The music biopic has a tough job I guess – it has to satiate the fan, someone who might know it all or be pretty sure they do. It has to also introduce people to the music, it has to explain why there is a narrative fictional film about this person – or at least it has to offer some sort of appeal; some reason for why this type of film is featuring this type of musician. Documentaries are a different beast. And in most cases the biopic is battling against the fact that documentaries and biographies already exist.
Music biopics usually get it wrong.
And currently the bad ones are piling up. Last year it was Jimi Hendrix and then one about James Brown. They were absurd. Bad performances, bad scripts, strange choices and heavy editorialising that was cynical and sanitised and dangerous – giving people not only the wrong idea but often the wrong facts, certainly misleading speculation.
I thought – earlier this year – I had seen the absolute worst: the Nina Simone biopic. Set at the end of her career, around the “comeback” it manages to ignore everything that is wonderful about Simone and her music. It was ridiculous.
Don Cheadle’s long-delayed, oft-talked about Miles Davis biopic is actually worse. Deciding to simply make up a plot – since a film about jazz trumpet cannot possibly be interesting, apparently – this film has Miles in his self-imposed five-year retirement across the second half of the 1970s. A fictional Rolling Stone journalist (played by the very one-note Ewan McGregor) barges into Miles’ apartment to force an interview. Somehow the two end up in a buddy-cop movie storyline on the chase for a lost recording. Next thing there’s gunfire. It’s impossible to take seriously and even if that was the aim somehow, to be light and playful, it’s just an embarrassment.
People mention those films about Ray Charles and Johnny Cash from a decade or so ago – hold them up as towering examples of great music biopics. They were also far too safe in their portrayals, no one wants to offend the surviving family members by telling the truth.
The best way to go, it seems, is the impressionistic route. Take elements of the truth and extrapolate, improvise, get creative – without flat out making up lies. A difficult balance to strike, as the Miles Davis movie shows. That was shark-jumpingly bad.
But it can be done. That was the approach with Love & Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic.
John Cusack looks nothing like Wilson but he channelled an essence – the movie was about the toll of creating that perfectionist pop music. The deterioration of Wilson’s mental health. The struggle. So we started with the very talented Paul Dano playing the young Brian in the Pet Sounds/SMiLE era. He looked and sounded like Wilson.
When the film cuts to the 1980s the casting of Cusack proved perfect also – in a different way. Wilson no longer knows who he is, can barely recognise himself as he shuffles through the daze and baggage. It’s fitting we can’t quite recognise him (as Brian Wilson) too. It was two extraordinary performances of one character. And it gave fans and first-timers insight into the music as well.
Born To Be Blue is a new biopic centred around Chet Baker. This time a film about a jazz trumpeter gets it right – focuses on the music, but again does that impressionistic thing – taking its cues from the documentary and (I’m guessing) Baker’s heart-breaking and sublime memoir, As Though I Had Wings. This film doesn’t bury the truth even when there’s improvisation around themes and motifs.
The Johnny Cash that Joaquin Phoenix played was apparently never unfaithful to his wife, despite thinking about it once. He raised a fist only once and cleaned up off the pills straight away. A nice way for the kids and grandkids to remember Cash. But not the truth.
The Chet Baker that Ethan Hawke plays (and he is wonderful – he looks like him, sounds like him, channels so perfectly his broken, naïve, solemn spirit) is an adulterer, a career-junkie. He isn’t quite despicable – but he’s a mess. There’s enough there to make us care about him. There’s enough there to please the fans that know the story already, that know about Chet’s great music and sad life. There’s enough context for first-timers. It’s not the perfect biopic but it feels like a triumph.