Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

LIGHTS, camera, action, music. Over the past few weeks, three music biopics have been announced, based on three of the most popular female vocalists of their generation.

First, we heard that the role of the gorgeous Debbie Harry, lead singer of the band Blondie, would be played by the pretty Malin Akerman, who has starred in ‘The Proposal’ and played Tom Cruise’s fling in ‘Rock of Ages’. Then came reports that rock empress Janis Joplin would be played by theatre starlet Nina Arianda. More recently, we got the news that a film on the legendary Nina Simone would feature ‘Avatar’ actress Zoe Saldana.

The trend covers male icons too. Earlier this year, we heard actor Sacha Baron Cohen would play charismatic Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in an upcoming biopic, and Andre 3000 aka Dre has been cast as guitar god Jimi Hendrix in ‘All Is By My Side’, which strangely won’t use any of his compositions. Also in the offing are movies on jazz pioneer Miles Davis (to be played by Don Cheadle) and Nirvana rock star Kurt Cobain. (Later reports say Cohen has backed out of the Mercury project, and that Ben Whishaw is being considered for the role).

Clearly, music biopics are gaining in popularity. Slowly and steadily, more and more legends are being featured. And obviously, we are not talking of documentary-styled movies like recent releases ‘Marley’ (on reggae superstar Bob Marley) and ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ (on lesser-known folk-rock singer Rodriguez), or rock-based fictional sagas like ‘ ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Almost Famous’.

The fad is to have famous, almost famous or not-so-famous actors playing coveted roles of popular musicians. Besides the ones mentioned above, films on Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin are in the broad conceptualisation stage, and there have been talks of beginning an Amy Winehouse biopic. There were rumours of Whitney being played by Rihanna, which she denied.

In cinema, the genre isn’t new, of course. Let’s take five films that have won mass acclaim:

Amadeus (1984) — Based on classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Milos Forman’s movie had Tom Hulce in the lead, and F Murray Abraham playing his rival Antonio Salieri. The soundtrack used Mozart’s most popular tunes.

The Doors (1991) — Directed by Oliver Stone, it had Val Kilmer playing the immortal Jim Morrison, and an ensemble cast appearing as the popular band’s members Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger and John Densmore. The film used original Doors classics.

Ray (2004) — Jamie Foxx (see picture) won an Oscar for playing the great blind rhythm n’ blues singer Ray Charles, who sadly died a few months before its release.

Walk The Line (2005) — Based on country star Johnny Cash, it featured a masterly performance by Joaquin Phoenix, who unfortunately didn’t win an Oscar though his co-star Reese Witherspoon got one. In this movie, the actors sung the songs.

I’m Not There (2007) — Six actors depict various vignettes from Bob Dylan’s career. Those portraying different facets are Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw, Heath Ledger and even actress Cate Blanchett, who delivered a stunning performance.

Even older films include ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (a 1945 movie where Robert Alda acts as master-composer George Gershwin), ‘Lady Sings The Blues’ (a 1972 biopic with Diana Ross playing jazz diva Billie Holiday) and ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (which got Sissy Spacek an Oscar in 1981 for playing country singer Loretta Lynn).

Besides these, we’ve had ‘Immortal Beloved’ (Gary Oldman playing Beethoven), ‘Bird’ (Forest Whittaker as jazzman Charlie Parker), ‘Bound for Glory’ (David Carradine as folk guru Woody Guthrie), ‘Great Balls of Fire’ (Dennis Quaid as rock ‘n’ roller Jerry Lee Lewis), ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’ (Angela Bassett as Tina Turner), ‘Control’ (Sam Riley as Joy Division’s Ian Curtis), ‘Nowhere Boy’ (Aaron Jackson in a film about the young John Lennon), ‘Stoned’ (Leo Gregory as Rolling Stones founding member Brian Jones) and ‘La Vie En Rose’ (Marillon Cotillard as French singer Edith Piaf).

There are love stories like ‘Sid and Nancy’, which talks of the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and his girlfriend, and last year’s French movie ‘Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky’, on the romance between the French designer and path-breaking Russian composer. ‘Cadillac Records’ is actually about the music label Chess Records, but has various actors representing blues masters Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Willie Dixon, Little Walter and Etta James (played by Beyonce Knowles). ‘The Pianist’ is an adaptation of ‘Death of a City’, a World War II memoir by Jewish-Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman.

From this list, it’s obvious that there has always been a demand for music biopics. But then, creation of such films has been more or less sporadic. There was a release every two or three years, or maybe at longer intervals, but nothing like the sudden flood of announcements we’ve heard this year.

Over the years, there have been films starring and featuring the music of the Beatles and Elvis Presley, and even the hip-hop drama ‘8 Mile’ with Eminem. But in the past decade or so, with the rising popularity of concert DVDs, there have been a large number of documentaries using real-life footage. Michael Jackson’s ‘This Is It’ earned huge accolades.

Renowned director Martin Scorsese, himself a music connoisseur, has used both the cinema hall and home theatre media effectively to spread awareness about blues and rock, through a seven-part documentary on the blues, and films on Bob Dylan (‘No Direction Home’), the Rolling Stones (‘Shine A Light’) and George Harrison (‘Living in the Material World’).

While documentaries have their own following among music enthusiasts, and also contain actual footage of the musicians, music biopics of the kind mentioned require a special treatment in order to re-create the artiste’s character perfectly. As such, they have challenges of their own. The filmmaker has to be careful in choosing and totally passionate about the subject, ensuring the musician is not only popular among the masses, but has also led a life which will make for a good film script.

The actors should look as authentic as possible, and their performance involves plenty of research done through books, video footage and interviews with associates in order to pick up even the slightest of mannerisms of the idols they are enacting. For instance, when Joaquin Phoenix lit up the screen in ‘Walk The Line’, one actually thought the real Johnny Cash had arrived. So flawless were the actor’s body language and dialogue delivery, and even the way he held his guitar. Ditto with the way Jamie Foxx played a Ray Charles piano line in ‘Ray’.

If produced well, a music biopic can not only attract hardcore fans of an artiste, but also help create more awareness even among those who’ve not followed the artiste’s career. The release of ‘The Doors’ led to a Morrison wave of sorts, and ‘Ray’ and ‘Walk The Line’ made more people more closely acquainted with Ray Charles and rhythm ‘n blues, and Johnny Cash and country music.

Though one may argue that only a small section of the musical galaxy has been covered so far, the great news is the sudden interest filmmakers are showing in the genre. Over the next few years, quite a few musicians should be back in the news, and even reach out to audiences who’ve never really grown up on them. It’ll be music to the ears if Nina Simone, Janis Joplin and Debbie Harry find an ardent following in the next generation too, thanks mainly to Hollywood.


Comments on: "Rock ‘n’ reel: The growing popularity of music biopics" (2)

  1. 08.09.12

    Dear Naren:

    It is our misfortune that, as music buffs, many of the biopics that we would like to own as part of our collection have not been released on DVD by Indian home video labels. While I do not download movies [and don’t plan to do so in the near future], the net result is that we have no choice but to order the biopic online from international websites, which is certainly an expensive proposition and its delivery is either restricted to countries outside India or, as the case is, even if it does get delivered into India, one does not know how many weeks it will take receive delivery plus there’s a chance that there may be a customs duty payable.

    If there is some manner in which the Indian home video licensee can communicate that they are willing to consider taking a “mark for” order for individuals like us, and I am sure select retail chains would like to order the content too, it would make life a lot simpler for us and further whet our appetite for biopics.

    Best wishes,
    Parag K

    • Agree with you. I too do not download movies so make do with whatever is released, either in the theatres or on DVD. I do tend to borrow some of the DVDs from my large collection of music-loving friends. But there needs to be some way in which people like us can get easier access to such films

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