Culture Rover

#128 - Byronic Biopics

Culture Rover recently re-watched Ray and Walk the Line. Two thoughts:

First, these films attempt to show musical creation in action. But the efforts are awkward. How does Ray actually learn to play so well and to innovate in the studio? We see him learn the beginnings of the piano, but not much more than that.

Same for Johnny Cash. We hear him humming tunes in Europe as he writes his first songs. We hear June Carter Cash humming "Ring of Fire." The film tries to approximate the creative process, which in a strange way defies conventional narrative structuring. The songs strike their makers in flashes amid lots of trial-and-error. How do you film that?!

The scenes wind up goofy, incomplete imitations of artistic creation. What they make you wonder about is the abiding mystery: where do new melodies come from? How does inspiration happen? It sure is difficult to answer those questions on film, in a conventional biopic.

The second thought these two films have made me ponder is this: What's with the explosion of fictional and documentary portrayals of male musicians recently? Johnny Cash, Ray, and Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea, for example. Then, more below the radar: documentaries about Daniel Johnston, Eddie Hinton, Townes Van Zandt, and Gram Parsons, just to name a few.

These films all follow a certain narrative. Many of the musicians are either recently dead or were unheralded in their time. Most of them turn out to have been tortured geniuses whose musical innovations were linked to their mental illness or alcoholic or pharmaceutical dependency.

The documentaries all promise you some bit of previously unknown vintage film footage, which arrives in fetishized form, like a relic, a link to the magic that was and can no longer be.

The films tend to possess an almost morbid search for authenticity in things past, in music whose maker is often gone.

This seems to be wrapped up in matters of masculinity too. The authentic, the mad Byronic male artist, and a kind of mournful ache for things past all swirl together to call forth a soundtrack of popular music as a graveyard, a place in which gender is safely buried beneath stone rather than lucid, even florid, and certainly unpredictably alive.

But how would you film that?

7 December 2006

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