You’d be hard-pressed to find a single human being who hates music. Just hates music, with a fiery passion, the whole lot of it. Music has the power to bring us to our feet, send us to our knees and lay horizontal on top of one another wondering if Barry White knows just how powerful his voice really is. Yes, music drives us to a great many things, including making movies about the many talented (and sometimes not-so talented) artists who create it.
So with the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy out in theaters this weekend, we got to wondering: what really is The Best Musician Movie Ever? We got our panel of CraveOnline critics – William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold, Brian Formo and Ernest Hardy – to come up with their picks for the one film they believe fits that bill, and as usual, they can’t agree on a single damned thing.
Find out what they picked, read on to learn why, and let us know what you’d pick if you were given the same task. And be sure to come back next Wednesday for an all-new, highly debatable installment of CraveOnline’s The Best Movie Ever!
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Witney Seibold’s Pick: Gimme Shelter (1970)
I want you all to know that the proper answer for this question is – and always will be – A Hard Day’s Night. The film has the best soundtrack of all time, explores the personalities of the most famous band of all time back when they were young and sexy, and it stands as the guidepost for the raucous up-with-youth optimistic enthusiasm of the early 1960s. A Hard Day’s Night is perhaps the best movie ever about musicians.
But, there is a cynical part of my brain that rears its head when the question is asked. And while the rambunctious energy of The Beatles is all well and good, there is something far more salient, more pertinent, more important in the breakdown and deterioration of that optimism. As Hunter S. Thompson once said, the great wave broke and rolled back. As such, I will select a film that documents what can amount to the end of the freewheeling spirit of the 1960s, and reveal the dark anger and violence that was always sort of lurking underneath. I will select the 1970 Maysles Bros. movie Gimme Shelter.
Gimme Shelter is a documentary film about a concert held by The Rolling Stones at the Altamont Speedway in California. The concert was intended to be an extension of Woodstock, held in New York four months earlier. But the Altamont Speedway concert was horrifically mismanaged. The stage was placed where few sitting even a few yards back could see it. People were surly and angry. And, just to make sure everything was a complete disaster, Hell’s Angels (armed with specially weighted pool cues) were hired to act as security. Even Mick Jagger’s plaintive requests for everyone to calm down couldn’t stop the growing anger and periodic fights. Eventually, one of those Hell’s Angels stabbed a concertgoer. It was the end of so many things. Woodstock suddenly became less a declaration of joy and more a last hurrah of a generation.
Gimme Shelter excels in every regard, using “direct cinema” to reveal The Rolling Stones and how powerless they were in the face of all this. Jagger even appears in the film watching footage of the stabbing. He is baffled and dismayed. Music cures all ills? Or is it, sometimes, a destructive force? There’s a lot left to discuss about the 1960s.
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William Bibbiani’s Pick: Amadeus (1984)
Any great movie about musicians must have A) great music, and B) great turmoil. I love A Hard Day’s Night as much as anyone, maybe even more, but the effortless joy of Richard Lester’s Beatles movie captures a rarified form of celebrity that most musicians will never be able to experience, and probably don’t even want to. I also love The Blues Brothers and The Commitments, but they lack the angst that comes from true artistic living. And Whiplash, brilliant as it is, is almost all angst. It may be one of the great films about true artistic drive, but anger and obsession ultimately rob the film of the pleasure that comes from appreciating A) great music.
But Milos Forman’s bravissimo Amadeus captures everything awe-inspiring, for better and worse, about the musician’s spirit. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, played by Tom Hulce, represents the effortless talent that God (or whomever) bestows upon only a very fortunate few, and Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham, represents the hard working rest of us. He may be good, but he may never be great, and the beautiful music that flows so seamlessly from Mozart’s mind inspires and ultimately infuriates him. He sets out to destroy his rival, under the diffuse guise of being his pal.
This insidious and masterful version of Othello plays out as horrific tragedy, but Forman wisely foregrounds the enormous joy of Mozart’s music. He trusses Tom Hulce up in a pink wig and pounds the incredible score out the speakers like it’s kick-ass punk rock. It may as well be. Although the popular impression of classical music is that it’s best suited for background music at fancy dinner parties, Forman’s film – adapted by Peter Shaffer from his own fantastic play – uses an historic icon and his lesser known contemporary as analogues for every artistic dream, realized or dashed, or both. It is the zenith of musician movies, pumped with crowd-pleasing renditions of Mozart’s unforgettable compositions.
It is also, historically speaking, a complete crock of shit. It never happened, and there’s not even any evidence to prove that Salieri didn’t hold Mozart in the highest regard. But who cares when the story is this good, and who among us would have even heard of Antonio Salieri without Schaffer’s gross revisionism?
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Brian Formo’s Pick: Sid and Nancy (1986)
20th century music biopics have such a simple paint-by-numbers storytelling frame that its one of the easiest spoofs to make: show the star prepare to go out before an iconic comeback performance, flashback to their humble beginnings, show their brilliance, show those aha! recording session moments through the origins of certain phrases and hooks, show the iconic photo shoot, show the sex, show the drugs, show more sex, introduce harder drugs, show the band and/or marriage falling apart, show the solo failings, show the redemption, and sell the greatest hits soundtrack at a kiosk around the corner. Easy peasy. It’s such an identifiable trope, that the films that don’t follow that mold are the ones that stand out. And no music biopic of a 20th century musician eschews that trope as much as Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy.
Punk is many things, but at its most basic it’s kicking societal conventions to the curb. And making a film about bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman, in his first great performance) just outright kicks down the musician biopic door because its questionable whether or not Vicious possessed any sort of musical talent or whether he was just a Punk Scarecrow to scare the previous generation of musician sellouts that created bands like The Sex Pistols.Vicious was the baddest boy in the bad boy Frankenstein that was The Sex Pistols. Who cares if he could play bass? He could spike his hair, and make kids feel like they were fucking with the establishment just by witnessing him flop about on stage.
The Sex Pistols stood on the Plymouth Rock of the Punk Originals, but they were a packaged project of looks: a bad boy band envisioned by punk guru Malcolm McLaren—who’d seen 60s counterculture gobbled up by the mainstream for profit, and decided to fabricate a band via the counterculture he was witnessing form on the London streets. McLarene tossed in the fuck you to the Love Generation by going to the basic root of that love: SEX and selling it. McLaren first sold it as boutique clothing. But then band The Sex Pistols was assembled by McLaren to be music assassins. But now, I’m getting into that exact biographical territory that Cox avoids. That backstory of punk puppetry isn’t presented. What is presented in Sid and Nancy is the chaotic nature of unbridled internal anarchy. And that is personified by Sid Vicious from head to toe, specifically through his veins and brain.
Cox’s film finds appeal in trash. The most iconic scene from the film is Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy (Chloe Webb, so perfectly awful and hard to withstand; supposedly just as Nancy was, by all punk reports), who are both heroin addicts, kissing each other while pressed against a dumpster. Trash falls around them, from above, in slow motion. It’s a simple, bleak scene that is somehow injected with optimism by showing the weightlessness of trash (appropriately dropping from the unseen above). The weightlessness of anarchy is akin to the freefall of being discarded. Sid and Nancy has a number of surreal moments that are similarly tossed out without warning or set-up: such as Vicious singing a flippant version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” while stumbling, cursing, and eventually shooting his audience of tuxedo-wearing suits. Cox even has a methadone social worker (Sy Richardson, who also appeared in Cox’s punk-ethos masterpiece Repo Man) directly address that unseen audience of formal attire who might be watching the movie, and asks Sid and Nancy why they aren’t “selling healthy anarchy.” As if there’s such a thing.
By presenting these formal scenes with a certain looseness Cox does the perfect encapsulation of Sid Vicious: it’s hard to discern what’s a joke, what is sad, and what’s rotted through and through.
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Ernest Hardy’s Pick: Jackie’s Back! (1999)
Back in 1999, when the mockumentary Jackie’s Back! was first released (it premiered on the Lifetime Network), American pop culture was already saturated with divas and mindless diva-worshipping. What was once a rare, hard-earned status was now bestowed on any tone-deaf singer with a hit song and inflated sense of self-importance. The term now is omnipresent and meaningless. Jackie’s Back!, starring the underrated Jenifer Lewis, written by Dee LaDuke and Mark Alton Brown, and directed by Robert Townsend, was a bulls-eye skewering of divadom. The megalomania, lavish lifestyle, and human wreckage left in the diva’s wake, were all painted with a knowingly broad stroke and loads of humor both sly and over-the-top.
When the film opens, Jackie is staging her millionth comeback at a small concert venue in Hollywood. The effort is being filmed by Edward Whatsett St. John (Tim Curry,) a British documentarian who’d never heard of Jackie before getting the gig. (He thought he was working on a project about iconic baseball player Jackie Robinson.) With meek, put-upon daughter Antandra (T.V. Blake) in tow, Jackie is a hurricane of delusion and entitlement, putting on grand airs for Edward. His cool skepticism is met with high-octane bitchiness. When he looks at a room in her house that is filled with photos of her, and asks if it’s not a bit self-aggrandizing, she retorts, “You think you go to Whitney Houston’s house, she got some other bitch’s pictures on the wall?”
As is always the case with the great Lewis, it’s not what she says so much as how she says it. Her comic timing and phrasing are razor sharp, jazz smooth. (And she’s a better singer than 90% of the folks making soul and pop music today.) She’s almost upstaged by the cameos in the film: Whoopi Goldberg as Jackie’s bitter sister, Ethyl; Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli, Diahann Carroll, Chris Rock, Charles Barkley, Dolly Parton, Don Cornelius, and a half dozen more. Most are playing a heightened version of themselves as friends or foes of Jackie, with Midler and Minnelli being especially good sports lampooning their own images.
As the comeback effort hits one snag after another, and a trip back to her childhood home blows up in her face, the film splices in “old” performance footage of Jackie, and album covers from throughout her career that detail her constant reinvention. This is where Townsend and his writers show their real smarts without grabbing you by the back of the neck to make sure you get what they are doing. They start with Jackie’s early girl-group days with her sisters (she elbows her way into lead singer position), in a nod to the Supremes and every other tension-fraught group. From there, in Jackie’s ever shifting personas, we get visual references to ahead-of-their-time funk & rollers Betty Davis and LaBelle, R&B legend Millie Jackson, Diana Ross, Donna Summer, and even cult disco act the Ritchie Family. Accompanying the images are original songs and music by the great Marc Shaiman, with the lyrics being zinger-laden send-ups. And there’s a wonderful riff on Pam Grier and blaxploitation films.
But Jackie steps outside the feminine realm to get in a dig about racial authenticity and politics when it shows a photo of Jackie hugging Richard Nixon, a move that nearly derailed her career. This is a direct riff on the real life controversy that dogged the late Sammy Davis Jr. when he hugged Nixon in an ill-received 1972 photo-op. When Jackie is asked about the career fallout and what it cost her with black fans, she waves it off with, “My people love me. There was no performer more militant than me. My afro was bigger than Angela Davis’s.”
One of the highlights of the whole film is a montage of speakers defining the word diva. They’re all fantastic, but Whoopi’s embittered Ethyl nails it: A dumb, ignorant, vicious, asshole.”