Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Cinema Rocks

Martin Scorsese, coming hot off his Dylan documentary No Direction Home (not to mention his embarrassingly belated recognition by the illustrious Academy for one of his second-rate films, since they missed his masterpieces) has another rock film, about the Rolling Stones (Shine a Light) due for 2008 release; and yet another in the planning stage, this one on George Harrison. Todd Haynes has a Dylan film too (I'm Not There) which stars six different actors (and actresses! - Cate Blanchett) as Dylan. There are two (count 'em 1-2) films coming out about Joy Division, the short-lived but allegedly influential 1980's "post-punk" band. (Everyone after the Sex Pistols was post-punk, so the appellation is kind of meaningless.) One is Control, a biopic (which does not rhyme with "myopic") by photographer Anton Corbijn; the other is a documentary by Grant Gee. Peter Bogdanovich's latest picture show is about Tom Petty, a 4-hour (r u serious?) documentary that is, according to the Times (which has also noted the proliferation of celluloid rockers) not expected to do much for the theatre industry but should sell like hotcakes to TP fans. David Leaf's 2006 film The U.S. Vs. John Lennon was part of another tide. Need I mention the formulaic Dreamgirls, all but a Diana Ross & the Supremes bio? In 2005 there was James Mangold's Walk the Line, a biopic about Johnny Cash. The year 2004 brought around the late release of some fabled archival footage of the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and others (Bob Smeaton's Festival Express), andTaylor Hackford's Ray, the Ray Charles bio. And so it goes, as we drill back in time, passing through documentaries and biopix of the Sex Pistols, U2, Richie Valens (go ahead, sing it.... dadada dada la Bamba...), The Doors, The Band, Elvis, the Talking Heads, Kurt Cobain... If I appear to have shorted the films on musicians of the female persuasion it is just that I was thinking rock, but we can always throw in Coal Miner's Daughter and Lady Sings the Blues (and Walk the Line is almost as much about June Carter as about Cash), not to mention the largely forgotten film The Rose (1979), a Janis Joplin biography starring - Bette Midler? (Hello in there... casting, I mean; anybody home?) This off-the-cuff list, you will notice, includes only films with some claim to biographical content, not mere concert films like Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains the Same. (Anybody who calls The Last Waltz or Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense "mere concert films" will be appropriately calumnied and vilified, not to mention having their MTV signals jammed.) There are many more that I have not mentioned; quite a few I had never heard of before, such as the Y2K TV film bio The Beach Boys: An American Family, and a 1973 eponymous Jimi Hendrix bio.

Now, all I want to do here is muse a bit about the following question: Why is it that the lives of rock stars (and popular music stars in general) make such appealing subjects for films? I mean, if you think about it, who really cares about the troubled lives of rock musicians, who generally abuse their bodies (and sometimes those of others), manifest antisocial behavior, rise to stardom on the strength of their musical talents, and then quickly die, wither, or fade? Okay, so I'm exaggerating a bit; certainly not all popular music stars following this course. There are probably more living than dead rock musicians from the '60's. But given the average life expectancy today, the fact that we even have to pause for a moment over the truth of that statement is indicative of the problem. We all know that a very high proportion die young - the fictional group in
Paul Simon's One Trick Pony even made a game out of naming them, and that was in 1980! Before John Lennon, Mike Bloomfield, Bob Marley, Harry Chapin, John Belushi, Felix Pappalardi, Dennis Wilson, Peter Tosh,Jaco Pastorius, Nico, Roy Orbison, John Cipolina, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tom Fogerty, David Ruffin, Frank Zappa, Freddie Mercury, Harry Nilsson, Tommy Boyce, and Jerry Garcia, and tons of others (according to this list) died premature deaths. A few of these folks succumbed to heart failure, AIDS or cancer in their 40's or early 50's; the rest all ended their lives with drug overdoses, murder, suicide, or transportation accidents. Are they models to follow? Are they heroes to canonize? Are they tragic figures whose lives are worth dramatizing?

If you said "all of the above" you were at least partially right, in my opinion. Models, not for their drug habits or sex lives, but for their obsessive dedication to an art form (which is the only kind of dedication worth talking about). Heroes for their mostly subversive versions of the Horatio Alger story. Tragic, because many of them followed a predictable and perhaps inevitable arc, from anonymity to fame to precipitous decline. Does this mean Britney Spears is going to be the subject of the next big documentary? Too soon to tell, but I wouldn't write it off. Today, she may seem a little ridiculous, along with Lindsay and Paris and the other bad chicks. And that seems beneath the dignity of anything with tragic pretensions. But go see Walk the Line, if you haven't already, and then reconsider the question. Jim, Janis and Jimi all imploded, and though I suspect the great Janis and Jimi films are still waiting to be made (Oliver Stone got the not-likely-to-be-surpassed Jim Morrison flick, The Doors) they all have their tragic sides.

That is, if you think of them potentially ascending greater heights, but for their swift descent into self-destructive addictions and in some cases sociopathic narcissism; consider the ingeniously disturbed Syd Barrett (careful with that ax, indeed). And who doesn't? Who doesn't think that Jimi Hendrix, for example, would have become an even greater artist had he had time to mature? But the tragic ending is built in, in a way (as it must be, to be really tragic): the same impulse that results in a maniacal devotion to rock and its possibilities, and rockets the owner to fame, makes them indulge in the temptations that success proffers, and suffer the numbing schedule of the touring musician. Always under pressure, always looking to the next gig, homeless as a vagabond, in bondage to a recording company (often with the profits from at least one or two albums written off to bad contracts), constantly having to negotiate with the endless list of self-serving personalities in the music industry, herded together in something closer than a marriage to band members they would not even want to date, and surrounded by people whose adoration blurs the line between true friends and sycophants, the young successful rock star may be open to anything that promises a night without stress, panic or depression. At the same time, as money pours in, so does the opportunity to spend it on designer drugs, wild parties and the like. Why not? Haven't I earned this? Don't I need this? Could this really hurt me, after I have risen from dank basements to the Garden and the Bowl? Personally, I have only glimpsed the very edges of this life, but it is all too easy to comprehend.

The grizzly list above stars mainly rock musicians who died premature deaths between 1980 and 1995. Rockers are famously careless with their lives. But the list could be expanded a bit to include Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs, Stan Rogers, Townes Van Zandt, Merle Watson, Kate Wolf, and many other too quickly departed people of a gentler and less flamboyant persuasion. One does not want to casually throw cancer victims in with drug abusers and suicides, but the high mortality rate of all but classical musicians is very striking. (Then again, classical conductors and pianists bend the average the other way; more than one classical pianist has given a 90th birthday concert, and at least one - Mieczyslaw Horszowksi - gave one at 100.)

But it is not my intention to paint everything an artificial black in order to promote a theory of why cinema loves rock. The innumerable Dylan bios, literary and cinematic, are not chasing a tragic figure, but rather an enigmatic one. Dylan has famously proclaimed how little he is understood by the Dylan observers. So, may way ask, who does understand you, Bob? Presumably, the answer would be "me". Or would it? No one would expect Dylan to be self-effacing at this point; but would he be honest? Surely anyone who understands himself doesn't have to reinvent himself every few years. As a bluesman; then a left-wing folkie; then a rocker; then a country star; then a Jesus Freak; then an eclectic guy who'll do anything from blues to cabaret to political broadsides. The question for Todd Haynes is: are you sure six is enough?

Dylan is probably the most eulogized living personality - ever. Elvis received plenty of attention in his later life, but a lot of it was negative. The Beatles fly together in the popular imagination, with the partial exception of John. But Dylan is the lone subject of epic biographies, film after film, endless interviews, articles and commentaries. Why? It is sometimes said that the more obscure the philosopher, the more ink will be spilled trying to figure him out, and the more famous he will become. This at least fits the picture of Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, and plenty of other leading lights. (Though it does not explain why Fichte or Ernst Bloch failed to reach the highest rank.) Dylan steadfastly refuses to reveal the "real" Dylan - maybe there is none. Haynes's film title reflects this. One begins to suspect that nobody understands Dylan because there is no Dylan. Thus the search for him has all the mystery and excitement of Moby Dick, and is more about the searcher than the searchee. And plenty of writers and filmmakers want to play Captain A-rab.

Speaking of folkies, in 2005 the film rights to a biography of Tim Buckley (d.1975 @ 28, OD'ed on heroin, alcohol and barbiturates after a grueling tour) and Jeff Buckley (his son, d.1997 @ 30, accidentally drowned in a Tennessee river) were acquired; I haven't heard anything more about the release, though. Apparently Jeff is the main subject, and Tim is seen in flashbacks. These guys came and went too quickly, though Tim released quite a few albums before he died. His Hello Goodbye is about as prophetic a title as Jeff's best song and line, "Oh, it was so real" (on Grace). I have to ask myself a question: why do I feel a rush of excitement, even a twinge of impatience, at the prospect of seeing a movie about two musicians who I basically know from one album each? Who cares? Lots of people OD'ed like Tim, or accidentally drowned like Jeff. I could say: because I'm a musician too, so I can relate. But let's try something bolder: almost everyone envies, on some level, the artist who throws everything into his music, who manages, even once, to express himself in an adequate way, and to reach a mass audience even for a moment. We admire it, are jealous of it, because there is some urge to do the same thing, in some way, which we suppress in order to be real people. We would not want society to consist mainly of Tim and Jeff Buckleys, of Phil Ochs (a folk suicide, subject of the biopic Chords of Fame), of Dylans, much less of Jim, Jimi and Janis. We are not all ready to throw normalcy to the winds and sail off with these characters. But we admire them for having the guts to do what we know we could not have done. When I think about the film, what I feel is a kind of awe at the vision and energy behind their music, and their ability to put it into my head; and I guess I have desire to live vicariously through them, both to understand where that energy came from and to learn by quasi-experience how to avoid their downfall.

Incidentally, want to check a video of Tim Buckley performing one of his songs live? Please pick up - are you ready? - the Rhino DVD The Monkees: Our Favorite Episodes. You may think this is out of character, but the Monkees as a group were far more interesting than they usually get credit for, not least for their contribution to the rock video format. Keep in mind that when "The Monkees" show came out, rock film consisted in not much more than Bye Bye Birdie, some Elvis beach flicks, and
A Hard Day's Night. The group had to somehow transition back and forth between the musical personae, the actors and their characters. To my mind, they managed it better than a lot of amateurish, lip-synched rock videos today. Granted they had the resources of a major TV studio. But my impression is that The Monkees themselves were major creative forces in everything they did after their first two albums. There is a lot of improv in the TV episodes. Davey I saw as the Artful Dodger in the Broadway production of Oliver, before he was a Monkee, and he was a powerful stage presence. We have focused on one paradigm, the documentary or biopik which follows a more or less tragic curve. A second is of course the rock comedy, which is almost never biographical, but loosely follows the foibles of either a fictional band, or a real one in fictional situations, with real rock musicians as actors. This is exemplified particularly in Richard Lester's Beatles films. The Monkees focused this into a 30-minute format. There are probably plenty of other candidates in this category; can't think of them right now. (I'm sort of ignoring the obvious and overdiscussed stuff like Spinal Tap and Rocky Horror, as well as the films that star rock musicians in other roles - Tom Waits (Down By Law), John Lennon (How I Won the War), David Bowie (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Labyrinth), Mick Jagger, Madonna, etc. Not to mention that allegedly lovable flick with Beatle-song backdrops throughout, a silly idea whose time has gone.)

There must be some other angles. La Bamba is pretty good at showing not only the personal side of the story but the sort of social tragedy involved in the loss of a pop icon. Any great life cut short by forces beyond the control of the subject can be epic material. I have not seen The Buddy Holly Story, which was widely criticized for being very inaccurate, as well as unfair to The Crickets; nor have I seen Paul McCartney's alternative film, The Real Buddy Holly Story, which is supposed to be much better. It stands to reason that such a film could capture the "American Pie" tale with much opportunity for social insight. But again, the Holly-Valens tragedy is very much a direct outcome of the kind of life that popular musicians have to lead. The media tend to glamorize rock stars, with special emphasis on their money, social and sex lives, but the tale that Paul Simon tells in "Homeward Bound" is the reality that a lot more of them face: endless travel, loneliness, frustration, and that unsung tribulation, dealing with band members who are either not up to professional level, or impossible to get along with, or dragging every through the dirt of their own nasty habits. The drugs and sex mitigate this only to an extent. The pull of these pressures and dangers is so strong that it must be difficult to make a film that avoids the stereotypical path. Dreamgirls, for all its awards (and its embedded American Idol success story) struck me as a sanitized and formulaic picture with little to say. Walk the Line constantly threatened to degenerate into formula, but seemed to avoid it through the intensity of its character portraits, not to mention a couple of great acting performances.

I think there are many more great rock films to be made. There is no way that the existing stock has adequately explored all the sides of human emotion, greatness, weakness, humor and tragedy in the lives of popular musicians. Let us hope the films get deeper and more real rather than giving in to the temptation of easy hero-worship and superficial moneymaking through peddling the name of some cultural icon. And with that hope in mind, I end where I began: what could be a better opportunity for serious rock filmmaking than a Martin Scorcese flick on George Harrison? See you there.