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WEB EXCLUSIVE! Reviewing the musical-biopic bonanza of 2007

It was a grand year for music films, from the Weighty Documentary (fresh looks at Bob Dylan and Tom Petty) to the Buoyant Musical (Hairspray) to the Unpleasant Musical (High School Musical 2) to the Punishment Musical (Across the Universe). The musical biography also held its own in 2007, providing us with four divergent singers (and one Judd Apatow satire) to dissect. Musical biographies have to work harder than other biographies; holding neither the full impact of the historical biopic, nor the highbrow heft of the literary and fine-art biopic, the music biopic must scrape the lives of its subjects for misery to sustain an audience's expectations. Musicians' lives rarely stir us like musicians' music.

The Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose is a good example of the genre's limitations. Piaf is subjected to the constraints of squeezing a life into two hours, including conflation, melodrama and inexcusable exclusions (like her work with the French resistance). The movie is also a showcase for the genre's strengths. French actress Marion Cotillard gives a jaw-dropping performance, leading the diminutive singer from rumpled, baby-fat-faced youth to stooped ghoul of 47. Although Piaf never formally attempted suicide, her chronic addictions to booze, drugs and crummy men were all forms of slow self-destruction, more than meeting the genre's requirement for self-inflicted tragedy.

El Cantante does less justice to its subject, salsa star Héctor Lavoe. In the person of singer/actor Marc Anthony, Lavoe is little more than a sketch, a skinny cipher in polyester, tossed about by hard drugs and a harder girlfriend (Jennifer Lopez, herself the star of a biopic-1997's Selena—and, presumably, the subject of many biopics to come). The film leapfrogs his ambitions to showcase Lavoe's struggles with fame. We never get close to the sources of his artistry. By the time Lavoe jumps off a hotel balcony, the failed suicide seems hopelessly anticlimactic, a trifling coda to two hours of decline.

These films depict Piaf and Lavoe as average folks with a single, freakish ability each grudgingly exploits. In Anton Corbijn's Control, Joy Division singer Ian Curtis learns to shun his own superpower like a rogue X-Man. Curtis actually did provide his biographers with a suicide, but when the long, wrenching scene finally arrived, it occurred to me that Corbijn could have ended Control any way he wanted. No biopic can perfectly capture an entire life, so why not jump the rails into pure fiction? As played by the astonishing Sam Riley, the Ian Curtis of Control could have just as easily dusted himself off, caught that flight to America and gone on to be a big star. For that matter, Corbijn could have ended with something completely tasteless, like following the suicide with a shot of a sold-out arena and the caption NEW ORDER WENT ON TO INTERNATIONAL POP SUPERSTARDOM. Instead, the director did something infinitely more offensive; he had ploppy rock band the Killers cover a Joy Division song over the credits, obliterating two hours of cinematic goodwill.

Control is the only film of the bunch to address the ultimate mystery and opacity of human creativity—and only in one scene. Curtis has just been diagnosed as an epileptic, and there's a great lingering shot of him opening a blank notebook and peering down at the empty pages, his brain presumably clouded by anti-seizure medications. Few films have the balls to depict the raw horror of the blank notebook as succinctly (although the moment passes; Curtis scrawls the movie's titular lyrics, and what had appeared as a spasm of writer's block is revealed as the instant of inspiration).

I'm not convinced that Todd Haynes' surrealist Bob Dylan homage I'm Not There (not to be confused with Murray Lerner's The Other Side of the Mirror, released two weeks later) counts as a biopic. For one thing, Bob Dylan actually had a life to depict. Haynes' film derails into pure fiction about 20 seconds in, splitting Dylan into six different fictional entities, each spinning in a separate, self-contained orbit of poorly written flim-flam. Of the six lead actors, only Cate Blanchett provides any sort of a fun performance, and half the fun is that it's Cate Blanchett playing Bob Dylan.

This kind of crazy casting can upset people. In 2002, the Mexica Movement called for a Disney boycott over plans to have Antonio Banderas play Emiliano Zapata, labeling the casting of a Spaniard "an insult to all indigenous people," the same as "having Brad Pitt play Malcolm X." But Brat Pitt would, if nothing else, make an intriguing Malcolm X, just as Gael Garcí­a Bernal would make an intriguing Ol' Dirty Bastard, and Dakota Fanning in a fat suit would make an intriguing Luciano Pavarotti. Fox Searchlight made headlines in October with an open casting call for the lead in an upcoming Biggie Smalls biopic; who better to fill those huge shoes than James Gandolfini? Could this be any more insane than the actual casting of Elijah Wood as Iggy Pop in 2008's The Passenger? Could such madness be the shape of biopics to come?

 
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