Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Singing the praises of music biopics


To my mind since 2005 there has already been four great musical biopics: Walk The LineControlRay and I’m Not There. And now, in 2012 alone, it looks like we might see three more.

Following Friday’s release of Marley, the late, great reggae star joins fellow musicians Johnny Cash, Ian Curtis, Ray Charles and Bob Dylan in being immortalised by the big screen. It’s the type of company that must be making Dylan understandably nervous. But fear not Bob, as later in the year you’ll be making room for the decidedly still-living Paul Simon and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem.

Starting with the other Bob though, it’s surprising a “definitive story” of Marley has taken such a long time to reach the big screen. Scotsman Kevin Macdonald is the third director to work on the project. First Martin Scorsese, well schooled in musically themed documentaries, (The Last WaltzShine a LightNo Direction Home), dropped out, then Jonathan Demme, whose previous credits include Talking Heads’ concert movie Stop Making Sense and a Neil Young documentary trilogy left the project citing creative differences with Marley’s producer Steve Bing.

Macdonald’s ambition for Marley was to produce a “man behind the legend” flick. No easy task then, considering the man in question has been dead for 31 years, while his legend, healthy as ever, continues to accrue mystique. At times the film cannot resist the type of hero-worship Marley inspired in his fans. But insights into the artist’s troubles as a mixed-race boy growing up in black, rural Jamaica and a warts and all account of the singer’s infidelity, help tell the lesser-known, more human side, of his story. However, after close to two and half hours of thoroughly researched documentary footage, the “ordinary” Bob Marley felt as elusive as ever. This is not meant as a criticism of Macdonald’s filmmaking abilities, but merely recognition that his subject was an exceptional man who led an extraordinary life.

Not quite in Marley’s mythic class, although they both still have time on their sides, there’s a strange symmetry to the forthcoming LCD Soundsystem and Paul Simon films.

Shut Up and Play The Hits documents LCD Soundsystem’s farewell gig in Madison Square Garden last April. Released at London’s Sundance Festival at the end of this month, the film’s trailer opens with an epitaph: If it’s a funeral let’s have the best funeral ever”. Throughout, a tired looking Murphy is questioned by a radio presenter over his decision to break up a band in their prime. LCD’s farewell has long been thought of as a defining moment, an end, or at least an evolution, of the hipster era they inadvertently helped usher in a decade earlier. As Brandon Stosuy, editor of US Magazine The Believer put it: "How many upcoming 30-something novels can we expect to use LCD Soundsystem's final show as a metaphor for something?"

Under African Skies (released in June), the story behind the creation of Paul Simon’s Graceland album, on the other hand is a film that promises to put the band back together, 25 years on, for one last hurrah. Again the trailer features a series of radio voiceovers, alluding to the album’s success and the social, political and racial controversy that surrounded its creation in Apartheid era South Africa.

Three releases in as many months seems ample evidence of the growing popularity of music biopics and documentaries. And that’s discounting, (due to matters of taste), the forthcoming Elton John film, rumoured to be starring Justin Timberlake and set during the singer’s obligatory rehab phase. If there's any justice that will be a straight to DVD release. Music journalism is derided in certain circles for it's irrelevance, “like dancing about architecture” as Elvis Costello put it, most likely, after a less than enthusiastic review. Undoubtedly the difficulty encountered when writing about sounds does tend to encourage a certain nonsensical vernacular - with bands usually described, like dogs at Cruft's, as the product of cross-breeding between two unrelated musical acts. Perhaps finally then, music biopics can put this archaism behind us and become the preferred medium for telling the story behind the stars; introducing fans of old music to new films and vice-versa.

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