Matthew Lee on whether 2015 is a pivotal year for music films…
Confession time: I have not seen Love & Mercy. However, from the critics here at Flickering Myth, it would appear that music fans will definitely appreciate this biopic of Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson. I shall instead focus on the other music films that I’ve seen, and to see if 2015 is indeed an interesting year for music films. As I’m writing this, I’ve just recently came from seeing Straight Outta Compton. Short response, flawed but noteworthy; long response, please read on.
Straight Outta Compton retells the story of N.W.A.’s origin in the late 80s through to their eventual break-up. It recounts pivotal moments in the group’s history, notable Ice Cube’s feud with his former members, Dr. Dre’s record deal at Death Row Records under Suge Knight, and Eazy-E’s death due to an AIDS infection. It’s an enlightening two-and-a-half hour biopic that does not so much delve deep into the sociopolitical backgrounds that are glimpsed at throughout the narrative – notably the Rodney King assault by the LAPD of ’91 – but focuses more on the internal conflict surrounding contracts, and pay. N.W.A. fans will know plenty, as these issues are expressed through a number of their dis tracks, but, nonetheless, both newcomers and familiar fans will be thoroughly entertained.
It is important to note that the films pitfalls are large, and have been widely discussed; the omission Dre’s violent assaults towards his ex-girlfriends, J.J. Fad’s pop-success to help legitimize Ruthless Records prior to N.W.A., and Ice Cube’s own anti-Semitic and anti-Korean rhetoric. These, along with the aforementioned cultural conflicts, could have utilized to self-reflect this tumultuous period of their lives.
Where the film did shine were in the truthful sequences; notably the pit-bull scene at Death Row Records, the group’s harassment by police officers outside a recording studio, and Ice Cube smashing the Priority Records office with an aluminum baseball bat. In short, one of the most influential and controversial groups of the 80s & 90s has been brought to the screen, has people talking about N.W.A. again, and serves as a cultural reminder that music snobbery and elitism can be at the detriment of underground art forms like rap was once viewed.
As one pauses to think back on other music films of 2015, one realizes many other iconic musicians have been given a similar treatment. The first film to come out this year was…
After a number of questionable documentaries and failed fictional depictions, documentary filmmaker Brett Morgen finally brings an unfiltered, frank, and honest depiction of the 90s grunge superstar. Morgen, with co-operation with Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain, rewrites the half-truths, the conjecture, and the speculation that had been produced in the past. Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney questions the legitimacy of Cobain’s suicide, and Gus Van Sant’s Last Days is loosely based upon Cobain’s final days. These former films fixated too greatly on the musician’s troubled mind prior to his death, whereas Montage of Heck handles the entirety of Cobain’s life and streamlines through it.
The rare archival footage and never-before-seen home videos of Cobain and Love wandering around their home is both insightful and harrowing. This, along with interviews from friends and family, provide a whole picture of the legend. Morgen allows a deep reflection for the troubled artist, and successfully conveys every facet of his life onto the screen. With one superstar conveyed with such honest, who would next be on the agenda? That would go to Amy.
Senna director Asif Kapadia returns to the documentary genre to depict the life of Amy Winehouse. Similar to Montage of Heck, Kapadia takes a hold of Winehouse’s entire life and chronicles from her early life in North London through to her phenomenally successful music career, and her eventual death at the hands of addiction. Through the use of home-videos, archival footage, and her emotive song lyrics, Kapadia’s foregrounds this intimate link between her music and her personal life. With much of the narrative told via voiceover by interviewees of friends, family, and fellow musicians, one keenly focuses on how Winehouse’s lyrical content revealed much of her personal demons, and private issues.
In what could have just been a wholly celebratory recount of this pop sensation, this film has instead, through Chris King’s own editorial skills in manipulating the time-chronology of her life, conveyed a complex character piece through the visuals. It managed to take an objective stance whilst exploring the psychology of the troubled, and addicted, 00s superstar.
Another noteworthy film that Netflix users may have seen was the tale of Nina Simone.
What Happened, Miss Simone? is similar to the prior two films mentioned thus far as a psychologically troubled musician. Simone was faced with racial injustices, domestic violence, and suffered greatly by her bipolar disorder. Further, she had greatly despised the “pop” title for her desire was to be a classical pianist. Unlike the former, however, her influences were much grander i.e. Aretha Franklin and John Lennon.
This film is not only noteworthy for highlighting some of social injustices the 20th endured, notably Civil Rights and gender equality, it also allowed Simone to voice her own concerns, despite her death in 2003. The film uses some of Simone’s archival audio over certain imagery to contextualize her honest opinions and feelings towards certain chapters of her life.
As one can see, these three films bring an unabashed honesty to their respective subjects, and to help reevaluate the half-truths and myths that have surrounded them. To wrap this up, I shall finally focus on a little-known documentary The Wrecking Crew.
While it’s not formally spectacular, it is an important film for anyone interested in music history. A band of session musicians would shape the sound of 40s, 50s, and 60s popular music. It would appear they did everything, from TV theme songs to Batman, Pink Panther, and The Monkees, through to working with iconic musicians such as Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Cher, Sam Cooke, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Such was there influence one truly understands the formulaic sound of pop music throughout music history, and its purpose in manufacturing a particular sound to sell. It may be repetitive, and its awe quality resides in its content rather than execution – it’s just a series of interviews of aged musicians recalling this golden era to be a session musician, and filmmaker’s fathers own legacy. It still, nonetheless, proves that creating a series of catchy tunes is not simple, and does require much musical genius to do so.
Short Answer – 2015 does appear to be a Music Year (TL; DR)
Now with the recent releases of Eden and We Are Your Friends it would appear DJs, once a derivative art form, are now being given the limelight. To translate the act of knob dialing into an engaging visual piece is a difficult undertaking.
As one can see, 2015 has brought to the screen a number of influential, groundbreaking, and above all, important musicians from its history. With much hyperbole, half-truths, and rumors circulating in the populist media of the 20th, it would appear now, in the 21st Century, the truth can surface with much discourse. Cinema this year has allowed audiences to view such iconic musicians with greater awareness, and scrutiny, and one hopes next year will continue onward from this trajectory.