It was recently announced that veteran American filmmaker Martin Scorsese is set to direct a documentary on the life and work of George Harrison. Music and film fans know that this will not be Mr. Scorsese’s first encounter with music documentaries. He recently chronicled Bob Dylan’s controversial “gone electric” epoch in the fascinating PBS film No Direction Home and has a new documentary, Shine A Light, about the Rolling Stones recent Bigger Bang tour slated for a winter theatrical release. Of course Marty is probably best known for his perfectly crafted music film, The Last Waltz, a documentary/concert experience chronicling the final show of The Band, which is hands down one of the finest rock music films ever made. With the currently untitled Harrison project underway it’s apparent that Scorsese, who is as much of a pop music buff as he is a film buff, is embracing the current Hollywood fad that is musical biopics and docudramas.
The chronicling of music through film via “rockumentaries,” biopics, and concert films is hardly a new trend by any means. Still it’s hard to deny that thanks to recent Oscar bait hits such as Walk the Line and Ray (both satisfactory albeit fairly formulaic if you ask me) it seems that, similar to the recent wave of “remakes,” music biopics are the new hot ticket in Hollywood.
Just look at the lineup of upcoming music related icon films coming out. Later this fall Todd Hayne’s highly anticipated avant-garde Bob Dylan film I’m Not There starring seven actors (including a role by Cate Blanchett) portraying the legendary artist hits theaters. Control, a dark British biopic of the late Joy Division front man Ian Curtis has an upcoming U.S. release date, and a Janis Joplin film, The Gospel According to Janis, (which at one point had Pink in the starring role) is slated for a 2008 release. Add these to the long list of rumored music films set for production: a Miles Davis film staring Don Cheadle, a Jimi Hendrix biopic featuring Outkast’s André “3000” Benjamin, there are talks of a Marvin Gaye life story movie, a film chronicling the career of Blondie’s Debbie Harry starring Kirsten Dunst (I know, I know, I too cringe at this idea), a Freddie Mercury piece starring Sacha “Borat” Cohen (fairly dead on casting if you ask me), and even a film about the short-lived pop scam artists Milli Vanilli with two of the Wayans Brothers rumored to headline. Also let’s not forget the inevitable James Brown biopic, which already has an IMDB page slotted for a 2009 release. From this list alone (who knows how many others are in the works) it’s clear that there are a slew of possibly brilliant, possibly horrid music films ahead in the future. It also begs the question what’s next?
There is nothing wrong with honoring or exploring a musician or band’s career through film, however, like all genres in Hollywood these films are in danger of being overdone. Ray and Walk the Line proved that there is big money and endless award possibilities in films honoring recently deceased greats. This concept makes sense, however, it often leads to equally warranted legends being overlooked.
Sly Stone was once a prolific soul/funk/rock powerhouse who influenced countless musicians including jazz legend Miles Davis (the Miles biopic is definitely warranted in my opinion) and had an unprecedented career but people are quick to forget about his importance since he’s been out of the spotlight for quite some time. Besides being considered a musical genius with an impressive career behind him, Frank Zappa was also an outspoken advocate for first amendment free speech rights– the PMRC censorship trial that Zappa testified at in 1985 was a pinnacle moment in pop music history. These are just two examples from a long list of people who I believe are much more interesting and important than someone like Debbie Harry (sorry Blondie fans). Then there is the world of Jazz music, which today is often completely forgotten about save a small population.
Clint Eastwood’s overlooked biopic, Bird, about the troubled bop jazz genius Charlie Parker did justice to the sax players life but why not take on equally important cats such as avant-garde masters Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, electric bass pioneer Jaco Pastorius or even blues legend Robert Johnson, whose “sold my soul to the devil” mythology alone is worth a film of sorts. I can’t help but think that these stories are equally as important as someone like Ray Charles and long overdue for a film or documentary.
In the past there have been a number of stellar music documentaries and biopics that were worthy of their visions. Alex Cox’s daunting but fascinating film, Sid and Nancy, explored the dark side of Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious, one truly troubled musician, and was rocketed by a near flawless performance by Gary Oldman. Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense is probably the crème of the crop when it comes to concerts chronicled on film thanks to a minimalist yet creative vision and a band as unique as the Talking Heads working in its prime. In the overlooked indie music documentary arena there have been a number of exemplary titles in recent years. Films such as 1999s The Buena Vista Social Club, a film that introduced world audiences to a small sect of Cuban jazz musicians whose music barely made it across the ocean prior to the film’s release; American Hardcore, an exploration of the 80s underground punk scene in the United States or Scratch, a cool sleeper from a couple years back that paid homage to the “two turntables and a microphone” musical philosophy and the world of DJ artists, are just a couple examples of small, no thrills niche music documentaries that prove that big names and big budgets don’t always lead to greatness.
It’s important for filmmakers and documentarians alike to continue tapping into musical history as well as explore current trends (anyone see that street dance movie Rize a couple years ago?). These films can not only honor the subjects but also serve as windows for younger audiences/listeners to explore music they may not be familiar with. Like all cinematic endeavors however, music films should be handled with care and should not be made just for the sake of being made or because studio execs see it as a vehicle for top dollars and Oscar gold. Film, if done right, can be a tool with endless opportunities. I trust Scorsese with a Harrison project because I know his passion is in the right place and I look forward to this intriguing Dylan film, I’m Not There, because it’s appears to stray away from formulaic biopic norms. Still I can’t help but be skeptical when I hear about the next big budget biopic to hit the theaters. Then again it’s up to the filmmakers to help shed this doubt.