Music legends loomed large at the movies this year, literally larger-than-life. Persona and celebrity are necessary components in such films, where the music itself is reserved as icing on the cake. Think of the lightbulb-flashing paparazzi who surround Amy Winehouse like a SWAT team in Amy, or the bat-swinging Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) who demands payment by Priority Records in Straight Outta Compton. This is not so much a complaint as an observation of the way we tend to narrativize the lives of beloved musicians. The variety of talent in this year’s crop of music films — Brian Wilson, N.W.A, Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and Nina Simone — deserve their stories to be presented as mythic lore onscreen. There is a blueprint for such stories, a music biopic ur-myth of sorts. Despite the preponderance of boilerplate, a few unique devices bubbled to the top this year, like the original animation in Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck that supplements Cobain’s voice from his personal audiocassettes, or the now-and-then parallel storytelling of Love and Mercy.
While not exactly original, the flashing forward and backward of time serves the story of Brian Wilson well. In the countercultural milieu of 1967, the young, troubled Beach Boy (Paul Dano) tries to create what would become his masterpiece, Pet Sounds; later in the Eighties, he’s a middle-aged has-been (John Cusack) undone by mental illness and under the draconian thumb of his emotionally abusive therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). While it may not hue as closely to its genre’s rise-and-fall formula (we are, after all, talking about someone as unique as Brian Wilson), Love and Mercy contains core elements of the music biopic, like the spiritual process of songwriting, which, when done well, makes the viewer fall in love with the music all over again. Love and Mercy narrates Wilson’s undiagnosed psychological maladies, exacerbated by the Beach Boys’ hectic touring schedule and the drug-popping culture of the Sixties, which leads to Wilson hearing voices in his head before he finds a way to transform them into the many magical sounds heard on Pet Sounds. Like many films that depict the dichotomy between creative genius and tortured soul, Love and Mercy neatly, perhaps too simply, conflates the idea of mental illness and musical genius.
Wilson retains boy-like charm throughout Love and Mercy, a trait also visible in Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Adorable home videos of baby Kurt are accompanied by his mother Wendy describing her too-hasty marriage to Donald Cobain, whose emotional distance from his son and ultimate divorce from Wendy became a catalyst for Kurt’s emotional problems. Montage of Heck follows the tragic trajectory of Cobain’s childhood woes leading to his creative outlets in music and visual art, after which he plugs out of society to discover the singular sound that would eventually define Nirvana’s music. Director Brett Morgen’s wide access to the Cobain estate included a series of Kurt’s personal tapes that feature workshopped music, goof-offs, experimental sounds, and personal diaries. In one notable anecdote, Cobain quietly narrates a chapter from his adolescence about a botched suicide attempt. These personal stories are set to a very conservative yet lyrical form of animation that fit perfectly with Cobain’s misanthropic tone.
Drugs were celebrated in Wilson’s hey-day; by the time Cobain became a father, their abuse was known to be ubiquitous among artists. The public moral outcry peaked in tandem with the heightened availability of celebrity gossip news on the Internet in the early to mid-Aughts when Amy Winehouse was becoming a worldwide sensation. Where Montage of Heck touches on Cobain’s addiction, Asif Kapadia’s Amy is a tad too focused on the British chanteuse’s drug abuse, as if Kapadia seeks to challenge the media’s portrayal of the troubled singer yet finds himself preoccupied by it. Like Montage of Heck, Amy emphasizes its subject’s early life, hinting at Winehouse’s problems having manifested from her relationship with an emotionally distant father. Because Kapadia was unable to interview Winehouse, the film, composed primarily of public and private videos, avoids the tedium of talking-head imagery with voice-over interviews, thereby showing us a lot of Amy being Amy. It’s difficult not to become transfixed by the young woman, whose charisma is noticeable even in the earliest home videos. This natural degree of eccentricity connects Amy with Montage of Heck and the other notable music doc of 2015, What Happened, Miss Simone?, which contain abundant footage of their subjects being wildly precocious and full of creative energy. As if life were always a stage, as if song-riffing and bursts of creativity in the middle of conversation were just a natural part of life.
Another theme visible in these three documentaries is emotional instability, presenting another dichotomy so typical in the music biopic: an artist’s unique talent is as intense as their self-destruction. What sets What Happened apart from the other two docs is that Simone lived at a time when mental illness was barely acknowledged as a medical condition. We are, after all, talking about a time when it was publicly acceptable to discriminate and abuse black people. Her childhood traumas, compounded by being the subject of racism, pushed Simone to channel her pain into her unmistakeable jazz voice, while the tumultuous times she lived in wreaked complete havoc on her emotional health. Presenting Simone’s private, revelatory diary entries, What Happened excels in chronicling the singer’s emotional investment in the American civil rights movement, what that cost her, and how her’s family abuse cycled when she reared her own daughter.
While What Happened lacks insight into Simone’s musical prowess or how she gains that mastery, it does paint a picture of a troubling time, emphasizing Simone’s pivotal role in civil rights. It’s depressing to think how little had changed only a few decades later when N.W.A. serendipitously formed, a creative reaction by disenfranchised young black men in Compton. Like What Happened, Straight Outta Comptonis hauntingly on-point about the hip-hop group’s racial struggles in gaining legitimacy as real musicians. While much has been said about the missing gaps in the N.W.A. story — notably Dr. Dre’s abusive treatment of women — one could also argue that the same is true of many music biopics of white male musicians with similar tales of abuse. Given the dearth of large-scale films about hip-hop icons, it serves to reason that one of the first few should be allowed to glorify the pioneers of a new musical genre, and chart their struggles in being taken seriously. Straight Outta Compton is also exempt from criticism about its adherence to the music biopic formula, for it includes one of the best treatments of the how-a-song-got-made stories: the boys’ creation of “Fuck Tha Police” following one particularly cruel mistreatment by cops.
This year’s music films tell tragic tales of lonely kids from broken homes and neighborhoods who found solace in music and who achieved immense stardom far too young. Haunting these films are similar stories of family neglect or abuse, sheer eccentricity, mental illness, and/or substance abuse, all depicting a harrowing experience of what it’s like to be a musician who achieves the dream of making it big. The moral of every story: Success comes at great, great cost.