A harmonic convergence of movies on music stars
They have compelling stories, capture an era, and come with built-in soundtracks. They're biographical movies about musicians and a number of them will be touring the cinema circuit over the next 12 months.
"Ray," a portrait of Ray Charles released Friday, hits all the right notes thanks to the inspired casting of lead actor Jamie Foxx. (As Charles used to say in his Pepsi ads, "You've got the right one, baby. Uh-huh.") Next month's "Beyond the Sea" is garnering accolades for Kevin Spacey's finger-snapping portrayal of crooner Bobby Darin. In April, Joaquin Phoenix will be back in black as Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line," a movie that costars Reese Witherspoon as June Carter. And, in the most controversial casting since George Hamilton traded his tan for a twang in the 1965 Hank Williams biopic, "Your Cheatin' Heart," the role of Bob Dylan will be played by a woman in an avant-garde film.
The arrival of these and other imminent music biopics, most of them vanity projects of actors or directors, is somewhat surprising, given their financial risk to studios. A spate of rock movies in the late 1980s and early '90s produced "La Bamba," "Great Balls of Fire," and "The Doors," but only the Tina Turner story, "What's Love Got to Do With It," was a breakout hit.
Fortunately, audiences have grown more nostalgic for nostalgia since then - witness the staggering success of the recent "No. 1" compilations by Elvis and the Beatles, for example. Boomers and their children are increasingly interested in musical icons that made their mark in the middle of the last century, an era when the private lives of well-known figures were more easily roped off from the mystique of their public personas. Given the success of modern media outlets as diverse as VH-1's "Behind the Music," the Biography Channel, and US Weekly, all of which feed a growing appetite to know more about celebrity lives, Hollywood is hoping that curiosity about popular hitmakers will draw audiences to watch their reel-life stories.
"Movies cost so much that they need to be, as it were, presold so that the audience half knows the story already," says Christopher Frayling, a cultural historian and head of London's Royal College of Art. "Hence the fascination with sequels or bestselling novels or properties where the audience half knows what [it's] going to get. These are such well-known figures that the story is half known."
Case in point: Ray Charles. Onstage, the man who invented soul music was renowned for a grin as infectious as his tunes. But offstage he labored for the better part of two decades to shed an addiction to heroin, a struggle detailed in "Ray."
Scenes of drug use and sexual license on a Hefnerian scale have been a staple of the genre ever since "Lady Sings the Blues," the 1974 film about Billie Holiday. Those elements will inescapably figure heavily into coming movies about Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, each of whom died tragically.
That irks Michael Atkinson, film critic of The Village Voice in New York, because he believes filmmakers have a tendency to lazily string together Byronic episodes of sex, drugs, and premature death without actually creating a substantial story.
"The movies suffer because we don't necessarily learn anything new about what it's like to make music or to perform or anything else. It's just kind of exploiting the built-in glamour and celebrity of being a rock star," says Mr. Atkinson, who wrote about rock biopics in his book, "Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema."
Atkinson observes that few people's lives are shaped like the classic story arc of a screenplay. Films about true stories usually have to fudge the truth of actual events.
"Walk the Line" is no different, says Steve Turner, author of "The Man Called Cash," the official biography of Johnny Cash. "In the film, Jerry Lee Lewis is portrayed as Johnny's closest friend at Sun [Records]," says Mr. Turner, who is not involved with the movie. "He was actually closer to Carl Perkins. In filmic terms it makes more sense to have Jerry Lee Lewis, who everybody knows as the wild character, and kind of bump up that relationship to make it more important that it really was."
But Cash, who before his death approved the project, did stipulate that the film emphasize the spiritual side of his life rather than just dwell on drug scandals.
Similarly, "Ray" screenwriter James White admits that a few marginal characters in the movie are fictional composites. However, in a meeting with Mr. White, Ray Charles insisted that the story be largely accurate. "He said, 'Well, I know you have to do some dramatic things. But the only thing I ask you to do, Jimmy, is let it be honest,' " recalls White.
Sometimes filmmakers find it easier to drop attempts at verisimilitude in order to convey a broader truth about an artist.
That was the case of two biographical movies, "Grace of my Heart," which wove the tapestry of Carole King's life into a fictionalized story, and "8 Mile," which was seen as a semiautobiographical film about the real Slim Shady, Eminem's alter ego.
The art-house movie about Bob Dylan will also play the "artistic license" card. Director Todd Haynes, who was acclaimed for his 1998 film, "Velvet Goldmine" - a thinly veiled tale about David Bowie (will employ as many as five actors - including an African-American boy) to portray Dylan in a film whose title evokes a doctoral thesis: "I'm Not Here: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan." The casting is meant to represent the way the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman constantly reinvented himself by adopting different personas. Dylan himself has approved the project.
The idea of such an impressionistic, rather than literal, biography has piqued the interest of Alan Light, editor of Tracks magazine. He notes that many music biopics are too narrow in scope and fail to "convey that there is something more to it than just the biography of a musician."
"Ray" has loftier goals in mind. The movie aims to convey R&B music's role in the social awareness that was awakening in the United States just before the civil rights era. White says he wrote the screenplay so that audiences would see the universality of a man who hurdled obstacles and ultimately came to be known as a genius of modern music.
Ultimately the film, like the other new biopics, may impart something more fundamental: a renewed appreciation of the artist's music. That could encourage Hollywood to produce more rock movies because many studios share a corporate parent with record companies. "Studios now are all about synergy," says Timothy Gray, executive editor of Variety. "So the fact that you have a project that can sell soundtracks and be promoted on MTV, I think they're happy about that."