Bohemian Rhapsody in Blue

Posted: January 11, 2019 in music
Tags: ,

rock me amadeus

Our survey of movies about music, inspired by Bohemian Rhapsody, continues with Biopics about non-Beatles. It’s amazing how many older films are not instantly available in our instant-grat culture. I’m relying on faded memories of some of these pictures while listening to their soundtracks today (except when I refuse to listen to their soundtracks any day).

Thanks for all the comments that have been pouring in from up to two of my three Loyal Readers. I’ll address your concerns when all this is over.

Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Diana Ross portrays Billie Holiday.

The Buddy Holly Story (1978)
Gary Busey does for Buddy Holly what Rami Malek does for Freddie Mercury. Malek, though, was working inside a much stronger movie. The Buddy Holly Story is nothing without Busey. Busey does his own singing (his guitar was overdubbed), but without the 2018 technology that boosted Malek’s voice, he can’t come anywhere near Holly’s. The music works only while you’re watching the film. Alone, it’s like a hot dog without a baseball game in front of it.

Living Proof: The Hank Williams, Jr. Story (1983)
Richard Thomas, seeking to escape his John-Boy Walton persona, makes a credible Hank Williams, Jr. Filled with country music, which is a deal-breaker for this reviewer.

Amadeus (1984)
Tom Hulce as musical idiot Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and F. Murray Abraham as that mixed-up nutburger Antonio Salieri tear it up like William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban in “Space Seed.” Abraham won for Best Actor. Milos Foreman helmed the one entry on my list that took home the Oscar for Best Picture.

The four-hour director’s cut includes Mozart’s work as a script doctor on The Pirates of Penzeance.

Amadeus illuminated this era of classical music for me. Was this the real European music world of 1790? It is now! Plus, without the film, we wouldn’t have had Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus”:

Amadeus-Amadeus. Amadeus.
Amadeus-Amadeus. Amadeus.
Amadeus-Amadeus, oh oh oh Amadeus.

La Bamba (1987)
Don’t expect much – they screen this movie in my mom’s nursing home back-to-back with a Tom Jones TV special from the 1970s. Lou Diamond Phillips turns in a solid characterization of doomed rocker Ritchie Valens. Los Lobos recreated all of Valens’ music (“La Bamba” reborn) and we even get Bo Diddley and a new recording of “Who Do You Love?”

The Karen Carpenter Story (1989)
I can’t make an extended stay in Carpenter World. I can’t even do a drive-by. Cynthia Gibb plays Karen Carpenter. I would know who she was if I had ever watched Fame. There was a Karen Carpenter movie in 2016, Goodbye to Love, but I can’t go near that one, either.

The Doors (1991)

The Rat Pack (1998)
Sinatra, Dino, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Joey Joey, and Peter Lawford. Any questions? Yes, why can’t they sing songs I like? Would it have killed one of them to cover “Louie, Louie”? I haven’t seen this picture. The soundtrack lineup reads well if you like this sort of thing. Don Cheadle, who plays Sammy Davis, also plays Miles Davis in Miles Ahead (see below).

Ray (2004), Walk the Line (2005), and Get on Up (2014)
Basically the same movie: one man (Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, James Brown) fights his way out of the hellhole he was born in and reaches the top of his profession, all the while battling alcohol, drugs, haters, and schemers. The actors (Jamie Foxx, Joaquin Phoenix, and Chadwick Boseman) and the soundtracks are phenomenal. I recommend them all, but be warned, Get on Up is tough to watch. There is no redemption for the Godfather of Soul.

Jamie Foxx won Best Actor for his portrayal of Ray Charles. Reese Witherspoon won Best Actress for playing June Carter Cash.

Love & Mercy (2014)
Brian Wilson’s rise and fall and leveling off. According to Love & Mercy, he was saved by the wife James Brown couldn’t find. John Cusak plays the genius behind The Beach Boys in a film that backs him with actors who can match him, including Paul Giamatti and Elizabeth Banks. The soundtrack includes only a few Beach Boys songs. The fewer Beach Boys songs, the better the movie.

Jersey Boys (2014)
Clint Eastwood’s salute to The Four Seasons. Excuse me while I deploy my air-sickness bag.

Miles Ahead (2015)
I can’t comment on this film because I haven’t seen it. I could comment on the soundtrack, a mix of edited Davis tunes and new songs based on Davis’ early music, but frankly, if the names Miles Davis and John Coltrane make you want to build a 2,000-mile-long border wall, you’re better off watching another movie. It’s definitely your bag if, like me, mid-’60s bop makes you want to stage-dive at your company’s next all-staff meeting.

Green Book (2018)
The story of a black jazz pianist, Don Shirley, and the white members of his trio as they try to survive a road trip through the Confederacy in the early 1960s. Mahershala Ali plays the proud Shirley, a man who keeps the world at arm’s length because he knows if he gets any closer he’ll get a boot to the head. Viggo Mortensen is his white driver, Tony Lip. Tony hates violence, except when it comes his way and then he loves it. He’s basically Zorba the Greek. I was spellbound.

I attended this motion picture with a person who would rather sit through a PowerPoint on optimizing multichannel marketing platforms than listen to jazz – I’m not naming names, but I might be married to her – and she loved it. The jazz, which was several shades more accessible than what you’ll find in Miles Ahead, didn’t make her long for a root canal. There is no higher praise.

Subcategory: Biopics about non-Beatles starring actual musicians

Cadillac Records (2008)
The Chess brothers started off by selling records from the trunk of their Cadillac. They were a pop-up record label. Chess Records deserved better than this inconsistent film. Etta James is played by Beyoncé, who is good; Chuck Berry is played by Mos Def, who is not. Two non-musicians, actors Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters and Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf, steal the show.

The soundtrack is strong in places thanks to the veteran back-up musicians, but nobody needs the anachronistic hip-hop tracks. Some interesting stuff in this film about starting your own record company in the analog age, but overall, you’d do better with any Chess Records comp.

Next: Our series ends with Totally fictional biopics and Old biopic crud from Hollywood. Remember, you’re a Yankee…Doodle…Dandy.


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