The Performers

Three biopics that I watched recently dealing with the lives of famous performers.

Walk the Line (2005)

A film based on the life of country singer Johnny Cash, telling of his childhood with an abusive father and the tragic death of his older brother, two acts that were the formative events of Cash’s life. There follows early marriage, Cash trying to juggle family life and holding down a job with his desire for success as a singer. And eventually it all takes off for Cash, but life on the road and easy access to drugs and alcohol is the singer’s undoing. He reinvents himself by performing at Folsom prison and becoming the iconic ‘man in black’. In his personal life he finds happiness by finally persuading fellow performer June Carter to marry him. This is an inspirational film, beautifully shot and with memorable performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in the lead roles, the latter winning a Best Actress Oscar. Both actors perform their own songs, and they’re not too shabby about it either. The excitement of the music industry comes over well, the early days of such pioneering figures as Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis, when anything must have seemed possible, and set against that we have the puritanism of much of the country scene, with members of the public happy to call June a slut for her divorce. The pitfalls of fame and addiction are laid out in a non-judgemental manner, while at the same time the film makes no excuses for how Cash behaves. At its heart this is a love story, the romance between the slightly earnest Cash and the bubbly Carter, with the latter grounding the former. It’s an excellent film and one I expect to watch again, and the day after seeing it I played my Johnny Cash Greatest Hits CD a couple of times to mark the occasion.

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

There’s also romance here, in a film that chronicles the tempestuous six year affair between keyboard superstar Liberace (an amazing performance from Michael Douglas) and the much younger Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). As a kid I used to watch Liberace on the television and loved his theatrical flair and flamboyant showmanship. I might have considered him camp, but had no idea he was gay (nobody famous was gay, back then – homosexuality is a modern invention ;-)). The great dichotomy in this film is that of the star’s public persona and his private life, with the need to prevent even a whiff of scandal paramount. Liberace does not come over as wholly admirable. He uses Scott to serve his own sexual desires, and although the younger man benefits with a lifestyle he could only ever imagine, there is no doubt as to which one of them calls the shots in the relationship. For Scott the luxury alone simply isn’t enough, something that Lee can’t quite grasp; when Scott wants a hug, Lee gives him a diamante bracelet. It is this tension that tears their relationship apart, with jealousy adding yet another frisson. And when finally Scott is replaced with a younger model, the star is almost vindictive in forcing terms onto his former lover, but you sense that Lee is driven to act as he does by fear. This fear of public exposure is the bane of both their relationship and the society of the time, and though things are better now I believe we still have a long way to go. At the end, with AIDS making discussion of Lee’s sexuality a moot point, there is something akin to a deathbed reunion between the two men, with each recognising how much they had together and how much they lost. I loved every minute of this film and found it compulsively watchable.

La Vie en Rose (2007)

The story of singer Edith Piaf, about whom I knew nothing before watching this except that she was French and sang ‘No regrets’. The film takes a non-linear approach to its material, with scenes from past and present intercut and a fuller picture emerging as we watch and garner more information. Edith’s abandonment by her mother, the formative years when she was raised in a brothel. Her first success as a nightclub singer and then becoming a national and international star. Marriages and romances, particularly a doomed affair with a boxing champion who was killed when his airplane crashed en route to visit Edith. The later years in which she was dogged by ill health, rumours of criminal associations in her past, and attempts to relaunch her career. Death of liver cancer when only forty seven. It’s a fascinating story, and star Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for her performance, one that was much deserved. Cotillard shows a superb range of expressions and versatility, appearing in one scene as an overbearing superstar and natural beauty, and in another as a bitter, wizened question mark of a woman, who does nothing except feel sorry for herself. And yet despite my fascination with the film, the impression left of Piaf is far from favourable. She is abusive to others, always insistent on getting her own way, largely uncaring who she hurts. In her person are embodied all the sins of fame and hubris, and ultimately she is an icon with feet of clay. It’s just about possible to understand how she got that way, but at the same time, unlike with Cash and Liberace, very hard to feel any sympathy for her.

Anyone else got any favourite biopics?

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4 Responses to The Performers

  1. Rolnikov says:

    I think musicians lend themselves well to biopics, because there’s always that rise and nearly always a fall, and then quite often a second rise (like Lionel Richie at Glastonbury), which fits the structure of a modern movie very well. I liked La Bamba and Great Balls of Fire when they came out, and all those about the Beatles. Weird that there hasn’t been a great biopic of the Rolling Stones yet. Maybe because their story hasn’t ended? And where’s the film of Fleetwood Mac? That would be a true Hollywood epic! It’s not truly a biopic of David Bowie, but Velvet Goldmine is one of my favourite films.

    • petertennant says:

      Yes, good point about the musician ‘life cycle’. Madonna is another obvious one, and Led Zeppelin.
      I have several biopics in the ‘to be watched’ pile, including “Frida”, “Kinsey” and “Wilde” (all one word titles, as if there couldn’t possibly be anyone else with those names). I’ll probably get “Milk” as well at some point.

      • Rolnikov says:

        Kinsey was good, but I can’t see William Sadler in anything else now without feeling ill. His scene in it is gut-wrenching.

  2. petertennant says:

    You intrigue me. I think I might push “Kinsey” up the pile now.

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