A Rational Conversation: Molly Lambert On Music Biopics
"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on iChat or Gchat or the phone or whatever with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness. It previously appeared at The Daily Swarm.
Hollywood's history is littered with big screen and made for TV musician biopics, but when it comes down to it, many of them are straight up terrible. Last month VH1 released the original movie Crazy Sexy Cool: The TLC Story, which chronicles the growth of the incredibly popular pop R&B trio amidst its business and personal struggles. Response to it was mixed, some seeing it as an uninspired treatment of an inspiring group, while others thought it adequately reminded short attention-spanned listeners of TLC's legacy. Around the same time, CBGB, a film about the punk club's owner Hilly Kristal and the New York City miscreants surrounding him, began dipping in and out of theaters. Earlier this year Steven Soderbergh made Behind the Candelabra, about Liberace's relationship with Scott Thorson, for HBO. And all these films come in the wake of last decade's string of Oscar-winning musician biopics — Walk the Line, La Vie en Rose and Ray — that prompted the Judd Apatow-written and produced parody, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and made Notorious and Control inevitable.
To get at what viewers want from musician biopics and what makes some of them work while others fail (horribly, horribly fail), Ducker discussed the topic with Molly Lambert. A writer for Grantland, Lambert recently started the column "Molly at the Movies" and also is part of the podcast "Girls in Hoodies."
ERIC DUCKER: Generally speaking, what are your feelings towards musician biopics?
MOLLY LAMBERT: Biopics are tough because it's hard to squish an entire life into a couple of hours. My favorites usually concentrate on a specific era instead of trying to give us the full cradle to the grave. How about you?
Yeah, the life story approach is baffling to me. Even trying to make a movie about 10 years of someone's life is probably too much. And ultimately I think it short-changes the subject. I'd rather get something on a succinct/crucial time in his or her life. I've been pretty turned off from music biopics in general for the past few years, but they seem to just keep coming.
It feels like every prestigious artist gets one, and the more official a biopic is, the more likely it'll end on an up note and be dedicated to the musician's legacy. They do tend to be a chore. I mean there will never be a time that I will feel like watching Walk The Line again.
What's the purpose of these movies getting made? Is it just because the average person is more likely to watch an abridged version of someone's life story than take the time to read a biography? Or should they try to reveal something about "a musician's identity," as wanky as that sounds? I know which side I'm on, but I presume I'm in the minority.
I cynically assume it's usually meant to turn a profit.
For the musician and/or their families?
Yeah. The VH1 TLC biopic that kind of spurred this discussion did help the group's greatest hits album — sales spiked 200% after the movie. A big part of the TLC story is knowing how they got screwed out of the profits, thanks to Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes breaking it down so well in their Behind The Music.
This is where it gets tough, because as much as I disliked Walk the Line and Crazy Sexy Cool as movies, if the ultimate end result is more people learning about Johnny Cash and TLC's music, and those artists and their families getting more money, I can't really get too upset. There are different approaches to movies about Cash and TLC that I would like to see, but I don't think they'd be that successful because they ultimately wouldn't be about the music (, man).
The thing about these musicians is that anybody playing them is bound to seem like a pale impersonation. So Michael Pitt's Kurt Cobain can't possibly hold a candle to the real Kurt Cobain's charisma, no matter how accurate the tattered sweaters and cat-eye shades are. On the other hand, there are music biopics that are some of my favorite movies, for example Coal Miner's Daughter, which takes more of the slice of life approach that I was talking about, or What's Love Got To Do With It. Maybe you just need really good actors like Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne to make it work.
I guess a composite band feels more specific than a real one possibly could. You get to put every great anecdote into one story without worrying about accuracy.
How much did you know about Lorreta Lynn and Tina Turner's lives before you saw those movies? Are they just better made movies, or was it the revelations about people you admire for artistic reasons?
It probably doesn't hurt that I love Tina and Loretta, but I also love Johnny Cash and have nothing against Joaquin Phoenix, so who knows? I do think there are a lot of good stories that don't get told because of the prevailing focus on big names. I'd love to see a movie about The Shaggs, for example, or Captain Beefheart — people who the audience might not know that much about to begin with. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp lost me after Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but they could easily win me back with a Tiny Tim biopic.
That's awesome. What the genre needs is more passion projects, not just "the rights to this are available so somebody has to make it" projects. I actually liked a lot of things about the Runaways biopic, but I'm starved for girl gang movies of any sort.
Oof. That one didn't do it for me.
There's also Almost Famous, which is a Led Zeppelin movie without officially being one.
Or an Eagles one, depending on who you talk to.
Really? No way.
Yeah, I heard a lot of the Russell Hammond stuff comes from Cameron Crowe's experiences with Glenn Frey.
I guess a composite band feels more specific than a real one possibly could. You get to put every great anecdote into one story without worrying about accuracy.
Right, that's why Ladies And Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains is probably the best film about a punk band.
Totally. The genre has been pretty staid since the get go, since it began with sort of flowery "life of composers" films. I do love Yankee Doodle Dandy, where James Cagney is George M. Cohan, but, again, I knew very little about George M. Cohan going into that movie. I mean, there are three movies about Franz Liszt and only one of them stars Roger Daltrey.
Here's the thing though — I'll watch and (usually) enjoy a documentary about any musician's life, no matter how known or obscure they are. And it doesn't bother me if the documentary tries to cover his or her entire life. But once it gets dramatized, I have a hard time with it, even if I know in my head that the documentary is probably doing just as much selective framing of the story in service of the director's narrative.
For sure, and there is very often an annoying framing device. There's something about the three-act rise and fall structure that doesn't actually map the messiness of real lives, even though it's the standard way of dramatizing life as a plot arc. One movie I've never seen that I'm desperate to see is John Carpenter's TV biopic of Elvis starring Kurt Russell. He made it right after Halloween! Maybe TV movies just feel lower stakes than [theatrically-released] movies. Maybe that's because we expect TV movies to be kind of campy, which is why Behind The Candelabra was so genius. It played so well with the conventions of the biopic and camp in general; and Liberace is someone who was once very well known and is now more obscure. And he's more of a showman than a respected composer, so there's no need for the perfunctory scene of him stumbling upon the perfect riff at the piano or any other such genre clichés.
Maybe that movie succeeded because it wasn't told from the perspective of "the star." I wonder if it's good to have that distance; like, my favorite movie about the Beatles is Backbeat.
That's funny. Am I allowed to count HELP! as mine?
I was just about to say, not including movies starring the Beatles.
I had high expectations for both of those [Todd Haynes-directed] movies and I'll watch them any time I come across them because I still want to like them, but neither really works for me. I've given up I'm Not There, but still hope that one day Velvet Goldmine will cohere.
It's a thin line between bad and great.
How much do you think the screenwriting has to do with which biopics work? Are there any that you thought were ruined by bad writing?
They're mostly ruined by bad writing. It takes a weird alchemy for one to work. When they just roll out the important moments in a star's life, it's like a zombie movie.
Are you just talking about the predictable structure or do you mean the wooden/forced dialogue?
A little bit of both, which is why slice of life movies work better, or ones that limit themselves to a specific famous incident. Otherwise it's like a greatest hits album. Maybe the corny dialogue and bad exposition is part of the genre.
I like to see very serious and revered scenes being dismantled.
There can be so much exposition. All the dialogue becomes convenient ways for characters to explain what has happened or what is happening. Can you think of any music biopics that have been saved by the writing? 24 Hour Party People could have been ponderous without such a deft script.
You know what is a great one? Selena. It's a great script and the performances are fantastic. J. Lo's best work. La Bamba is a great movie and maybe the best musician biopic. Maybe La Bamba and Selena are satisfying because of the horribly tragic endings. They don't have to trail off into "And then they had another 40 years of a career" like most biopics do. When you read books about bands though, sometimes it's impossible not to think this would make such a great movie. I read Tommy James' book and every chapter reads like a Scorsese movie since it's about how mobbed up the New York record business was (and is), and it's full of good anecdotes.
Going back to how TV movies give a pass to a certain level of camp, what did you think of the TLC biopic?
Oh, it was fine, and everyone seemed to agree that Lil Mama was unexpectedly the highlight. It accomplished what it needed to, which was to remind everyone how great TLC are and burnish their legacy as one of the greatest pop R&B groups of all time.
Now we're getting back to the first point we talked about. There's a couple more interesting stories within their story that I wish it had told. I'd love to know more about the manufactured black girl (and/or boy) group industry in Atlanta that they came out of, or the background dancer world that Chili was from. I also would have been into a more in-depth story about how the music industry exists as this cycle of people getting screwed over, and the only way to actually make a ton of money is to screw someone else over — I'm sure [TLC's first manager] Ann Peebles didn't make a lot of money as an artist, and I'd have loved to get some sense of the motivation behind her treatment of TLC besides vague hints that she was jealous (or maybe just a monster).
Yeah, they really made Pebbles the villain for a plot point, but I was like "Mercedes Boy"! I think the TLC Behind The Music is a better all-around document and maybe stories like these are just too expansive for the format of a three-act biopic, because you do really want all the random details and obscure stories, which are usually sliced out of biopics in favor of the most pertinent official facts
Also, I can't believe how bad it looked. Charles Stone III did some really imaginative work in music videos in the '90s and there's even some cool stuff in Drumline, but the this movie looked like it could have been made in the '90s, and not just the parts that were meant to be recreations of music video or home videos.
I didn't really blame CS III because I figured they were turning this out for about $5.
Yeah, but he made those first A Tribe Called Quest videos for two bucks and some change.
Truuuuuuue. There's also something about seeing iconic moments recreated that opens up the uncanny valley, especially when it's something like the "Waterfalls" video that's already been emblazoned into your brain forever. I mean the upcoming Andre 3000 as Jimi Hendrix movie sounds like a good idea in theory, but they all do right?
Yeah, I'm not on board for that one, and not just because I think Big Boi is actually the better actor.
I was most excited a few years ago when Snoop was threatening to play Bitches' Brew era Miles Davis. That sounds perfect to me. Did I mention that I love The Doors (the movie) so much that it made me reconsider my hatred of The Doors (the band) and now I love them?
Was this a recent development or did it come during your teenage years?
It was right around college, I'd always thought the The Doors were really corny and overrated, less so because of Jim Morrison than Ray Manzarek, but Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison made something click for me — Morrison's lounge singer quality — and I suddenly went, "Ohhhhhh."
You were into the portrayal of him as a total slob and lunatic, rather than a romantic figure?
Sort of a combination. The former finally made me get the latter. I'd previously always seen those murals of Morrison in Venice and went, "Eh, leather pants."
If The Doors was just about him being a slob, I probably could have gotten with it, but then again, I haven't seen it in years.
Kyle MacLachlan is great in that movie, too.
Why do you think studios are confident that these movies will make money?
Because studios are dumb and assume that high name recognition always means profits, which is the same reason they make Transformers movies. I don't think Control was made to turn a profit, but things like Ray are.
I can't imagine that a respectable CBGBs movie would be very much fun. But a crappy one? Sure.
I know it's a matter of scale, but do you think there are enough people in the world who intrinsically want to see a movie about Ray Charles and that a movie about that subject is guaranteed to make a profit?
There's this idea of like, somebody should make a Ray Charles movie because it's an interesting story, but would I personally have cast Jamie Foxx? Maybe not. And now you have this Zoe Saldana biopic of Nina Simone coming up that's already a disaster. Should there be a Nina Simone movie? Absolutely. Will this one be any good? Almost definitely not.
Two steps back: Why wouldn't you have cast Jamie Foxx?
Because I don't think Jamie Foxx is that great of an actor, despite his ability to do an excellent vocal impersonation of Ray Charles.
One step back: Why do you think the Nina Simone movie is already a disaster?
Because Zoe Saldana doesn't resemble Nina Simone at all, so she's doing the film in prosthetics and skin makeup, which just looks really bad and is also offensive.
This brings up a interesting secondary point: how crucial is it for the actor to resemble the musician?
Good makeup can make all the difference, but it's also very distracting and makes you just focus on the similarities and differences. Cadillac Records was not good, partially because Beyoncé's Etta James wig was a total mess. And inviting the comparisons between Beyoncé and Etta doesn't necessarily favor Beyoncé.
Some of these movies get made with the permission of the artist, or at least their families if they are no longer living. Others are more unauthorized or come with the permission of someone who had some kind of relationship with the musician. Beyond the money, either directly from selling the rights or indirectly from the renewed interest in the music (which presumably leads to more sales), what do musicians get out of biopics made about them?
Ideally I would think it cements or reinforces an artist's status, but like I said earlier, the bigger the artist the higher the expectations, and if the artist is still alive, they can hopefully cash in a little.
Neither of us have seen the CBGB movie, are you interested?
Oh hell yes. Malin Akerman as Debbie Harry? Sign me up.
So you're into it for the camp? You have no illusions or pretentions.
Oh, yeah, because punk tends to take itself so seriously, even though that's so against the genre's spirit to me. I like to see very serious and revered scenes being dismantled, which is why I also enjoyed the faux-Velvets and Hayden Christensen's world's most embarrassing Bob Dylan impersonation in Factory Girl.
I never saw that. I only saw the Yo La Tengo as the Velvet Underground cameo in I Shot Andy Warhol.
That movie is actually great and a perfect deconstruction of a scene that's been romanticized beyond the pale, because I tend to imagine that parties at the Factory might have been kind of hellish, as is any event where everyone is trying to be cool.
Did you read Eric Harvey's review of CBGB in Pitchfork where he writes about how it's the sitcom treatment of the New York City punk scene and that Hilly Kristal actually wanted to make a Taxi-like sitcom with the scene's characters? It's really interesting.
No, but that sounds about right. I can't imagine that a respectable CBGBs movie would be very much fun. But a crappy one? Sure. Maybe we pull a The Social Network and start making biopics about stories that are still in progress, like just throw together a few reels about Miley's 2013.
It could be like the new Bring It On! Which isn't a biopic, to my knowledge.
It's interesting you mention that one though, since Kirsten Dunst was attached to play Debbie Harry for Michel Gondry for a few years.
Wow, but even with that combination, I'm skeptical. Still I'd like it to exist.
There's an expectation that you have to recreate the most iconic moments, but what I'm more interested in is the stuff we haven't seen — like Debbie Harry in art school is a movie I'd love to watch.
I support that.
The first-act struggle to establish yourself is usually more interesting than the eventual success and plateau or slide down the mountain, which seems to be true of a lot of career arcs in general. People are most interesting when they're the hungriest
Kim Gordon as a teenager in Los Angeles in the '60s — I'd see a movie about that.
Oh, yeah, or baby Björk in Iceland and The Sugarcubes. These things all play out fine in my head, it's just when they come into reality that things go awry.
If you could green-light one music biopic, who would it be about, what would you want it to cover, who would you cast in it and who would direct?
My dream project as of right this second might be a portrayal of Britney Spears' head-shaving breakdown that's filmed naturalistically in almost real time, directed by Lynne Ramsay, and starring Hayden Panettiere.
That's pretty great. Would you indulge the conspiracy stuff or stick strictly to the known facts? (Conspiracies like that she was on meth and didn't want to fail a drug test, not the monarch mind control).
Maybe a little of both — fictional but plays like Don't Look Back.
So you can infer certain things?
Yeah, that's my fantasy, but I'd also accept Tilda Swinton as David Bowie for a more obvious pick. I actually have a billion good biopic ideas. Ryan Gosling as Harry Nilsson. A movie about Arthur Lee. A movie about N.W.A as teenagers. I'd love a movie about X. Alex Karpovsky as Ian Svenonius.
Karpovsky as Svenonius is awesome, but I think it'd have to be a movie about either Ian MacKaye (which would never happen) or the K Records Story.
MacKaye might let it happen, doesn't he drink wine now?
Maybe it's a Henry Rollins movie and somehow you work Svenonius in when he goes back to D.C.
Hahaha. Channing Tatum is Henry Rollins.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.