For a while, it seemed like movies about music were at serious risk of getting in an unsalvageable rut of redundancy.
Narrative films have relied repeatedly on the musical biopic, where seemingly every landmark musician in the second half of the twentieth century has been afforded an identical dramatic arc. It’s a formula that an occasional great performance can rise above, but ultimately offers little new in terms of cinema’s relationship with the power of pop. Nonfiction films, by contrast, have shown an opposite problem, treating lesser-known chapters of popular music history (from underappreciated artists to allegedly undervalued studios) with all-too-familiar hagiographies and seemingly requisite Bono interviews.
But 2014 has not only produced a surprising glut of interesting films about music, it’s shown how great movies about music can explore relationships between sound and image, music and history, art and the artist well outside of the tired formulas.
Here are some solid movies released this year that have generated a rather different kind of noise.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Release Date: April 11th
How you can see it: VOD, disc, etc.
Jim Jarmusch’s take on the reclusive artist as vampire is so obviously fitting that it’s a wonder why such meeting of myths hasn’t been realized quite this way before. This surprisingly touching eons-long love story depicts the vampire rock star as a sort of drifting flaneur whose ceaseless time is made up of nothing but leisure, and thus becomes a centuries-long consumer of high culture and its variations throughout history, from controversial concertos to transcendent rock ’n’ roll.
While this description might make the film’s conceit come across as strained, Jarmusch’s characteristically patient approach to the material (accompanied by the ambient guitar sounds of his band SQURL) puts the audience in a never-ending space that convincingly captures what the world might be like when experienced outside mortal, linear time. This is a vision of the world that any obsessive of music (or books or movies, etc.) would ostensibly want: ceaseless time to learn outside the requirements of work.
This seeming nocturnal utopia is undercut, of course, by the need to feed on human blood. Enter heroin metaphor here.
We Are the Best!
Release Date: June 20th
How you can see it: VOD, disc, etc.
Has punk rock, riot grrrl, or any other affiliates been so joyously represented onscreen as Lukas Moodysson’s depiction of a preteen punk group in late-1980s Sweden? Has any depiction of adolescent independence, budding sexuality, etc. been shown with such a freeing irreverence for all the expectations of coming of age stories? We Are the Best! Is a portrait of music-making as whatever you make of it, free from the evaluating standards of others, and just as legitimate and justifiable as any other music that exists.
The film also shows how music-making is a catalyst for experience and autonomy – not through “making it big” or even rebelling from one’s parents, but simply as a process of self-actualization. A hugely entertaining gesture of radical freedom, We Are the Best! is important specifically because of its pitch-perfect irreverence.
Release Date: September 5th
How you can see it: Available for digital rental November 4
Tim Sutton’s lyrical, elliptical portrait of a musician struggling between art and addiction, salvation and insanity takes the Big Themes that pervade so many depictions of troubled artists and distills them down to a series of subtly rendered experiences of its protagonist, realized with incredible depth by Willis Earl Beal.
Memphis is an exquisitely photographed film that makes the atmosphere of the Tennessee city an extension of the music produced within. Beal’s struggle is at once enthralling and beguiling, mesmerizing and alienating, and few films take such time and patience to render so fully and so stunningly the psychology of a musician’s tumultuous life. Rather than romanticizing such difficulties, Memphis portrays them in stark, illuminating relief.
20,000 Days on Earth
Release Date: September 19th
How you can see it: Currently in limited theatrical release
Ian Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s inventive documentary shows how the life of a famous musician embodies the pendulum between fact and fiction, authenticity and artifice – a theme reflected in the film’s style, which oscillates between Nick Cave’s recording of The Bad Seeds’ most recent album and detailed ruminations on a life of fame between with the likes of The Proposition collaborator Ray Winstone, fellow Aussie superstar Kylie Minogue, and Freudian psychoanalyst Darian Leader.
But where 20,000 Days on Ear at first appears to be another investigation of the artifice of stardom (its opening sequence displays overt reference to David Bowie’s first narrative film role in The Man Who Fell to Earth), it eventually transforms into an in-depth, even clinical evaluation of the daily rigor of rock stardom as a form of practice. In place of simplistic, regurgitated insights on the social construction of celebrity is a level-headed – and gorgeously shot– depiction of what it means day in and day out for one’s most intimate and vulnerable experiences to make up the content of their livelihood.
To boot, you get a scene where, accompanied by photographic evidence projected onto a wall, Cave tells the story of a band member getting pissed on at a concert in the style of Kevin Costner in JFK.
Release Date: October 10th
How you can see it: Currently expanding a limited theatrical release
Unfortunately, I have not yet had an opportunity to see this Sundance Award winning critical darling. That said, I trust in Rob Hunter’s review, in which he observes,
“Whiplash is a percussive thriller that drops viewers into the middle of an obsession, one that assaults the eyes and ears with a painful beauty and the occasional misstep before reaching an incredibly invigorating finale. Equal parts suspense and musical drama, the film is a blistering experience.
“…It hurts to watch Andrew, and by extension Teller, in action at times, but it also mesmerizes with its precision and power. His rapid-fire drumming leads to blisters, bleeding and pools of sweat collecting in his clothing and across the drum kit, but the sounds, the music he creates, are a salve for his pain as well as ours.”
Release Date: October 24th
How you can see it: Opens in limited release this week
Low Down has such an uncharacteristic approach to the rock biopic that it often doesn’t seem to belong to the genre at all. Jeff Preiss’ film is an adaptation of the memoir of Amy Albany, daughter of jazz pianist Joe Albany. By framing Albany’s life through the lens of his young daughter, Low Down structures a deliberately partial view of a musician’s life that, in turn, allows a nuanced portrayal of the everyday difficulties of living with a starving artist in terms outside of a Grand Life Arc.
Rather than depict his collaboratons with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis in the 1950s and 1960s or his work in Europe, the film focuses on Albany’s fight with drug addiction and lagging employment in 1970s Los Angeles. John Hawkes portrays Albany as a beatnik born a generation too late, which allows the film in general to explore the uncertain place of jazz after the 1960s. Hawkes finds his match in Elle Fanning, who is able to simultaneously convey hardened independence and wide-eyed idealism as a daughter for whom “normal home life” has a very unique meaning.
As far as deliberately-paced jazz portraits go, if Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight is the dreamlike eternal nightlife of late jazz’s haze of nostalgia, then Low Down is the hangover the day after that unwittingly welcomes you back to reality.