Better music biopics, please
I think I’ve blogged about this before, but briefly, but fuck it, I’m annoyed. As you probably know by now, a biopic about The Runaways is in the works. on paper, this sounds like a fabulous idea, since The Runaways have a story that’s ripe for exploring the tension between the ideals of rock and roll and the ugly reality of the music business. Like The Sex Pistols, The Runaways were put together by a greedy, exploitative manager who was looking to cash in on this punk trend. Or at least, that was the claim made by their manager Kim Fowley, but the reality is that Sandy West and Joan Jett actually took the initiative to start the band and ask for Fowley’s help. But what is clear is that Fowley would make a great onscreen villain, and this could be an intriguing feminist spin on the theme of the war between The Biz and The Artists. Fowley went out of his way to exploit the youth of the girls in the band, advertising them as jailbait, and some of the members of the band have said that they were expected to have sex with him if they wanted to stay in. Lead singer Cherie Currie often performed in lingerie. Really, it was completely over the top.
There’s a lot of potential in this story. But alas, I have very little hope that it’s going to be anything but shit. It’s heartening that Alia Shawkat is in it, and I think Dakota Fanning is a fine choice to play Cherie Currie. But my big red flag went up when I heard that they tapped Kristen Stewart to play Joan Jett. Natalie at Bitch Blogs doesn’t seem too rattled by this, but I am pissed. It’s not that Stewart plays Bella in the “Twilight” movies that’s got me bent out of shape. It’s because she’s annoying, and I don’t think she can act. She made the already unbearable Adventureland even harder to take as a movie. Slouching your way through scenes doesn’t make you seem daring and cool. It’s stupid. And I’ll bet the director hired her because he thinks that Stewart’s slouching crap will be a reasonable approximation of Joan Jett’s rock-and-roll rebellious attitude, but he is wrong wrong wrong. Joan Jett was not the hair-hanging-in-her-eyes depressive that seems to be Stewart’s one note in acting. She took over as lead singer when Currie quit! See:
Jett is a cool fucking character. This casting choice screams disaster to me. To make things worse, they’re doing the “OMG GIRL ON GIRL ACTION” PR stunt in the press this week. As Natalie at Bitch Blogs says, there’s a minimal chance this could be a good thing in the context of the movie—glad they’re not hiding Joan Jett’s sexual orientation. But the chance that this will be responsible and not exploitative is pretty low, I suspect.
Of course, music biopics mostly suck. Most biopics suck, true, but music biopics that suck are particularly painful, because you have easy access to excitement by recreating the musician’s live shows. I can’t think of many music biopics I actually like. The best one ever made is “24 Hour Party People”, by far. And that’s because the director broke with the biopic cliches, and actually (gasp!) made the music the center of the story and trusted that the audience was intelligent enough to grapple with themes of art and commodification without being bowled over by melodrama.
Most biopics are a tolerable way to pass the time, like “Walk The Line”. But some are unforgivably stupid. It’s a toss up which biopic angers me the most—“What’s Love Got To Do With It” or “Great Balls Of Fire”. “Great Balls Of Fire” seems like the easy pick, since Dennis Quaid portrays Jerry Lee Lewis like he’s not really a human being. Granted, Jerry Lee Lewis portrays himself as if he’s not really human, but the daring thing to do would be to take a real stab at showing how farcical this must be. Plus the shoehorning of Jimmy Swaggart in the story felt forced, which is too bad, because there is a real chance there to use the Swaggart character to expose how Lewis really was tortured by his Christian guilt.
But for a long time, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I don’t like “What’s Love Got To Do With It”. The performances are amazing, and they do a workable job of demonstrating how much power Ike and Tina Turner brought to the stage. I don’t have a problem with exposing Ike Turner as the monster he was, and am grateful that the movie portrayed domestic violence somewhat realistically to an audience who probably had never considered before how much abused wives live in a private hell while giving the world a sunny face. But I finally realized what bothers me about the movie, and I think it’s the dishonesty about the music itself. To watch it, you’d think that Tina Turner’s artistic career really took off after she divorced Ike, and sure, it did commercially. But let’s face it; the post-Ike music blows chunks compared to the heyday of Ike and Tina Turner. It just does. And by eliding that issue, the movie chickened out on grappling with what could have been a fascinating story about the complex way that art and life flow into each other for artists. Instead, the viewer is left walking away thinking of Ike and Tina Turner primarily as abuser and abused, and the music barely registers as important as all. Even though it’s the reason the movie got made.
So I guess that’s what I’m saying: More music biopics that focus on the act of making and selling music, and the contradictions and struggles that creates. People’s lives are interesting, but forefronting tragedy and backgrounding the art is a cheap way out. After all, “24 Hour Party People” was able to handle Ian Curtis’s tragic suicide with the gravitas it deserved without drifting into melodrama, or losing the focus on the themes of art and commerce.