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.


bryce j renninger said...

you've made me laugh, you've made me cry, landon. but most of all, you've made me want to respond.

hold me to it...i may have a feelsoblahggian retort by the end of the summer.

Landon said...

I am looking forward to your proposed counterblog, mr. blahg

myleswerntz said...

love it.

some friends and i have founded a movie blog, basically for us to jack around: