Archive | Music Matters

The Top 11 Music Biopics

Get on Up, the music biopic about the late, great James Brown, does not live up to its subject. Sure, Chadwick Boseman (42) embodies the Godfather of Soul with enough super-bad splendor that he’ll likely nab that Oscar nod Hollywood loves to bestow upon actors who portray musicians. But the truth is that, in these 138 minutes of highly selective, highly redundant flashbacks, papa’s got a brand-new mixed bag.

The problem with music biopics is we’re dealing with rockstars – people who became famous because no one in the world was like them. Their life trajectory may be monotonously consistent – the humble beginnings, the how-they-got-discovered fable, the fact that the exact over-the-top outrageousness that made them a success became their undoing – but what’s unique is their charisma. So trying to emulate these one-of-a-kind musicians is like putting a backup singer at the lead singer’s mic and expecting no one to mind. All too often, the best we can say about a music biopic is what we say about films like Ray, The Buddy Holly Story, and now Get on Up: The actor did a good impression. Talk about damning with faint praise.

Worse, filmmakers tend to take a very conventional, even soapy approach to these extremely unconventional people’s lives. As Grantland’s Steven Hyden points out, most music biopics “insert the idea of a famous icon into a classic melodrama story line. It’s like making Terms of Endearment about ‘Batman.'” To be fair, films about musicians face the same challenges as all biopics do: Stick too closely to the real arc of a person’s life and get bogged down; take too many liberties and disappoint the literalists.

But the real trick to a successful music biopic may be to get as un-literal as possible. After all, some of the best ones ever made are not even technically biopics. Purple Rain and 8 Mile, for example, are fictional features based on the rock stars (Prince and Eminem, respectively) who star in them, and everyone’s secret favorite, Eddie and the Cruisers, is about a beloved rock and roller who never even existed. These films work because music is about a moment as much as it’s about a person. More than anything else, music is a cultural zeitgeist, and we shouldn’t invoke such zeitgeists without the same level of innovation as that which created them in the first place.

Without further fanfare, then, here’s a completely biased, totally subjective list of the top 11 music biopics. (Consider that number an homage to the best music biopic never made, Rob Reiner’s classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap.) Continue Reading →

Love’s in Need of Love Today

All week my heart has been breaking–and, really, it should be. Every news headline is hard and sad and a call for international reckoning. It’s these kind of times when we not only shouldn’t but really can’t shut the door on the rain outside our own lives. And in my head I keep hearing this Stevie song because yes o yes: “Love’s in need of love today.”

Filling Those Blue Suede Shoes

Last week, it was reported that Baz Luhrmann is in talks with Warner Brothers to direct an Elvis Presley biopic. Since rumors also abound that he may be directing a 1970s-style Kung Fu flick, there’s no need yet to start cheering – or jeering, for that matter. (Luhrmann rarely provokes a neutral response.) But it’s likely the Presley movie will happen, especially since Warner Brothers has secured the rights to his full music catalog and Luhrmann has cornered the market on dizzyingly over-the-top musical extravaganzas – think Moulin Rouge! and last summer’s megahit Gatsby.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I’ve never been a fan of the Aussie helmer’s films, which seem like never-ending music videos directed by a Busby Berkeley with attention deficit disorder. (Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet was so steroidally MTV-like that he had to call it William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet in order to clarify his antecedent material.) But even I can’t pretend he isn’t the obvious choice to tackle pop music’s original bad boy, who was no stranger to excesses himself. The only real wild card of this project might be the script, reportedly being written by Kelly Marcel (of the super-saccharine Saving Mr. Banks). That said, Luhrmann’s films are never about anything so pedestrian as words, anyway.

What his films are about is star power. Luhrmann always casts blindingly shiny stars (Nicole Kidman, Leonardo DiCaprio) to portray blindingly shiny stars, and certainly no one radiated star power like The King of Rock and Roll. So the true success of this Luhrmann-directed biopic lies squarely with whomever plays Elvis. It has to be a fellow with enough swagger to override our intellectual objections; enough of a wink to lighten the director’s bombast; enough talent to stand up to the inevitable comparisons to Presley himself; enough of a range to take him from breakout panty-dropper to bloated Las Vegas lounge lizard; and enough heavy-lidded beauty to mesmerize us into submission.  For Word and Film, I consider what actor could possibly fill those blue suede shoes.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy