’s Bob Dylan impression (“Royal Jelly”) are remarkably clever, but tracks like “Guilty as Charged” and “Black Sheep” are startlingly catchy, with credit to Reilly’s impressive vocals. It’s no wonder that Reilly actually toured as Cox to promote the movie.

But the finale, which features a ceremony dedicated to Cox’s career (as the narrative is framed via flashback), will either make it or break it for you. As the celebrity cameos continue to pile on, you might realize that Walk Hard has basically sold out with the closing final song/emotional life montage, buying in to the contrivances it was previously lambasting. Or you might give in to loving the music as much as everybody else involved with the movie seems to, and leave the film with a surprising sentimental connection to Cox’s story, one that you wouldn’t normally expect from a silly parody. By the end, Walk Hard, no longer attempts to transcend the clichés, but give into them. Walk Hard argues that clichés exist for a reason—because they usually work.


The aims of Todd Haynes’ innovative meditation on the elusive nature of the celebrity icon are now pretty obvious. How can any person’s identity, much less Bob Dylan’s, be expressed comprehensively in a film? Haynes’ answer is that it can’t. And as those constraints are broken, Haynes is free to explore and have fun. The transitions between the various Dylans are always interesting, circling roundabout to examine traits around the man, but never allowing itself to get too close. And somehow, we get closer than we’ve ever been.  

Haynes acknowledges that celebrity itself, much less the filmic depiction of a celebrity, renders that person a character rather than a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood human being. I’m Not There acknowledges the distance between a man and his myth and, for the most part (with the exception of Heath Ledger’s character) sticks with the myth. The fatal flaw of Ray and Walk the Line is that they think the icon is the same as the person himself—save for a few melodramatic family moments that pose as an inside look—but in the end, we have learned nothing different from our already mediated perception of the celebrity. I’m Not There, by contrast, seeks to examine the Bob Dylan that pop culture has constructed rather than Dylan himself.

This is why I take issue with the praise that was thrown at Cate Blanchett’s performance. Don’t get me wrong, she did a great job, and is probably the most memorable “character” of the bunch. But the critics said she “morphed” into Bob Dylan, that she was “exactly” like Bob Dylan the same way they gave praise to Jamie Foxx or Joaquin Phoenix. Blanchett plays mid-60s Dylan, one of the most iconic of Dylan’s phases as memorialized through such pop culture moments as his switch to electric guitar and D. A. Pennebaker’s verité documentary Don’t Look Back (1967). His black clothes, blacker sunglasses, and garden of curly hair make this Dylan arguably the most recognizable of all.  

That critics lauded Blanchett in such a way is probably to the film’s credit, because for them she did embody Dylan—the Dylan they bought into for years. Her performance didn’t aspire to be “like” Bob Dylan or even to imitate him, but to embody the pop culture construction of who Dylan is and who he should be. Therefore, by her physical appearance alone she is “like” “Bob Dylan” in that she aims to resemble the icon, not the man. I’m Not There is smart enough to know the difference.


Former Joy Division photographer/music video director Anton Corbijn’s Ian Curtis biopic should have been seen by far more people than it did. Sam Riley’s performance as Curtis was simply astounding. Take a look at the real Ian Curtis versus the fake one.

True, it’s not a flawless imitation (it’s damn close), but Riley makes no attempt to be a Jamie Foxx chameleon. While Joy Division’s music was certainly dear to many people, Riley’s Curtis benefits here from not having a persona on the level of Ray Charles, Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan. The fact that Curtis had such a short life also helps the film not have to cram decades upon decades into two short hours. But the most amazing thing about Control is that, unlike I’m Not There or Walk Hard, this is pretty much a straightforward biopic without any tongues in their respective cheeks.

And what’s relieving about Control is the brutal honesty that comes from this straightforward, unpretentious approach. While the movie is 100% black and white, it makes no attempts to stylistically manipulate the Ian Curtis story (unlike Michael Winterbottom’s fascinating but problematic depiction of Joy Division in 24 Hour Party People (2002)). When Curtis cheats on his wife, we aren’t asked to forgive him because he’s a pop icon; we aren’t instructed to forget about her as he moves onto somebody prettier, somebody better suited for a rock star (both Walk the Line and Ray ask us to jump this hurdle, afraid to condemn the idolatry of their respective figures). The relationship between the audience and Curtis is more complex. We aren’t even expected to accept his flaws, or even empathize with them. We witness his drifting from his wife and his clinical depression through the acknowledgment that Curtis, like everybody, contains many layers.

When Curtis writes a song, there is no “a-ha” moment of inspiration, and no profound event that inspires his next masterpiece. Instead, the songs are carefully juxtaposed with the events in his life, merely giving insightful hints (but no more than a hint) of where these famous lyrics may come from. The band’s best-known song, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” takes on new meaning as Curtis sings it in a lonely recording booth, but only because Corbijn juxtaposes the events in such a way as to allow us to infer such a meaning. He doesn’t shove it down our throats. He shows us the man, the band, the music, his life, his death, and leaves us to decide anything in between.

Touch of Evil

There’s been quite a bit of buzz this weekend surrounding Heath Ledger’s performance as the evil Joker in The Dark Knight, including talk of a posthumous Best Supporting Actor nomination. This seems like a good time to pay tribute to three of the most evil of evil villains in Hollywood history, all of which have received Best Supporting Actor nominations in the past. Villains can often be far more fascinating than their protagonists, and here are a few that I find to be pretty great.


Richard Widmark arguably had one of the most astounding screen debuts in film history with his turn as vile gangster Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway’s quintessential film noir. Much has been read into this performance, including Richard Dyer’s assessment of Udo as a repressed homosexual, and Widmark’s very first screen role remains his most canonical more than sixty years later.

Victor Mature stars as Nick Bianco, a former gangster who has done his time and is now on the straight path, but Bianco’s former colleague Tommy Udo forces himself back into Bianco’s life to enact revenge. This plot, however, is merely a rouse for a cat-and-mouse chase involving one of the most disquieting antagonists of the Production Code era.

It is doubtful that a character like Udo would need little more than a generic revenge scenario in order to enact psychological and physical torment onto Bianco and his loved ones. Like Ledger’s Joker, Udo is an ambiguous force of nature with no need for petty human qualities like emotion or sympathy. He simply hurts others for his own pleasure. And unlike many gangsters from this era, he has no code of ethics that prevents him from hurting the most vulnerable of innocents.

How this squeaked by the standards and practices of the Production Code in postwar Hollywood is beyond me. But the effectiveness of Widmark’s fear-inducing performance comes largely from its unique quirks, like his childish laughter, which renders Udo not an ordinary villain, but a bona fide homicidal maniac.


Laurence Olivier’s disturbing turn as Nazi dentist Dr. Christian Szell in John Schlesinger’s paranoid thriller still has the ability to shock audiences that know Olivier better for reciting Shakespearean monologues rather than forcefully drilling through Dustin Hoffman’s teeth. Aspects of the film have not aged gracefully (Michael Small’s score, William Devane’s performance), but Szell remains as ruthless and terrifying as ever. When he kills a Holocaust survivor on a busy New York street in broad daylight, it becomes abundantly clear that unrepentant evil still has a profound presence no matter how many wars are fought to squelch it.

The famous “is it safe” scene where Szell uses his unique interrogation technique on helpless grad student Dustin Hoffman will make you never want to set foot in a dentist’s office again. The scariest thing about this scene, however, is that Hoffman’s character clearly has no information to give, but Szell proceeds nonetheless. Unlike Udo and the Joker, Szell has a distinct motivation for his actions (he desperately wants to find “it”), yet Szell takes an unmistakable (but stoic…like, Nazi stoic) pride and pleasure in the process.

(sorry about the audio cutting out)


I doubt I have to catch anybody up on the plot or context of Javier Bardem’s quietly intimidating performance in the Coen brothers’ thematically heavy thriller, but it’s worth mentioning that recently the Internets have been somewhat abuzz with thematic comparisons between this film and The Dark Knight, with a friend of mine going so far as to quip Christopher Nolan’s film with the alternative title, No Country for (Old) Batman.

Indeed, both the Joker and Anton Chigurh roam their respective filmic landscapes as unstoppable evil forces (rather than human beings) representative of the evil that inevitably pervades no matter (or, in Batman’s case, because of) the efforts of the good forces at work attempting to curb it. By the end of No Country, Sherriff Bell has realized that the evil embodied by Chigurh is hardly any different than the evil that haunted the world before him or will haunt the world for years to come. Just as Bell exists, evil must exist as well.

Likewise, the Joker exists naturally because of moralistic figures like Batman and Harvey Dent. Batman is only able to apprehend the Joker (it can hardly be called a defeat) by compromising his own standards, while the idealist Harvey Dent inevitably becomes a ruthless vigilante once his weaknesses have been exploited (screenwriter Jonathan Nolan said that Dent suffers because he was “too virtuous,” and I found some of Dent's resulting actions more disturbing than the Joker’s). While the Joker may be a vile proponent of anarchy, he sees himself as far less hypocritical than his moral avengers, because he at least has no morals to compromise in order to achieve his goals (and his own twisted ethic makes surprising, frightening sense).

As the Joker evasively explicated his behavior through reciting stories of his past that both overlap and contradict, it reminded me of Peter and Paul rambling off their ludicrous and clichéd motivations for their actions in the Funny Games remake. Both seemed to me an attack on simplistic causal motivations for evil characters in Hollywood, each film arguing that such manifestations of evil need no explanation—they simply exist.

While both the Joker and Chigurh benefit from their ambiguities of both origin and motivation, that the Joker explicates his anarchist philosophy so clearly makes him a far more specific, embodied character than Chigurh, but the parallels between all types of pure evil represented in Hollywood movies continue to make fascinating comparisons.

Photo art courtesy of Jack Price