Have you walked the line? Do you know what love’s got to do with it? More to the point, are you a twenty-four hour party person? If you’re confused, read on as Caitríona O’Malley delves into the heady world of the music biopic..
Imagine Johnny Cash playing at your school graduation party. For many of us, viagra sale that fateful night is wistfully remembered as the time you saw your teachers desperately try to avoid eye contact as they downed flat pints and yearned to escape the throng of sweating, bug-eyed teenagers grabbing them for earnest handshakes and declarations of love. Not so for the 50s teens of Walk the Line. They whoop and cavort to the gravelly tones of an Oscar-nominated Joaquin Phoenix, singing all the songs himself after months of gruelling training. He crackles with adrenaline on a tiny stage before hooking up with a young fan in a grubby bathroom. Slightly more memorable than pinging around the place to I Got A Feeling at three in the morning.
According to IMDB, the scene in the film where Phoenix rips a sink off the wall is of his own accord. It was unscripted. So take note, aspiring thespians. You might want to tear a tap off the bath with your teeth and spit the blood onto the floor at your next audition. Cash, like countless musicians, had his vices, and Phoenix is both compelling and repugnant in the role. He downs endless bottles of pills, rehearses while roaring drunk, cheats on his wife with June Carter (an electrifying Reese Witherspoon), and is generally quite the hedonistic rascal. And yet, there are the songs. Phoenix can be an odd fish, but here, he’s faultless as he duets with Witherspoon (Jackson) and drawls through Folsom Prison Blues. It’s admittedly quite a bleak film, from the death of Cash’s brother in childhood to his addictions and marriage breakdown. Phoenix and Witherspoon are so good, though, you can look past all that to the exuberance beneath, epitomised by their fizzing chemistry on stage as they share a microphone and solidify their place in the pantheon of country music greats.
Volatile relationships, unsurprisingly, feature heavily in music biopics. A few years ago, late at night, I stumbled upon What’s Love Got to Do with It. It’s the turbulent tale of Tina and Ike Turner’s marriage, chart success and Ike’s abuse of Tina. It can’t be easy for an actor to take the role of such a callous and barbaric man as Ike, but Laurence Fishburne nails the part as this twisted bully alternating between snorting lines and punching his wife in full view of their terrified children. Angela Bassett is magnetic and heart-wrenching as Tina who manages to disentangle herself from Ike and go on to a successful solo career. The music trips across the genres: the rich gospel music of Tina’s childhood; the catchy pop hooks with Ike; the power ballads of the solo years. Like Johnny and June, Ike and Tina despise each other and embrace in dizzying succession. The difference is that Ike was truly sadistic. It’s not shown in the film, but it’s been said that he once stubbed out a cigarette in Tina’s nostril. A real gentleman by all accounts. It’s not his story, though, it’s Tina’s, and although it can be crushing, Tina’s escape from Ike and subsequent solo career makes for a triumphant finale
The things people tend to associate with Manchester’s Hacienda nightclub are the intense Madchester scene and ecstasy. However, it was also where bands such as the Happy Mondays cut their teeth. 24 Hour Party People charts the highs (of every kind) and lows of Factory Records and the Hacienda. Factory Records was founded by Tony Wilson in Manchester in 1976. He first signs Joy Division, who become New Order after the suicide of singer, Ian Curtis. The thing that makes Factory different from most record labels is that Wilson doesn’t believe in contracts. This proves to be an ill-conceived idea. The film shifts to the pulsating Hacienda nightclub of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, awash with drink, drugs, clenched jaws and Shaun Ryder in dodgy T-shirts. Steve Coogan shrugs off Patridge and is as hilarious as Tony Wilson. He frequently breaks the fourth wall to keep the viewer in the loop as to who has gone and jumped off the balcony in the club and burst their lip on the stage this week. (Alright, that doesn’t actually happen, but you get the idea). It’s a very funny film. Stand-out scenes include one involving the back of a van and an irate wife, and another involving a visit from God.
The Hacienda fed a frenzy for local bands and a throbbing atmosphere, and it tapped into a trancelike collective consciousness, with glassy-eyed young people herding in at weekends to buzz on readily available ecstasy and electric, genre-defying music. It’s not giving too much away to say it all comes spiralling down. It had to. The Hacienda was making no money. People were spending their cash on drugs and foregoing drinks at the bar. Factory Records itself was a financial mess. Coogan as Wilson decides to cut his losses and sell the label, and the Madchester craze ebbed away. The bands and the label that the club spawned, though, endure today – it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp, and highly recommended.
Music biopics are compulsive viewing because they allow us a voyeuristic glimpse into the tumultuous lives of musicians, record producers, groupies, roadies, hangers-on, dealers, movers and shakers. We might scorn the bad decisions, the vices and the cock-ups, but ultimately, who wouldn’t want to live that life, if only for a day?