Tuesday 23 January 2018

Film... Pet sounds: Biopics that make all the right noises

Surfs up: Paul Dano plays a young Wilson
Surfs up: Paul Dano plays a young Wilson

Paul Whitington

Let's face it: no one wants to watch biopics about happy, contented people who stay at home with their families and appreciate the little things in life. What you want in a decent biographical drama is dysfunction and plenty of it, and a strong dollop of tragedy if there's any going.

In this respect, the lives of musicians rarely disappoint, and some of the finest biopics down the years have involved doomed torch singers, mad composers and debauched pop stars. This week an excellent new drama called Love & Mercy can be added to that list: it stars Paul Dano and John Cusack, and tells the flabbergasting story of Beach Boy Brian Wilson.

As my late friend George Byrne never tired of telling us, Wilson was a genius, pure and simple, a one-off writer and composer whose multi-layered, mid-60s productions achieved the depth and complexity of classical music. And all this from a man who'd started out writing deceptively simple pop ditties about sun, sea and surfing.

In Love & Mercy, however, we find out that Wilson's achievements were bought at a terrible cost. Paul Dano plays the young Wilson, who's become a big star with The Beach Boys but is tired of the band's constant touring, and wants to stay home and create something more substantial than bubblegum pop.

Pet Sounds (1966) will later be acclaimed as perhaps the greatest rock album of all, but as he pushes himself to create it, Brian's brilliant but fragile mind begins to implode. He hears voices, is crippled by paranoia and famously ends up spending three years in bed, his problems compounded by industrial doses of drugs and alcohol.

John Cusack plays Wilson in his middle years, when his life and fortune have been hijacked by a quack psychotherapist to the stars called Eugene Landy (a deliciously demonic Paul Giamatti), until a well-meaning car saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks) becomes his unlikely saviour.

It's a fine film, and watching it one's heart breaks for the unfortunate Wilson. Then again, if it didn't we'd probably be asking for our money back: after all, who'd willingly sit through a film about a pop singer who wrote some songs, made a fortune, slept with everyone and got away with it? The best music biopics always involve angst and misery, and over the years there have been some exceedingly good ones.

Glenn Miller was a huge star during the early years of the Second World War, and he and his era were wonderfully caught by Anthony Mann's 1954 biopic The Glenn Miller Story. The impeccably wholesome James Stewart starred as the equally wholesome Miller, who woos June Allyson and eventually becomes a hit machine after fusing jazz and big-band music to form his own uniquely swinging sound.

Which is all very commendable, but Mann's film would not worked half as well if it hadn't been tinged with sadness and portents of doom: everyone who watched it knew that Miller disappeared over the English Channel in 1944 on his way to Paris to entertain the troops.

Which means of course that by the time Anthony Mann's film was made, Miller was long dead: but things can be more complicated when a biopic's subject is still alive. Although The Jolson Story (1946) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) are fine films, they might have been even better if they hadn't been so sanitised. Both movies included happy-ever-after love stories, even though vaudevillian entertainer George M Cohan left his first wife for someone else, and Al Jolson was married four times.

The lives of country stars are usually so packed with tragedy that they're un-sanitisable, and Nashville's finest have inspired some memorable films. Loretta Lynn's life contained so many hard knocks that initially Sissy Spacek said no to playing her in Michael Apted's 1980 film, Coal Miner's Daughter. But when Spacek discovered that Lynn had personally requested her, the actress relented. And wisely so, because Apted's film is a compelling drama charting Loretta's journey from extreme poverty to super-stardom.

Raised in a crowded, tumbledown Kentucky shack, Lynn was married by the age of 15 and had four children by the time she reached 20. She started singing to make ends meet, and was championed by Patsy Cline, but life would be rocky with her volatile, alcoholic husband, played with salty southern flourish by Tommy Lee Jones. Sissy Spacek's moving portrayal of Lynn won her an Oscar, and biopics have remained very popular with the Academy's voters since.

Johnny Cash was not without his demons either, and they were memorably explored by Joaquin Phoenix and James Mangold in their 2005 film Walk the Line. Reese Witherspoon co-starred as June Carter, a no-nonsense woman from a country-music dynasty who thinks long and hard before taking on Cash, a troubled man haunted by a childhood tragedy.

Walk the Line cleverly dramatised the moment when Cash stumbled on his distinctive 'chick-a-boom' sound, and Phoenix did his own singing - a brave gamble that paid off. Both he and Witherspoon won Best Actor awards as the 2006 Academy Awards.

Edith Piaf's life was miserable enough to rival that of any country singer. Born in the slums of Belleville and raised in a brothel, she was spotted busking on a street corner by a nightclub impresario called Louis Leplée, and her gutsy singing style made her a kind of patron saint of the Parisian working class.

Her love affair with boxer Marcel Cerdan was ended by a tragic plane crash, she destroyed her health with morphine and alcohol and was dead by 47. It's a wonderful story, the stuff of opera, and French film-maker Olivier Dahan knew exactly how to tell it.

In La Vie en Rose, Marion Cotillard did a stunning job of embodying the tragic Piaf, particularly the heartbreaking moments when the bent and prematurely aged singer staggered on to the stage of l'Olympia to perform her legendary late concerts. Cue another Oscar, and Cotillard has subsequently become a major international star.

Jamie Foxx also gave a career-defining, Oscar-winning performance in Taylor Hackford's 2004 film Ray. Another rags-to-riches biopic, it dramatised the hard life of blues great Ray Charles, who witnessed his older brother drown in a wash-tub when he was just five, lost his sight shortly after, was addicted to heroin at the height of his success and had 12 children with 10 different women. There's a fine line between convincingly playing someone famous and merely impersonating them, and Jamie Foxx managed the balancing act exceedingly well.

So did Chadwick Boseman, who was electrifying as a young James Brown in last year's underrated biopic Get On Up. Brown died back in 2006, which was possibly just as well because he did not emerge from Tate Taylor's gritty film in an entirely positive light: he was mean with money, exacting to the point of madness with his band and occasionally abusive to his ladies.

But the fact that Brown had transformed himself through sheer hard work from a hopeless jailbird into the godfather of soul made him pretty hard not to admire, and Boseman certainly caught his charisma.

For all their solid dramatic virtues, films like Get On Up, Walk the Line and Ray adopt conventional, linear approaches to their stories and mix traumatic childhood flashbacks with lavish recreations of the subjects in the musical pomp. But for a subject as enigmatic as Bob Dylan, something more imaginative was required, and in his 2007 film I'm Not There, Todd Haynes certainly gave us that.

To reflect Dylan's elusive persona and constantly evolving career, Haynes had seven different actors play characters representing various stages of the singer's life. Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw appeared as versions of Dylan, and Cate Blanchett was uncannily good playing a super-cool Bob during his Blonde on Blonde phase. It was an eccentric but surprisingly successful technique.

Anton Corbijn spent 30-odd years photographing rock stars, and obviously paid attention while he was doing so. In his 2007 debut feature Control, he brilliantly summarised the life and work of Joy Division's troubled frontman, Ian Curtis, who committed suicide at the age of 23.

It was set in the suffocating gloom of council house Manchester, and shot in grainy black and white: now that's what I call a proper music biopic.

Classical cock-ups

Attempts to dramatise the lives of great classical composers have almost always ended in tears. Ken Russell's 1970 film The Music Lovers is a perfect case in point: allegedly a biopic of Tchaikovsky, it starred Richard Chamberlain as the Russian composer who is hilariously pursued by his sex-mad wife (Glenda Jackson). It was terrible, and so was Immortal Beloved, Bernard Rose's ghastly 1994 biopic of Beethoven.

Gary Oldman sailed wildly over the top playing a genius reduced to a ridiculous romantic stereotype. And Ed Harris was even worse in Copying Beethoven, a dire 2006 drama depicting the ailing composer's struggle to complete his last great works.

Even Amadeus, Milos Forman's lavish 1984 film based on a play by Peter Shaffer and the life of Mozart, doesn't stand up to scrutiny: showered at the time with praise and Oscars, it feels at this remove a bit like the Gaiety panto.

Movies and classical music, it seems, just don't mix, but there is one glorious exception. Francois Girard's 1993 work 32 Short films about Glenn Gould used a beguiling blend of interviews and dramatised segments to create a compelling insight into the life of the brilliant but notoriously eccentric pianist.

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