Talking Movies: A look at recent films about music

Big Star
Andy Hummel, Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens. — photo by William Eggleston

Woe to the cinephile who tries to make sense of the U.S. music industry through its representation in film. Never has a more confusing and hopelessly self-referential picture been painted under the guise of recounting cultural history. Not so long ago, popular films about music might include the bands themselves—the romping Beatles films are still the best example. These films, of course, are not really films, but just extended promotions for the band. Inevitably they play like extended music videos; the narrative is a thin excuse to create situations for us to hear the songs.

What we might call ‘musical tragedies’ essentially do the reverse: They treat music icons as just another type of dramatic hero, a character around which a tragic personal narrative can be built. Most typically, these are the rags to riches stories of a particular performer’s rise to celebrity and the struggles which pertain to it. (Coal Miner’s Daughter in my view remains unassailable in this category.) These films typically treat musical stardom as redemptive, and the stars themselves could just as easily be athletes or soldiers. Significantly, in these films the music industry itself also remains un-dissected, a sometimes inconvenient yet mostly positive force in the various characters’ journeys.

Because digital film has made everyone a director, a recent addition to this genre has been independent biopics about specific bands. These films help viewers remember a particular period in American pop culture and offer new insights or material to fans. Though many of these biopics are quite good, they are all fan-centered and depend on the audience’s existing appreciation for a particular artist. Tim Irwin’s We Jam Econo is an informative and entertaining portrait of an overlooked American band, but it is unlikely that he will convince anyone not already a fan of Minutemen that this is in fact the case.

Predictably, mainstream Hollywood has done a shaky job of mediating these different approaches to music films. Films that feature musicians themselves are inevitably reverential and one sided; films that feature bankable film stars as musical icons can be equally unbalanced or incomplete. Like some giant, immensely wealthy reissues label, mainstream cinema asks us to re-purchase the musical heroes of our youth without even the honest service of showing those performers themselves. I grew up listening to Johnny Cash—you, Joaquin Phoenix, are no Johnny Cash.

A couple of films in current release may help us get our bearings by adding some new and interesting approaches to storytelling about music. If digital film has made everyone a director, then digital life may well have made everyone a historian, with unprecedented access to artifacts of art, music and cultural research. Part of this new reality is an increasing comfort in allowing film to correct or re-interpret musical history, sometimes with very tangible effects on audience awareness, even decades later. Malik Bendjelloul and Simon Chinn’s Searching for Sugar Man, the winner of last year’s Best Documentary Oscar, may come to be seen as a turning point in cinematic representations of music, since it not only tells a musician’s story but actively engages in altering musical history, essentially creating Sixto Rodriquez’s late career.

Similar in agenda may be Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, which tells the story of the highly revered, though commercially irrelevant, 1970s band that often takes the title (or shares it with the Velvet Underground) of ‘most underrated band of all time.’ Make no mistake, Nothing Can Hurt Me is a fan-fest to be sure—with testimonials from prominent indie-ish musicians about how great the three proper Big Star albums are and how influential this band was on legions of apparently non-record-buying fans. But amongst the Mike Mills and Robyn Hitchcock fawning, Mori and DeNicola make a subtle argument about the randomness of the music business and the frequent failure of labels to know the potency of their own talent and to market it effectively. While Alex Chilton’s songs with the Box Tops are found on every oldies station and shopping mall mix of 1950s songs, his work with Big Star remains strictly college radio. We are asked, at least indirectly, to decide whether the record labels help or hurt musicians and to ask ourselves if we trust the musicians we have come to worship as anything other than random beneficiaries of inconsistent marketing. At a time when media companies select the target demographic before a computer writes the song (looking at you, Bieber), it is useful to reflect on a time in which a band of seeming talent and pedigree could go so unrecognized. The marketing of this film will likely not expand Big Star’s fan base much—it is playing for short runs only in select cities (interestingly, not Memphis, the band’s hometown), but screenings have been organized in concert with speakers, listening parties and of course the available soundtrack.

Morgan Neville’s directorial credits are almost exclusively films about music. His latest is Twenty Feet from Stardom, which tells the story of backup musicians, their personal stories and the various ways they deal with being crucial to but untouched by the spotlight. Neville’s film is star-studded, with performers like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sting in extended discussion about the role of backup singers and their importance to the production of music. More interesting are the interviews with these 20-footers themselves, discussing their backgrounds in church music, working with the stars, drug addictions, career limitations and whether Hammer of the Gods-type escapades truly happen (looking at you, Jagger). While Neville’s tone is overwhelmingly celebratory, he is also interested in the ego-driven choices that backup singers must make as they go from being stars of their choir to realizing they will not be the next Whitney Houston and therefore must transform star power into song craft. He also makes a subtle criticism about the delayed ways in which the music industry honors the non-stars: Darlene Love’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for instance, is a focal point.

Though none of the recent documentaries about the music world are likely to change it in a fundamental way, these films offer new interpretations of how the musical and cinematic worlds interact. They may also make you hear your album collection somewhat differently, which to these directors is half the game.

Warren Sprouse teaches in Cedar Rapids. He feels that just because summer is ending, there is no reason not to continue eating ice cream every day.

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