Potluck Jukebox: Music Movies (Biopic)
Our Potluck Jukebox film festivals of favorite music movies continue...right here. Revisit shout-em-outs of Fictional Music Films and Music Documentaries and weigh in with your picks while you’re here!
Matt Pierce: Mr. Robot and The Pacific’s Rami Malek is hardcore Oscar bait as Freddie Mercury in the fully Queen-authorized $ma$h biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, mostly directed by Bryan (uh oh) Singer and not featuring Sasha Baron Cohen but definitely featuring Mike Myers. Not sure, haven’t gone. But big-budget biopics of already-legendary musicians is a tradition that goes back to Jimmy Stewart playing Glenn Miller and earlier, and it’s an A-lister rite of passage to take on the performative challenge of embodying our favorite musicians and their outsized personas. Sometimes you’re Sissy Spacek and you win, sometimes you’re Gary Busey and you lose, but the awards peddlers are always paying attention. (You blew it, Val Kilmer!) But as a genre, the music biopic can be stagey and formulaic, the compulsions to be altogether kind to the subject and present a large sweep of history dooming us to ponderous lengths and preposterous wigs. But they keep making ‘em, so some of them must be good, huh? Maybe? I remember thinking Walk the Line and Ray were okay ten years ago, but I have a suspicion they weren’t…
Anyway, we asked our panel to spotlight favorite or notable fact-based Musician Biopics, with a bit about if and why these ones rose above.
Daniel Behrendt: Control (2007): Once it came time to helm the biopic of ill-fated Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, few people balked when veteran music video director Anton Corbijn was chosen, despite the fact that it would be his first feature. Corbijn was the photographer responsible for documenting some of their most iconic images, and his decision to shoot the film in the same crisp black-and-white as those photos creates an effective visual shorthand by seamlessly tapping into our intuitive pop-cultural perception of the band. Unlike most biopics, it’s thoroughly un-romantic about its subject’s tortured mythos; Sam Riley, in an outstanding performance, portrays Curtis more as a hyper-sensitive, confused kid then some ahead-of-his-years genius. Samantha Morton is equally excellent as his patient but bewildered wife Deborah, whose memoir, Touching From a Distance, provided the foundation for the screenplay. The movie’s tendency to under-state only makes its emotional moments all the more impactful, which includes an electrifying version of their television debut on Tony Wilson’s Granada Reports; the film takes some artistic license by swapping “Shadowplay” for “Transmission,” but the scene still successfully conveys the thrill of a band discovering their own gloomy power in real time.
Chris Conley: Selena (1997): This Jennifer Lopez star vehicle tells the tragically brief story of Selena Quintanilla-Perez, a still-rising Tejano star murdered at 23. I have some feelings about this movie, but I love it and I own it. Back in the ‘90s, I was fascinated by the story of Selena. I ‘d had a girl crush on J-Lo since Money Train, so imagine my delight. However, I remember thinking it seemed really soon. Apparently, Salma Hayek agreed with me, because that’s why she turned down the role. The movie was hastily made, and it shows. It’s a damn shame in how meta it all is: everyone wanted a piece of her, so much so, that unauthorized biographies were popping up immediately after she died. So her dad spearheaded his own, this one. The influence is pretty evident in this almost Partridge Family-esque retelling. However, it does show how much she was loved by her fans, how much she meant to the Latino community and beyond, and her natural talent. For the semi-sex symbol she was, she was very sheltered and protected. She was just getting started -- she eloped with Chris Perez, won a Grammy, began recording an English language album (released posthumously), and opened a string of boutiques, all in the last three years of her life. But, Selena ignores suspicions about Yolanda, the manager of the boutiques, and the eventual confrontation gets her shot in the back. The murder is not seen (maybe because it was too soon, world) and instead shown in a dream/vision/something that segues into the police stand-off with Yolanda. It’s a shocking contrast to the rose-colored story until that point, and the actual footage of Selena performing live in the end is truly a gut punch. Selena was the springboard for J-Lo, who went on to do all the things Selena Quintanilla-Perez was on her way to doing. Like I said, meta. Heart-breakingly so.
This is how I resolve all conflicts:
Andrew Bailes: La Bamba (1987): Written and directed by famed playwright Luis Valdez, La Bamba is a magnificent tribute to Richie Valens, a hugely talented Chicano rock n’ roll artist whose life was cut tragically short. In a career-defining role, Lou Diamond Phillips captures the essence and energy of Ricardo Valenzuela. The film follows the guitarist’s rapid journey from living a migrant family life in Southern California to creating chart-topping successes with “Come On, Let’s Go,” “Donna,” and of course, his signature song “La Bamba.” The film sadly ends at “The Day the Music Died”, the February 1959 plane crash that took the lives of Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper. Although mostly focused on Valens, the most dynamic aspect of the film comes from its supporting cast. Esai Morales, Elizabeth Peña, and Rosanna DeSoto play Ritchie’s brother, sister, and mother respectively, and their raw, sincere performances bring life to the screen. As the family learns of their beloved Ritchie’s bitter demise, a sweeping instrumental of Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” plays. We see Morales as Bob Valens with arms outstretched, standing on a bridge at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery, crying out for his lost little brother. It’s one of the most deeply-felt music biopic moments this writer has ever witnessed.
Brad Brubaker: Straight Outta Compton (2015): A $200M-grossing box office sensation and Oscar nominee, Friday and former Ice Cube video director F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A. saga had been the most recent major music biopic success before Bohemian Rhapsody. And while the groundbreaking triumphs of “The World’s Most Dangerous Group” that blasted gangsta rap past white fear-mongering into mainstream acceptance and launched the careers of Cube, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre are definitely worth the telling, this movie falls short for me because there's too much material to make the N.W.A. story into a single film--hardships overcome on the way to unprecedented success, on through FBI investigation and epic intra-band betrayal and acrimony. In this era of big-budgeted, expertly-produced film projects for the home screen, their story would've been better paced as a mini-series, allowing for more dramatic build, more attention paid to crucial sections and more context regarding the culture and politics interwoven throughout. As it is in this Compton, it feels like N.W.A. existed in a bubble. The film feels rushed even at two and a half hours, though O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing playing his own father, future old-guy hoops impresario Ice Cube, was rightly praised for a great breakout performance.
Matt: I’m Not There (2007):
Morals and melodrama master Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Carol) had already earned muso cred for a fantastical trip into the classic rock canon for his 1998 Bowie and Iggy-referencing glam rock ode Velvet Goldmine, so his Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There was not only a logical gig to get, but also a daring extension of his own directorial impulses. Weaving together six different (and disparate) actors as the legendary singer-songwriter, each in their own stylized mini-film and embodying an iconic element of the Dylan mythos, Haynes constructs the story like his muse does his songs--filled with clues and references, feints and filigrees around moments of shocking clarity. It’s occlusion with glimpses of truth that suggest an identity that’s singular yet immediately recognizable, as unique and still-unknowable as our deepest selves. Running through a killer mixtape of Dylan originals and covers (its soundtrack was a treasure of a tribute album), Haynes is able to check off a lot of historic and/or apocryphal milestones (Woody Guthrie’s deathbed, protest songs and leaving the Civil Rights movement, “going electric” and alienating his audience, being born again, etc.) impressionistically rather than via fastidious re-creations. I think this allows themes to develop, ideas to be illuminated, and songs to be showcased more unpredictably, disarming us from standard biopic concerns of accurate impersonation and detailing of trivia, which if you let it, fosters a more personal, less “educational” connection with the music and the artist.
That was Allen Ginsberg, man:
Did we bypass a truly great music biopic? (I feel bad I’ve never seen Amadeus, but I’ve also never dug into classical music sooooo.) Or is there one that introduced you to a musician you hadn't known, or one that's hilariously bad but has a particularly good performance?
Let us know below! And feel free to suggest a category for a future Potluck smorgasbord too...