Saturday, July 3, 2010

Battle of the Embatted Rock Stars

This post is respectfully and rockingly dedicated to my friend and former high school crush, Anjali 'the Queen B' McGuire on her birthday. Her love of music is as strong as my love of film, we're both champions of the new but love to remind people of back in the day, and it was our mutual love for a certain 1984 epic and its star which made us friends...and which inspired this essay...

At a recent revival screening of Albert Magnoli's PURPLE RAIN, I was remarking at what a lightning-strike it was for me upon seeing it as a 14-year-old - from my cousin and I having to pay off adult patrons to buy us tickets since the Showcase Cinemas Springdale was carding heavily that night, to viewing one gripping and diverse performance by Prince after another, to even the closing credits which repeats a taste of every song heard in the movie to remind you what a great show you just saw - and how after that recent screening, while the thrill was not quite the same, the pleasure still held up.

Of course, as I am about to flip the digits and turn 41, I've seen many more movies, and I've seen the essential storyline of PURPLE RAIN repeated. Granted, it's a structure that existed long before Prince and Magnoli used it, and in the case of biopics for Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, it's a structure that has been lived by dozens of real artists. But in Roderick Heath's excellent retrospective essay on PURPLE RAIN, he provides the bullet points for the four other movies I'm specifically thinking of, in that they all "borrow the focused time span, the cursory love affair that results more in self-discovery than romantic bliss, the focus on familial frustration as a source of art and a retardant, and an arc that sees an acknowledged talent dip into morose decline before rising again on new inspiration."

This is not to say that these other movies that are on my mind are derivative exercises in hackery. In fact, they are all excellent. Each in their own manner demonstrate one of the oldest adages of music - it's the singer, not the song. So rather than review them in a standard fashion - since I'm essentially saying they're all great - I'm looking at them with a sort of scorecard, how they approach those tropes mentioned by Heath and illustrate them in diverse fashion. And we'll begin with one that had a good jump on Prince and Magnoli by four years, also made by Warner Brothers, which would have been a perfect co-feature were they still interested in double billing in the '80's...


Artist: Jonah Levin
Played by real-life artist? Paul Simon (who also wrote the screenplay)
Status within the film: Former great, playing to increasingly smaller crowds, finding his style losing favor to modern rock trends.
Romance: Not much. Losing his wife (Blair Brown) to divorce, gets some attention from younger fan (Mare Winningham) and record exec's wife (Joan Hackett).
Troubled family? Has a young son he loves but has seen so little of him, he senses continued absence will doom their relationship. Wife intuits Jonah loves performance and his former celebrity more than any person in his life.
Crisis point: Blowhard record exec (Rip Torn) and hotshot producer (Lou Reed) think they can get one more hit single out of him, but Jonah is displeased by the additions to his song.
And the problems become songs: childhood ambitions - "Late in the Evening; insecurity - "One Trick Pony"; false bravado - "Ace in the Hole"; parental disconnect - "God Bless the Absentee"; loneliness - "How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns"
Does the artist overcome adversity? Jonah hints at quitting the road for his family, seals his place in obscurity by destroying the master tape of his comeback single.
Moral of the story: Your personal legacy is more important than your artistic one, particularly if in order to maintain an artistic legacy, you must be something you are not.
Autobiographical mirrors? Simon was constantly haunted by '60's success with Art Garfunkel, clashed frequently with Columbia exec Walter Yetnikoff, was only finding sporadic radio airplay and record sales at the time of the film and soundtrack release, and did divorce the mother of his first child Harper. Thankfully, has not retired.
A good review to learn more: Jeremy Richey's Moon in the Gutter blog


Artist: The Kid
Played by real-life artist? Prince
Status within the film: Respected but idiosyncratic local musician, whose work is not as widely accepted as the more accessible dance anthems of his main rival (Morris Day).
Romance: Easily woos new girl in town Appolonia (Patricia Kotero), though jealousy and possessiveness constantly threaten their relationship, especially when she yearns to perform.
Troubled family? The Kid's failed musician father (Clarence Williams III) constantly beats his mother (Olga Karlatos), and occasionally The Kid as well, and in turn he is already copying the patterns through his go-it-alone attitude, his sullen dealings with bandmates, and in physical abuse of Appolonia.
Crisis point: Personal bad behavior has alienated him from his band and his girl, and jeopardizes his standing at his home club. After his father attempts suicide, it is clear he will fall down the same path of despair unless a change is made.
And the problems become songs: jealousy - "The Beautiful Ones"; internal conflict - "When Doves Cry"; scorning rebuke - "Darling Nikki"; contrition - "Purple Rain"
Does the artist overcome adversity? It would appear so. His make-or-break performance involves blending his bandmates' composition with one of his father's, thus spiritually reaching out to others and allowing himself to be publicly vulnerable. Eliminating his previous distancing tools wins his audience over and gets Appolonia's forgiveness, and his performance displays a new element: pleasure.
Moral of the story: No matter how talented you are, you can't go it alone. And no matter what you think history has lain out for you, you can be your own person.
Autobiographical mirrors? Prince's parents did have an acrimonious divorce, his relationship with his father taking ups and downs until his death. Same for his relationships with lovers and collaborators, though hardly as dramatic as the events in the film. Filmed in Prince's regular Minneapolis haunts. Aside from Williams and Karlatos, all cast were non-professionals, most from Prince's side projects or local music scenesters. Scripted "bad" reactions to concert performances likely inspired by mixed reception he received opening for the Rolling Stones in early '80's.
A good review to learn more: Roderick Heath at the Ferdy on Films blog


Artist: Hedwig (nee Hansel) Schmidt
Played by real-life artist? John Cameron Mitchell, who also directed and wrote the screenplay, based on his off-Broadway play; songs by Stephen Trask, who appears as member of Hedwig's band
Status within the film: "Internationally ignored song stylist barely standing," Hedwig and her band perform in chain restaurants and other tiny venues, shadowing successful rock star Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), whom Hedwig claims stole all her material.
Romance: As a young man in East Berlin, submitted to a poorly-executed sex change to marry an U.S. soldier and move to America, only to be abandoned by him. Later met Tommy when he was a confused teenager, only to see him run away (with the songs she wrote for him) when he learns of Hedwig's original gender. Currently involved with bandmate Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), whom she berates and dominates by withholding his passport.
Troubled family? Quite. As a boy, Hansel is molested by his G.I. father; in turn, his mother (Alberta Watson) flees with him to East Berlin, where she misguidedly encourages a philosophy of weakness that leads to Hedwig's passive-agression in her adult life.
Crisis point: Hedwig's pursuit of Tommy to force a confrontation/admission is draining the band's finances. Her refusal to allow Yitzhak to pursue an outside gig sours the working environment further. Finally, while prostituting herself to make extra money, Hedwig finally meets up with Tommy again...
And the problems become songs: searching for 'your other half' - "The Origin of Love"; failed sex change - "Angry Inch"; living as a woman - "Wig in a Box"; isolation - "Wicked Little Town"; reconciliation - "Midnight Radio"
Does the artist overcome adversity? While Hedwig gets vindication through Tommy's admission of theft and love, it is actually through letting go of Yitzhak that she finds peace.
Moral of the story: Identity and attraction can be fluid. And in some lives, you cannot force another to be your "other half;" the only person who can "complete" you is yourself.
Autobiographical mirrors? Actor/writer Mitchell was an Army brat who as a child was often babysat by a German woman who had been divorced by an American soldier and moonlighted as a prostitute. Tommy Gnosis' character also carries some of Mitchell's teenage attributes. Both Mitchell and songwriter Trask were fans of the gender-bending traits of '70's glam rockers like David Bowie.
A good review to learn more: Roger Ebert at Chicago Sun-Times

8 MILE (2002)

Artist: Jimmy B-Rabbit
Played by real-life artist? Eminem
Status within the film: Aspiring rap artist working to build a reputation and following. Has a group of friends who believe in him, but otherwise don't seem to have much ambition beyond day-to-day diversions.
Romance: Has broken off previous relationship with pregnant babysitter of his little sister (Taryn Manning), but provides her with material support. Initiates new relationship with Alex (Brittany Murphy), a fellow factory worker, but it unfolds more as a mutual convenience than a passionate attraction.
Troubled family? Left to move in with his family in a trailer park, his alcoholic mother (Kim Basinger) has taken up with an abusive boyfriend (Michael Shannon) not much older than Jimmy himself. In turn, her lax parenting effectively makes him the primary caretaker of his beloved pre-teen sister.
Crisis point: Jimmy has constantly run afoul of his primary rap rivals, a collective known as "Leaders of the Free World." After Jimmy catches a fair-weather friend having sex with Alex, the friend in turn facilitates a beating on Jimmy at his home by the rap crew. Between his rivals' goading, his mother's selfishness, and his hardscrabble job status, he wonders if he will ever move forward.
And the problems become songs: Most times his frustrations are expressed in improvised rap challenges at the local hosting club. The theme song, "Lose Yourself," effectively channels all the running emotional elements of the story.
Does the artist overcome adversity? Jimmy wins a decisive rap-off with the head of the "Leaders," by ackwnowledging all his faults and calling out the false posturing of his rival. But Jimmy refuses to celebrate his win, instead going right back to his humdrum job that night, indicating that he has his own plan, and there's still hard work ahead of him.
Moral of the story: The individual must believe in their own worth as an artist to persuade others of the same, and be ready to strike out alone if his support group cannot commit to the process. And while art can be a release for the challenges of life, it does not automatically make the drudgery go away.
Autobiographical mirrors? Story is set in the impoverished Detroit milleu where Eminem first established his reputation. Eminem's conflicts with both his mother and the mother of his daughter are well-documented in the press and in his rap songs; if anything, this movie presents a less-dysfunctional dynamic than actually experienced.
A good review to learn more: Stephanie Zacharek at Salon

Now, while the final movie is based on a true story, the protagonist is not a well-known figure like most other musicians who have had biopics; many people I have spoken to who have seen the film were unaware of the movie's factual basis. As such, it has the dramatic impact and surprise of any one of the arguable roman a clef films already detailed, so I am including it in this rundown.

CONTROL (2007)

Artist: Ian Curtis
Played by real-life artist? No; Sam Riley is merely an actor portraying Curtis. However, Riley and his co-stars do their own singing, and crucial attention was paid to Curtis' mannerisms, as detailed here:
Status within the film: In 1976, working days as a civil servant in the drab English suburb Macclesfield, Ian and his friends are inspired to start a band called Joy Division after a Sex Pistols performance in the otherwise moribund city.
Romance: Married to his teenage sweetheart Deborah (Samantha Morton), with whom he has a daughter, Ian neglects his wife as his band work increases, and begins a chaste but emotional affair with a Belgian journalist, Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara).
Troubled family? Curtis, like many working class teens of the '70's, feels he married too young, yet also feels responsible for providing for the wife and child he is not emotionally ready to deal with. In addition, he has been diagnosed with epilepsy, an affliction not as well-understood then as in the present-day, which if made known to his employers, could cost him his menial but necessary day job.
Crisis point: Deborah has learned of his affair with Annik and moves out of their home. While the band is getting popular, no one is getting rich from the work. Ian's epilepsy has gotten worse, causing him to be unable to perform for long stretches of time; at one gig, he asks a friend to step in, but nasty crowd reaction to him drives Ian to attempt to sing, yet barely finishes one song before collapsing. He begins to see that for them to have real success, they must tour, but he lacks the health to commit to it. He begins to feel like he has been predestined for ruin.
And the problems become songs: working-class demands - "Dead Souls"; life disappointments - "Candidate"; witnessing the struggles of a fellow epileptic client - "She's Lost Control"; relationship strife - "Love Will Tear Us Apart"; pleading for understanding - "Atmosphere"
Does the artist overcome adversity? No. Estranged from his wife, guilt-ridden over his mistress, and aware that his frequent seizures will surely ruin the band's impending American tour (and their chance for world success), Curtis commits suicide at the age of 23.
Moral of the story: Art can provide a creative release for life's pressures, but it cannot always overcome one's personal demons. Indeed, sometimes the pressure of success can intensify them. But when the work is moving enough, it can live on long after its creator has left the world.
Autobiographical mirrors? Bulk of the movie is based on the memoir by Curtis' widow Deborah Curtis Touching from a Distance. Director Anton Corbijn had photographed and filmed the band during their existence, thus having memory of the band and a point of reference. Some band members note that details have been altered for dramatic impact, but admit that it is emotionally truthful to the events of the time.
A good review to learn more: Karina Longworth at SpoutBlog

Final assessment: if the song is strong, it will live long. It's up to the singer to back it up or let it stand alone.

And in the end, if it inspires an emotion or creative impulse in us, it was worth it.

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