Keith: In Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from the Coen brothers, Oscar Isaac plays the title character, a Greenwich Village folksinger struggling just to make a living, much less make it big, at the height of the early-’60s folk boom. The film has many virtues, among them the thoroughness with which the Coens depict Davis’ artistic and personal lives, the bigger world of the music industry, and the way those two spheres overlap, not always harmoniously. The film moves from folk clubs to Columbia University’s forbidding hallways and polished studios to the cluttered offices of the small-time label for which Davis and his former partner recorded. It’s filled with scenes of Davis singing his heart out, but also of scenes showing how art gets processed and sold. And part of what makes it work is that it feels so unresolved. Davis might somehow connect his art to that machinery, but it’s just as likely to grind him up. (He already seems deep into the grinding process by the film’s end.)
The Coens used the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Dylan’s second album, as a stylistic template for the film. That’s an iconic image from a classic album that almost seems handed down from above, the inevitable result of a genius asserting himself in the world. But Inside Llewyn Davis depicts just how unlikely it is for any album to make it into the world, much less break through and survive over decades. I like the movie for many reasons, among them that it’s one of the best films about making music I’ve ever seen.
Which got me thinking: What does it take for a movie to get making music right? And what do movies often get wrong? So I thought I’d throw the question to a couple of people who also worry about those questions: My Dissolve colleague and lifelong music fan Noel Murray, and special guest Mark Richardson, editor of Pitchfork.
Noel: The way I see it, there are four things a movie about music has to get right: creation, performance, the business, and the scene. Inside Llewyn Davis is especially accurate when it comes to performance, and not just because the music was mostly recorded live on-set. There’s a direct contrast in the film between the way Llewyn stares moodily at his guitar, and the way his contemporaries wear spiffy clothes and engage the audience. The implication is twofold: that Llewyn fails because he doesn’t know how to connect with people, and that his peers do better because they’re willing to be a little phony. That’s a keen insight into the whole dilemma of performing for a public, in any medium, but especially music.
So many movies tackle one or more of those four key elements—some well, some not so. Payday, Purple Rain, That Thing You Do!, Crazy Heart, The Thing Called Love, Velvet Goldmine, 24 Hour Party People, Almost Famous, Not Fade Away, Control, Ladies And Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains… I could go on, and that’s without even taking the documentaries into account.
I want to get back to some of the ones I just listed (unless you guys get there first), but I’ll start by mentioning one of my favorite movies about music: Hard Core Logo, Bruce McDonald’s 1996 mockumentary about a Canadian punk band reuniting for a contentious, ill-fated tour. Adapting Michael Turner’s novel (with a Noel Baker script), McDonald and his cast capture the petty jealousies and ego trips that wreck so many bands. The movie reminds me of my days covering the local music beat in Athens, Georgia and Nashville, Tennessee, where I often interviewed bandmates who could barely stand each other, but were keeping it together for the sake of their handful of fans. That’s what’s so great about Hard Core Logo: The stakes are low to everybody except the guys in the band, for whom every slight and every betrayal lingers.
Mark, do you have any particular favorites (or not-so-favorites)?
Mark: When it comes to movies about music, there’s a bit of a curse that comes with making a living writing and thinking about music, in that the things the film gets wrong stand out more. This is especially true when the film strives for some sort of accuracy, when being true-to-life is an essential part of its appeal. There is, I think, a high degree of difficulty in depicting the world of a musician, because so much of our understanding comes from media. It’s secondhand. We mostly know about what bands and singers do from seeing movies about bands and singers.
So the movies that work best for me in terms of music are ones that strive to capture a spirit rather than a reality. Purple Rain, as Noel mentioned, is a great example of that. It’s a cartoon, essentially, but it perfectly mirrors the world of Prince’s music, even though that world bears little relationship to reality. This Is Spinal Tap is incredible, and gets right many details about the day-to-day life of a touring band (the hangers-on in an entourage, the dodgy promotional obligations), even as it exaggerates them brilliantly for comic effect. Nashville comes from an entirely different place and sets another kind of standard, and the way it weaves music into the story in such a natural way is uncanny.
I never cared for Almost Famous, even though it was written and directed by Cameron Crowe, who saw everything from the inside. (It’s been interesting and surprising for me to hear that it’s been an inspiration to a lot of young music critics, that they saw the film as kids and thought “Writing about music might be a good life.”) For me, it’s a good example of a film that tries to be real, but winds up seeming very artificial. I never bought the idea of Stillwater as a band anyone would care about, it seems very forced, and much of the movie seems to exist to check off boxes of 1970s rock clichés. Where do you guys stand on Almost Famous?
Keith: I honestly and unabashedly love Almost Famous, because of the same reasons you cite for Purple Rain: It captures the spirit of a certain time, place, and way of living for music. And while Stillwater was inspired in part by Led Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers, it always seemed to me like the group was supposed to be a 1970s also-ran, never destined to reach the heights of either of those bands. While Almost Famous captures little of what it means to be a music critic—well, maybe Lester Bangs sitting around his house by himself listening to records captures some of it—it captures a lot of what it feels like to fall in love with music so hard, you want to live inside it. I can see why it’s inspired people to want to be music critics, even if it doesn’t square with the realities.
Then again, I might just like movies about also-rans because they come in all shapes and sizes, while movies about successes tend to hit the same notes. A pretty good double feature would be two you’ve already mentioned, Noel: That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks’ winning directorial debut about a 1960s one-hit wonder that never gets further than the first rung of success, and David Chase’s great, overlooked 2012 film Not Fade Away, about a New Jersey garage band that doesn’t even get that far. Tonally, they couldn’t be further apart, but they both convey a strong sense of what it is to dream of music stardom, then see the tremendous chasm between that dream and reality. In That Thing You Do!, that’s arrived at when the band takes its one hit as far as it will go before distractions and turmoil tear them apart. In Not Fade Away, it means staring at the hard, uninspiring process of woodshedding and playing covers for drunks along the Jersey shore, and deciding success isn’t worth it if it feels that much like work.
Then again, maybe I’m just a pessimist who likes stories about losers. Are those just better stories, Noel, or can you think of stories of musical triumph that ring as true?
Noel: I think the most satisfyingly triumphant movies about music are the documentaries: films like Anvil! The Story Of Anvil and Searching For Sugar Man, which tell stories of musicians suffering through decades of obscurity before getting their due in a big tearjerking finale. I don’t know why the fiction films and biopics so often go in a different direction. If you watch Ray or Walk The Line, you come away with the idea that two of the most successful, beloved, influential musicians of all time were miserable little shits during the most productive periods of their career. (Although I should add that one of the things I like about Control, as bleak and depressing as it is, is that it shows Ian Curtis and his mates in Joy Division as ordinary guys who enjoyed quaffing a pint, having a laugh, and chasing skirts. They weren’t brooding poets of doom 24 hours a day.)
But I’ll give you one positive example, Keith: Grace Of My Heart, Allison Anders’ magnificent, undervalued 1996 film, starring Illeana Douglas as a fictionalized version of Carole King. Grace came out the same year as That Thing You Do!, and I remember at the time thinking both movies were refreshingly clear-eyed about what 1960s pop music was all about. In Grace’s case, Douglas’ Denise Waverly (née Edna Buxton) is an example of the real craft and personal meaning that went into writing chart-topping hits for vocal groups in the pre-singer-songwriter era. And when the movie ends with Denise essentially recording her Tapestry—highlighted by the soaring Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach song “God Give Me Strength”—it’s a moment of well-earned vindication.
I also like Grace Of My Heart because so much of it is about the hard work of writing and recording songs, which is a side of music I’ve really only ever experienced from the outside. (I’m not going to count the awful songs I tried to write with my Casio keyboard when I was 15.) Mark, is there a movie about making music that you think captures the process well?
Mark: I absolutely agree that many of the best music films are the documentaries, and that the medium does lend itself to capturing music at the moment of its creation. I’m thinking about the scene in Gimme Shelter where The Rolling Stones are in the control booth listening to the playback of “Wild Horses.” Just hearing the music and seeing their faces, you get a small sense of their individual relationships to the music, a sense of pride mixed with a little bit of fear.
In terms of fiction films (or fictionalized, in this case), 8 Mile stands out to me as one that shows how artists channel the circumstances of their lives into music—how the visceral facts of Rabbit’s narrative are expressed through his rap, especially that climactic scene at the battle. A lot of music movies have that sort of big scene at the climax, where everything is brought to bear at that moment. The results are often laughable (Ralph Macchio in Crossroads comes to mind), but 8 Mile has an overwhelming sense of catharsis. Are there any other huge scenes like that that stand out in fiction films? Where watching a musical performance is that overwhelming?
Keith: The first scene I thought of when you brought that up is one that absolutely doesn’t work: In American Pop, Ralph Bakshi’s 1981 animated journey through 20th-century song, everything builds to a moment when a tough-talking New York punk, the last example of several generations of American pop, stands in a recording studio and belts out the sneering anthem of defiance that sums up everything for which he stands. That anthem of defiance?: Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.” (To his credit, Bakshi wanted a different song for the punk to sing. That song was “Free Bird.”)
That’s what makes the big closing number so tricky: It not only has to be a great song, it has to be the right song, the one that sums up everything that’s come before. 8 Mile is the rare film that nails it, in part because it illustrates all the parts of the protagonist’s life that feed into that song. It could feel calculated—just like the whole film could feel like a calculated bit of image-burnishing for its star—but instead, it feels earned. And if anything unites all the great music movies we’ve talked about, it’s that sense of getting the details right, whether it’s capturing the spirit of The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night or glam rock in Velvet Goldmine (neither of which ever come close to documentary-like realism) without feeling phony, or watching Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens go through take after seemingly interchangeable take in the recording studio, looking for the right vocal in La Bamba. (That one’s good, not great, but that scene captures some of the tedium behind the recording process, which I’d never really considered before.)
That’s my vote for what sets a great music movie apart from a terrible, or a merely mediocre one. Noel, what’s yours?
Noel: I’m a sucker for any movie that captures the communal connection of great music: the bonds between people performing, the connectivity of the crowd, and the relationship between performer and audience. Mark mentioned Purple Rain, and one thing that keeps that movie from being just a 1980s version of a Sam Katzman rocksploitation picture is the quality of the concert footage, which really proves there was something rare and wonderful happening in Minneapolis at that time. I’m also moved to tears every time I watch Spike Lee’s movie of Stew and Heidi Rosenwald’s Broadway musical Passing Strange, when I get to that moment when the houselights go up, and the band and the cast are all singing along with the spectators, sharing the feeling that all the turmoil Stew went through as a young adult was worth it to produce this one ecstatic moment.
Mark: Noel really says it for me, trying to convey how music feels at that interface between performer and listener. I think a lot of the dance-floor scenes in Saturday Night Fever actually do it quite well, when they are out on the floor dancing. The audience gets a sense of just what music means to these people, how it elevates them. I remember Siskel and Ebert arguing over this film’s merits, and I was always on Siskel’s side—love it.