When it comes to the raw emotional power of great music, it seems Hollywood producers have taken the saying “talking about music is like dancing about architecture” as a challenge, rather than a warning. In two hours of narrative, their logic seems to go, we should be able to work out what makes a piece of music or a musician great. Sometimes this is like watching a dog chase its own tail, but it’s hard not to get excited when their jaws get close. Here are a few (but far from all) of the ways Hollywood explores music.
These films usually come at you initially with a backlit poster of the hot actor of the moment in the iconic pose of a legendary musician, often with a not-so-subtle nod to one their hits in the tagline (“before he walked the line…”). Then the trailer comes at you and you see the hot actor talking and singing with what is (hopefully) a pretty close approximation of the legend physically and sonically.
The movie itself, when it arrives, is often a cradle-to-grave narrative that attempts to “explain” the musician, or at least how the music came into existence. At its best, this results in films like Walk the Line or Ray, where a compelling lead performance shows the music’s origins in pain, longing and oppression. This format can get weird when that “legend” appears in the protagonist role of their own movie, like in 8 Mile or the disastrous Mariah Carey vehicle Glitter.
Though not technically a biopic, everything you need to know about the genre can be gleamed from the vastly underrated Walk Hard.
The Fictional Biopic
Unlike its factual counterpart, the fictional biopic is often more interested in a musical movement as a whole rather than a specific historical figure, using its protagonist instead as a surrogate into the culture. One of the finest examples in recent memory was the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, a melancholy tour through 1960’s Greenwich Village and the tortured emotional merry-go-round of its protagonist. Populated with thinly-fictionalised Greenwich legends (any folk-nerd worth her salt would see the Irish men in woolly turtlenecks and know they’re supposed to be the Clancy brothers), it distills that strange moment in time into a beautiful film-length elegy. On the other end of the quality spectrum, but no less amazing, is Mark Wahlberg’s wonderfully misguided Rockstar, which seems to think it’s a look inside the 80’s hair metal industry but plays more like an extended version of Boogie Nights’ You Got the Touch scene.
The Fan Pic
Instead of trying to understand the music or the musicians, these films take a look at the people who really create legends, music nerds. High Fidelity, Empire Records and Almost Famous are all about a gang of misfits rallying around the musical obsession that holds them together. Expect scenes of characters lovingly touching record sleeves and learning that it’s not enough to connect with the music, they have to connect with other people as well.
The Astor Theatre will be playing Begin Again & Sing Street in a double bill Friday 23rd September.