INTERIOR – PRODUCER’S OFFICE – DAY
We are in a large, white, sunny LA office, with a spectacular view of the Hollywood sign visible through the picture window. A bearded, baseball-capped director sits forward and gesticulates wildly as he pitches his idea to a movie producer.
So this guy is kind of a self-absorbed dick. Not only that, but – get this – he’s also dull and inarticulate, while also being selfish and backstabbing.
And this is the hero of the movie?
Yeah, but he’s more of an anti-hero, and by that I mean he would lose in a fight with an eight-year-old boy. And he’s boring, pretentious… a wimp, you know?
So what happens? What does he do?
Well, due to being in the right place at the right time, he becomes wildly successful. Money, private jets, women with low self-esteem, the whole shebang!
He strikes it rich, eh? Can there be a scene where he buys his parents a brand new car?
He buys them a house! The parents are like, “why did you bring me to this house, son?”, and the guy is like, “because it’s yours! I bought it for you!”, and they have conflicting emotions, but mostly joy.
I like it. But where’s the, what-d’ya-call it… the arc? Where’s the conflict, the drama?
Things are going his way, right? He gets all these breaks. One success leads to another. But then… he becomes bored and complacent. And he becomes an even bigger twat!
But what are his redeeming qualities? Why should I care?
[the director moves in close]:
Get this: He can play five chords on the electric gee-tar!
I smell an Oscar! Pop your clutch, because I’m giving this a green light!
[PRODUCER hands over two sacks filled with money].
Or is it?
The above scenario may seem far-fetched, like a desperate fantasy from the tortured mind of a C-list screenwriter. But it’s more real than you’d think. It’s happening as you read this, and in no time we shall be treated to biopics of Elton John, Jimi Hendrix, Dennis Wilson, Brian Wilson, Tupac Shakur, and of course the long-threatened Elijah Wood as Iggy Pop atrocity.
The film industry, from the UK to Hollywood, in its continuing state of creative bankruptcy, will go to the old music legend biopic well again and again, banking on the name recognition of the subject, and 98% of the time the result will be flat, formulaic and contain none of the excitement of the music made by the subjects.
Why do musical biopics suck, as a general rule? Unlike novel adaptations, which require the viewer to at least be literate to experience the disappointment of broad characterizations and bland storytelling, one has only to have had switched on a radio in the past 50 years, have once caught Top of the Pops, one of BBC4’s many musical documentaries (the less glamourised format for retracing the story of a musician or band), late night commercials for classic rock compilations, or frequent a Starbucks, to get the whole gestalt of these figures.
Have you seen the clip of Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire at the Monterey Pop festival? Well take that, add some cheesy costumes, awkward exposition, and stilted dialogue on a phony set by an actor who looks nothing like Hendrix, with added guitar prowess courtesy of the magic of editing, and we’re ready to take a magic carpet ride straight to video.
The long-running VH1 series Behind The Music distilled the standard rags-to-riches-to-rehab-to-relapse-and-death arc into a half hour of colour-inverted stills and tattooed talking heads for over 200 episodes. Some of the more lurid tales were extended to double episodes, a full hour of clichéd soap opera play-acting and contrived conflict. Time and again Filmmakers fall for the pop star mythology and cut corners on creating characters, instead letting a 1978 Creem profile do the heavy lifting.
A career in music is more than just a life-changing event. It’s a series of business decisions, public relations and marketing manoeuvres that build over a period of time. Ticking off the key moments in history doesn’t make for a compelling film experience. A real time re-enactment of the actual plane crashes that killed Buddy Holly or Lynyrd Skynyrd glues you to the seat. You can read a detailed article in Rolling Stone or, in more protracted detail, in a book, if the career is long enough and merits investigation. The purpose of a narrative feature film is to create a world, put a sympathetic character in some sort of physical or psychological peril and have him or her come out the other side transformed.
If you were to transfer the tale of a rock’n’roll band to American mythologist Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ monomyth, it might go something like:
1: Call to adventure: Hero discovered strumming in a café by slick showbiz impresario.
2: Refusal of the call: Hero not interested in ‘selling out’.
3: Supernatural aid: Hydroponic cannabinoids, cocaine,
4: Crossing the threshold: Use of auto-tune, backing tracks and backstage singers to beef up the sound.
5: Belly of the whale: Hero throws down mop while quitting menial job.
6: Road of trials: Van breaks down; Hero plays to indifferent drunken crowd in dive bar.
7: The ultimate boon: Obligatory signing contract scene.
8: The magic flight: Hero plays to a huge crowd. Montage of magazine covers, gold records, etc., as tour bus cruises highway.
9: Crossing the return threshold: Hero buys parents expensive new car and/or house.
10: Descent into the underworld: Drug/alcohol addiction, Hero joins cult, punches photographer.
11: Master of two worlds: Neglected spouse smashes bottles and/ or crockery in jealous rage. Hero is nonplussed.
12: Resurrection and rebirth: Hero appears on Celebrity Rehab with Dr Drew.
To be fair, some music legends have overcome great hardships on their journey to fame. The story of Ray Charles is one of talent, strength and ingenuity triumphing over institutionalised racism in the USA, while living with a major physical disability. Charles’ life story, in the hands of an acclaimed director like Taylor Hackford, and benefitting from the obsessive acting research of its lead actor, Jamie Foxx, 2004’s Ray transcends the made-for-telly cookie-cutter biopics, but just barely.
One way in which filmmakers have moved past the formula, with different degrees of success, is to create more of an abstract tone poem than a straight biography – like Todd Haynes’ 2007 Dylan homage I’m Not Here, or Gus Van Sant’s thinly-veiled 2005 exploration of Kurt Cobain’s demise, Last Days. Better to offer a slice of life than recite a Wikipedia page in scene form.
Of course, narrative is always an issue with biopics. If the act in question is famous enough, we know how the movie ends already. Alas, La Bamba (Luiz Valdez) and The Buddy Holly Story (Steve Rash) share the same ending; it’s only because I hate spoilers that my Big Bopper script sits at the bottom of a drawer. This is compounded by the fact that a well-made documentary has almost certainly preceded the dramatized version. We’ve seen actual footage of Jim Morrison yanked off stage by cops after exposing his lizard in Florida. Oliver Stone recreating it on a soundstage simply looks like rich men diddling around on a life-sized dollhouse.
But really, fuck these guys. These spoiled cry-babies, whining about not having enough vocals in their monitor; acting rude to flight attendants; trashing hotels that have to be cleaned by overworked, underpaid migrant labour; destroying the ozone layer with hairspray and parking their tour busses in residential neighbourhoods on street cleaning day. The actual reason biopics of famous musicians don’t really work is that most rock stars are stupid dicks.