Ten great songwriter biopics
Saturday night at the movies… WE care what picture we see, so here’s ten great movies about ten great songwriters
Here at Songwriting it’s not just the music of songwriters that we love, but the stories behind their music. Below are our ten favourite biopics.
Dir. Anton Corbijn, 2007
Touching From A Distance is a harrowing account of the dislocation and contempt that existed in the soul of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. Written by his wife Deborah, it paints upon the grey cement canvas of Macclesfield a portrait of an adulterer and a man of fractured personality. It’s disarming then that the stickman, resplendent in knee-length trench coat and crisp shirt, that is sketched upon the black and white screen of Touching’s… cinematic adaptation Control is an altogether more poignant one. Yes, it’s harrowing and yes, there’s dislocation and contempt, but what also emerges is an individual of gut-wrenching sensitivity. The Ian Curtis of Control is both myth and reality, and the poignancy with which the individual is portrayed, fragile and fallible, makes the director’s choice to drain colour from the screen fitting.
Dir. Gus Van Sant, 2005
Last Days is not about Kurt Cobain. No. Nor is X Factor about the lining of Simon Cowell’s pockets. Perish the thought! The main character is called Blake, but he lives in a house and surrounding area that scream Cobain’s abode and Seattle and, like the Nirvana frontman, a private detective is looking for him and also takes his own life, in a greenhouse. Oh, and he looks just like one KURT COBAIN too. Once you look past this minor irritant – one enforced upon the director Gus Van Sant because of fears over a potential lawsuit – you can appreciate a film that touches upon the isolation that Cobain must have felt in his last days. The overall sense conveyed is the resignation of a man who has decided that this life is simply not for him. With rumours rife that the magnificent biography by Charles R Cross is set to make the transition to film, this can serve as a fine cinematic introduction to Kurt Cobain.
Dir. Taylor Hackford, 2004
Ray is the story of one man’s rise from poverty, a tortured youth and the derision of others to become a star. Featuring Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, with a performance that saw him receive an Academy Award for Best Actor, the film takes as its premise the singular will of a man desperate to prove himself, a desperation that is masked rather unappealingly as simply raw and aggressive ambition. Tellingly, the most poignant aspect of the film is that even when Ray has risen – in a society which treated its black citizens as barely second class – above the dirt and to superstardom, he is still impoverished, though this time by drug addiction. Ray serves as a reminder that even the struggle to escape hardship cannot always secure true freedom.
Walk The Line
Dir. James Mangold, 2005
Walk The Line is the story of one man’s rise from poverty, a tortured youth and the derision of others to become a star. Sound familiar? That’s because the approach of the film is to near-replicate the format of Ray, replacing Ray Charles with Johnny Cash. In this Johnny Cash is portrayed, with dark and sinister grace, by Joaquin Phoenix. The viewer is treated again to the rise of an individual gripped by the desire to prove himself and extricate himself from the poverty that he was treated to in youth, only to then fall prey to the poverty of drug addiction. This is not to say though that Walk The Line is a bad film, or poor representation of Cash. In fact, though this may be coloured by a marginal preference for Cash’s music, I find Walk The Line a more enjoyable film than Ray.
Dir. Oliver Stone, 1991
Oliver Stone has made many notable films: Natural Born Killers (1994), Any Given Sunday (1999), Born On The Fourth Of July (1989) and Wall Street (1987) among others. Perhaps my favourite though is his 1991 depiction of The Doors. This is a film that buys heavily into the legendary charisma of Jim Morrison and his status as the ‘Lizard King’. For those of you who want a hard-hitting, gritty insight into the tribulations of Morrison, such as his battles with depression and the colder moments of his alcoholism and drug addiction, this isn’t it. But for those who have in mind the legendary image of a shirtless Morrison gazing nonchalantly into the camera, this is that piece of iconography made film.
Dir. Sam Taylor Wood, 2009
Everyone would like to write songs as good as John Lennon. Just the one would do. Personally I’d go with I Feel Fine – perhaps not the obvious choice, but I feel fine about that being my selection. But there was a time when John Lennon wasn’t the celebrated songwriter that he is today, when he just wanted to be able to play guitar and dreamed of being able to write songs of his own. Nowhere Boy documents the passage of time between the songwriter being dreamed in Lennon’s head and becoming a reality. It’s a particularly interesting take on depicting Lennon’s life because we get to see the trials, the tribulations and the aching to become something special. We’re left at the point when Lennon the songwriter was to set off for Hamburg, when The Beatles truly cut their teeth.
Dir. Kevin MacDonald, 2012
It’s said that there are three faces that are recognised by whoever they’re put in front of, even by those that occupy catacombs in the most remote outposts of humanity. These three are Che Guevara, David Beckham and Bob Marley. Marley is the story of Bob, of a man of felt like he belonged with neither the black community that he held him aloft as an idol, nor with the white community who were entranced by the genius of his songwriting. What is revealed is that while Marley may never have felt as though he belonged among any one group, the music that he created with his group, the Wailers, meant that he belonged to everyone. If you were to make a list of the three musicians whose music would be recognised by any ear then perhaps it would be The Beatles, Elvis Presley and, yes, Bob Marley.
I’m Not There
Dir. Todd Haynes, 2007
At the start of this film we see a caption that reads “Inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan”. Well, this much is certainly true. For the centrepiece of I’m Not There is the use of six different actors to depict Bob: Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw, Richard Gere and Cate Blanchett. Much has been made of Blanchett’s performance, and rightly so: the poise and effortless cool that she drips from her portrayal has you wondering whether she was not Dylan all along. Of course, as with many adaptations of such titanic figures, this film is not about Bob Dylan. Indeed, that caption is the only mention of his name in the whole film. But one is never left in any doubt that we are seeing the great man, even if there are five great men and one great woman on display.
Dir. Clint Eastwood, 1988
Bird is Clint Eastwood’s tribute to legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, a figure whose towering genius for writing music was matched by the towering scale of his heroin addiction. The film takes the montage as its format. Though one might be concerned that such an approach might take something away with regard to the synchronicity of Bird’s storytelling, it only serves to enhance it. Eastwood’s approach allows the viewer to move back and forth through Parker’s life, so that we might be able to see the truth in it. And what is that truth you ask? The music, the music. Parker may have been taken from this world at the crushingly young age of 34, from lobar pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer, but his music will never be taken away from us.
Girls Like Us
Dir. Katie Jacobs, 2012 (forthcoming)
We finish on a forthcoming film. Girls Like Us is the adaptation of Sheila Weller’s book of the same title, which follows the stories of not just one, not even just two but three of the finest songwriters to have taken up the art of writing music, Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon. And Taylor Swift has been cast for the role of Joni. Okay so we cheated, what with this film not being out yet, but, quite frankly, we can’t wait for this to hit screens and will be first in line to catch the lives of these three outstanding songwriters.
Words: Damien Girling