I’ve been bothered recently by a flurry of movie casting news. Yes, The Essential Noise is a music blog, but bear with me here.
Last week, a casting rumor flew around the Internet that Gossip Girl‘s Penn Badgely had been cast as the late singer Jeff Buckley in an upcoming biopic. I’m not familiar with Badgely’s work, but I have to think this is a better choice than the other rumored contender, Robert Pattinson. Then, I heard Badgely was not being cast. Fine. THEN, I heard he WOULD play Buckley, but in a competing biopic – one that would follow his early career and spotlight his breakout 1991 performance at a tribute to his late father, Tim Buckley. A tidy sidestep created by the fact that Buckley’s mother and protector of his estate, Mary Guibert, gave her blessing – and permission to use Buckley’s music – to the first film.
Is Jeff Buckley’s life story compelling enough that it merits not one, but TWO biopics? Yes, it has the hallmarks of tragedy: gifted musician father has a son who he neglects. Father OD’s at age 28. Son becomes a gifted musician in his own right. Son has a dumb-ass moment, jumps into the Wolf River with his boots on, and instantly drowns at age 30. Neither father nor son really ever achieve breakout success, though they are beloved cult artists. As a fan from (ahem) when Jeff Buckley was alive, I can’t help but think they’re going to ramp up the melodrama on these movies to a painful level. I’m envisioning Walk The Line here. (“Here, take these pills. Elvis takes ’em!”) Also, I love Jeff Buckley, but how many others care? Sad to say, he’s mainly known these days as that guy who did that killer cover of “Hallelujah”. Making two Jeff Buckley movies just seems like overwrought overkill, and will split the tiny audience that exists for it.
That said, if a Jeff Buckley movie must get made, I’d rather see Buckley played either by James Franco, who most folks who care think looks the part, or by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who I think would nail Buckley’s contrarian, bohemian spirit.
Instead of obsessing any longer over two movies that aren’t even made yet, I’d like to offer five of my favorite music biopics, documentaries and concert films. Not a comprehensive list of the BEST, mind you, just five of my favorites. And since I’m staying in the realm of truth, that eliminates movies like A Hard Day’s Night, Streets of Fire or Head. And I’ve never seen The Last Waltz (hangs head in shame). Here we go, in chronological order:
Urgh! A Music War (1981)
The concept is simple: up-and-coming artists gather in various cities and perform live. That’s it. What’s captivating about Urgh! A Music War is the amazing round-up of talent involved, creating a perfect snapshot of the New Wave movement. Big guns like The Police, Joan Jett and Devo join forces with eclectics like Klaus Nomi and Gary Numan, California royalty like Oingo Boingo and The Go-Gos, and reggae legends Steel Pulse. I believe this movie got its R rating solely from Lux Interior and The Cramps’s incendiary performance. Unavailable on DVD for many years – I broke down and bought a bootleg DVD at Comic-Con in 2009 – Urgh! recently received a proper DVD release through the Warner Archives series. It’s definitely worth seeking out.
Buy or download Urgh! A Music War here:
Purple Rain (1984)
I may need to use the term “biopic” with an asterisk here, but this tale of “The Kid” (played by Prince) does mirror a lot of aspects of Prince’s life – notably the Minneapolis club scene, with his real-life band at the time, the Revolution, and fellow bands like Morris Day and the Time. Though I doubt Prince had any of his prospective girlfriends cleanse themselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka. Undeniably a guilty pleasure film, with nearly every role played by non-professional actors, Purple Rain comes most alive during its numerous performance scenes, which were all recorded live. Perhaps we should think as Purple Rain as an awesome concert film with a bizarre framing device. This one also holds nostalgic value for me; I’m pretty sure this was the first R-rated movie I saw in a theater.
Athens, GA: Inside/Out (1986)
What has made the sleepy college town of Athens, Georgia a hotbed of alternative rock over the years? And is the town losing its edge through that reputation? The music doc Athens, GA: Inside/Out attempts to answer these questions through candid interviews and musical performances by the town’s biggest success stories (R.E.M, The B-52s), local legends (Pylon, Love Tractor), outsider artists (Rev. Howard Finster, Jim Herbert) and transplants hoping to catch some of that Athens magic (Flat Duo Jets). The resulting portrait shows a band of lovable, brilliant weirdos who could have been dreamed up by the Coen brothers. It looks like Athens, GA: Inside/Out is avaiable for instant streaming through Amazon.com.
An interview with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck from the movie:
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
Another “biopic” with an asterisk. No, the movie doesn’t SAY that it’s about David Bowie and Iggy Pop…but it’s about David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Director Todd Haynes whips up a glam fantasia, evoking Citizen Kane in its story structure, and theorizing that Oscar Wilde was the original glam rocker – from space. Velvet Goldmine boasts sexy, bombastic performances from Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (in his breakout role), Ewan McGregor and Christian Bale, and a phenomenal soundtrack of glam covers and original tunes “in the style of” from Shudder To Think, Grant Lee-Phillips, Placebo, and members of Radiohead. Velvet Goldmine may also be the gayest movie ever made. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Original song “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon”, written by Craig Wedren of Shudder To Think and performed in the film by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers:
It Might Get Loud (2009)
An amazing meeting of rock minds. We have Jimmy Page, the journeyman and Led Zeppelin legend that would play anywhere and with anyone for the joy of it. We have The Edge, U2’s foundation and a bit of a musical magician; at one point, he removes all the pedals and effects from the riff to U2’s hit “Elevation”, revealing the single note underneath. And we have the eccentric Jack White – former White Stripe, Raconteur, Dead Weather man…and quite possibly the Johnny Depp of rock. There’s a captivating scene at the beginning of It Might Get Loud where he builds his own guitar in minutes’ time and immediately wails away. The resulting summit in this movie is part rock history lesson, part mutual admiration society, and – finally – a helluva jam session.
Rock on with these flick picks, and let me know your favorite music biopics, documentaries and concert films in the comments. Also, besides The Last Waltz, which ones do I need to see?