The Byrds Gene Clark far right

Bottom line:
Our series on forgotten bands continues with folk- and country-rock pioneer Gene Clark, who wrote the best original songs on The Byrds’ first two albums, Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn! Exhibit A: “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.” (On Fifth Dimension, he co-wrote “Eight Miles High.”) Clark went into country-rock full-time after leaving The Byrds in 1966, with excursions into roots rock, acoustic folk, romantic duets, and dense, prog-adjacent music.

The mystery to me is why this man didn’t ascend into Crosby, Stills & Nash with his Byrds buddy David Crosby or even in place of Crosby. Clark sang beautifully, though not as beautifully as Crosby, who may have been a UFO alien. Clark was a weak guitar player in his early years, and he would have had a problem keeping up with Stephen Stills and that other fella they hired, Neil somebody. But Crosby wasn’t exactly Jimi Hendrix or even Ron Elliott from The Beau Brummels. Clark was by far the more talented composer, plus he could take or leave hippies; Crosby couldn’t get enough of them.

Moment of glory:
Being a Byrd. That should be enough for most people. That’s him on the far right of one of the most famous album covers of the 1960s.

His story:
I’m going to keep this short because Clark, while prolific on his own, never got anywhere commercially, and I suspect that embittered him and led to his death at 47 from drinking. He reminds me of another unlucky natural, his contemporary Gram Parsons, who died under that Joshua tree so that U2 might live.

Speaking as someone who is talented but not talented enough, Clark’s story makes me uneasy. Good thing I keep my drinking (Manischewitz) under control (as in, only at Dad’s house*).

* Run-DMIrving once poured two colors of Manischewitz into one bottle because he was tired of two half-full bottles of the stuff taking up so much room in the fridge three months after he bought them for Passover.

The one album to own:
You already own them: Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn! His solo work is interesting one track, not so interesting the next, but if you prefer country, try Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers (“So You Say You Lost Your Baby”). If you prefer artsy rock, No Other (the title track). Something more Byrds-like? FireByrd (his joyful cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind”). Frankly, you could sample the first three tracks on any Gene Clark album and probably hit something you like.

He was a complicated man. I wonder if anyone understood him.

That’s it for the sad forgotten bands. From here on it’s the upbeat, dynamic, eccentric, under-the-radar, gotta-dance, women-are-doing-it-for-themselves (and, in one case, deservedly forgotten) forgotten bands.

 

Introducing the Beau Brummels cropped

Bottom line:
Five guys from the folk-rock scene in San Francisco who developed a taste for country. Three Top 40 hits, including one in the Top 10 (“Just a Little”), and two more that broke the Top 100. How can a band that placed five songs in the Top 100 be forgotten? The answer is, they’re not forgotten, they’ve been immobilized in our minds, encased in one song: “Laugh, Laugh.”

Vital personnel:
Sid Valentino, lead vocals; Ron Elliott, guitar and main songwriter.

Moment of glory:
Thirty years before Smashing Pumpkins guest-starred on The Simpsons, The Beau Brummels guest-starred on The Flintstones.

 

Beau Brummelstones

About that name:
Why would five young Americans name themselves after an English fop who loved to play dress-up? The Brummels claimed they liked it, the way Ringo liked it when they painted him red again in Help. Cynics assumed that the boys chose the name to confuse shoppers with the English association and because record shops would file them immediately after The Beatles. All I know is, there’s no point in reopening an old family argument unless you’re one of my relatives.

Their story:
When Introducing the Beau Brumels debuted in April 1965, this band was the hottest band in the United States that was from the United States. For two months they stood alone against a horde of Beatles, Stones, Animals, Hermits, Hollies, Clarks, Playboys, and Zombies. The album was inconsistent, but with moments of excellence and an air of maturity not often found in records of that era.

Introducing the Beau Brummels (produced by Sylvester Stewart, who became Sly Stone the following year) gave us two hits: “Laugh, Laugh,” their ticket to Golden Oldies immortality, and the somber “Just a Little.” The guitar riff in “Just a Little” was ripped off from Link Wray’s “Rumble”; it serves well in this new setting.

The majority of the Brummels’ work is somber, even “Laugh, Laugh,” which is about being dumped. The critic Justin Farrar wrote of them, “The one quality that stands out when digging this stuff is just how sad and weathered the Brummels sounded for such a young band.”

The Brummels’ luck ran out in June 1965 when they collided with the debut from another folk-rock quintet, The Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man. It’s difficult to compete with a record that will – even cynics agree – live forever. Each band released another album before the year finished, but by then it was obvious that the Brummels were finished as well. They wrote more original material than The Byrds, but The Byrds played better, sang better, and had a flood of catchy ideas in their interpretations. Also, Roger McGuin, David Crosby, and Gene Clark (I’ll return to him) were soon writing better, too.

The rest of their story sounds like a fairy tale without the witch or the wolf.

The five little Brummels were no longer a force in pop music. Ron Elliott suffered complications from diabetes; he could record but he could no longer tour. One of the Brummels left the band, to play somewhere else or possibly from despair. For their third outing, in 1966, the four little Brummels landed at a much better record company, which was good, but the new company made them do covers like The Byrds, which turned out to be bad.

Then in 1967 the government drafted one of the four little Brummels for the army. The three little Brummels tried their luck with Triangle, an album of psychedelia, which was of the approximate quality as The Zombies’ attempt at psychedelia, Odyssey & Oracle, by which I mean it substantially sucked.

Then in 1968 the government drafted one of the three little Brummels for the army. Why did Lyndon Johnson hate our freedoms? The two little Brummels regrouped in Nashville, where they recorded a country-rock album in a barn owned by a man named Bradley. They called this album Bradley’s Barn. It was only the second country-rock album ever recorded (this time The Byrds beat them by two months, with Sweetheart of the Rodeo). I like this record despite the fact that “country” is one of the words in “country-rock.” Sadly, nobody at the time noticed it.

There are more ignored albums in their catalog, but enough is enough.

The one album to own:
The Beau Brummels, Vol. 2. It doesn’t have “Laugh, Laugh” and “Just a Little,” but it’s the strongest overall and it includes “Don’t Talk to Strangers” (their attempt at beating The Byrds at their own game), “Can It Be” (the best Everly Brothers song not penned and performed by an Everly), and the endearingly somber “You Tell Me Why” and “Sad Little Girl.”

Though The Beau Brummels, Vol. 2 proves that they were not one of the best bands of the 1960s, it does prove they were the best forgotten band of the 1960s.

By this point of my life, I expected to be famous, with a house shaped like a rook, five ex-wives, an agent who bathes her StairMastered curves in champagne, and an attorney named Bernie. I’ve fallen short of these goals, but I remain undaunted. Certain people I am married to remain skeptical.

Meanwhile, I’ve taken a lot of notes on life here in obscurity. Most of us puny humans live here. Ninety percent of all writers, for example. When I read Robert Calder’s Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham, I realized that not only is Maugham (author of The Razor’s Edge, Of Human Bondage, and The Moon and Sixpence) disappearing from our consciousness, so are almost all of the writers he entertained around his dining-room table in the middle of the century. I wrote in this blog,Authors of 20, 40, even 60 books regularly enter these pages – names that have left barely a ripple in the fabric of space-time.”

Most jazz musicians are born in obscurity and stay that way. Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Wynton Marsalis, and the horror that is Kenny G are known outside the jazz ghetto, but the list thins out fast after them.

On that happy note….It’s time to look at worthy bands (and artists) that have silently slid beneath the waves.

Not bands with cult followings, such as The Velvet Underground, Big Star, and Hüsker Dü. Not one-hit wonders that inflicted “Kung Fu Fighting,” “99 Luftballons,” or “Because I Got High” on us before being deported to some shithole country. No, I’m talking about bands that, for one reason or another, deserved better than the limbo in which they will probably forever reside.

Here’s my list – you probably have your own – with their approximate heyday:

1960s-70s:
The Beau Brummels
Gene Clark
Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson

1970s:
The Flamin’ Groovies
The Beat

1980s:
The Call
Fiction Factory
Fischers-Z
Bonnie Hayes & The Wild Combo

1990s:
Diesel Park West

Some of these acts had hits. Most never rose above a few weeks of spins on college radio. One is no good. But they all have a story, at least to me, which I’ll tell as best I can over the next few days.

Random Pick of the Day
Art Blakey Quartet, A Jazz Message (1963)

Another jazz masterpiece from the year that ended with The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. One of the amazing things about this platter is that drummer Art Blakey, tenor and alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt, pianist McCoy Tyner, and bassist Art Davis were together for just one day, July 16, 1963.

The veterans, Blakey and Stitt, had last played together in 1950. The kids, Tyner and Davis, had barely started playing. On July 17, they went back to their own lives: Blakey to his leadership role in The Jazz Messengers, Stitt to one of the most prolific careers in jazz, Davis to his work with John Coltrane, and Tyner to the Valhalla of piano players.

These four men were like meteors briefly caught in Earth’s gravity well – yet the shortness of the hours doesn’t undermine the music by a single note. Nothing on this disc is a classic, yet everything is cool, everything is relaxed, and everyone plays like they invented their instruments. If you heard this set at a club, especially “Blues Back,” you’d still be raving about the show 10 years later.

Though it’s Blakey’s name on the album, he never soloes. He’s content instead to announce each horn part with an impeccably timed roll. Buddy Rich would’ve hammered his way to the front row on every cut.

Dan Morgenstern, in 1963 the editor of Jazz magazine, wrote in the liner notes: “Art Blakey’s Jazz Message, if put into words, would spell ‘Keep Swinging’ – and a worthwhile message for today it surely is.”

Random Pan of the Day
Weird Al, Mandatory Fun (2014)

This is Weird Al’s sharpest record since he destroyed the ’90s back in the ’90s. “Word Crimes” outperforms his brilliant Lady Gaga parody, “Perform This Way.” The videos of the songs are amazing.

But without the videos, Mandatory Fun doesn’t work. If this were a video review blog I’d give Mandatory Fun an enthusiastic, 100% impressed, four paws up. But this is a music review blog and all those paws are down. Sorry, Al.

I am now within 18 months of retiring. I know how to go to work every day. But how do you go to work every day when you know there aren’t many more days?

“The only dedication for us is art and life. And this office has nothing to do with either of them.”
Friend, co-worker, Beat poet, and musician Andy in 1978 at the Boston Garden.

As the days dwindle down to a precious few and the Boomers become an answer blowing in the wind (of the 68 people I currently work with, only six of us were born between 1946 and 1964, and at least one of us is in the closet), I intend to share my irreplaceable worklore with you rookies who are still figuring out how to commute/in a three-button suit/with that weary executive smile.

My favorite things about working

  1. Getting paid
  2. Free food
  3. Sleeping under my desk
  4. All those color copiers
  5. Three-day weekends

(My favorite thing about working at the Boston Garden was skating on the rink at lunchtime if they were set up for a hockey game that evening.)

My least favorite things about working

  1. Arriving, sitting for eight hours, leaving
  2. Meetings
  3. Emergencies caused by morons
  4. Corporate America’s love affair with jargon
  5. Knife fights

More bulletins to come from this undiscovered country. Here’s an old bulletin from a job I don’t even have anymore.

“Don’t count the days. Make the days count.” (Muhammad Ali)

And now:

Index to Year 8 of Run-DMSteve!

Farewells

Ursula K. Le Guin

Aretha Franklin

Donald Hall

Uncle Eddie

Antique Parent Land

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Money (that’s what I want)

Heads

Tails

The annual gift card

Music

Singing drummers

CDs they dumped on me

What I don’t listen to

Why I don’t listen to what I don’t listen to

Lounge against the machine (chapter 1)

Record store rampage

Chess

The most boring world chess championship ever begins

The most boring world chess championship ever ends

Misc.

I want to be a Supreme

 

Random Pick of the Day
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Fellow liberals! It’s our duty to go to Washington, D.C., and dance outside AOC’s office!

Random Pan of the Day
Pirate Radio (2009)
An above-average cast walks the plank in a below-average movie. In 1966, unlicensed radio stations aboard hulks in the North Sea provided citizens of Great Britain with their regular daily dose of rock ’and’ roll. Aboard the good ship Radio Rock, there are 10 men (and one woman) who live and breathe their music. They play rock 24 hours a day. But they never talk about it. They never mention a band or a song or a quote from a song. There are no disagreements about music. There aren’t even any agreements.

Richard Curtis, who wrote Pirate Radio, forgot that his characters are living in the middle of the most tumultuous decade in the history of pop. In 1966, every song these DJs played was a small miracle, but to Curtis, the music is just background noise. It’s Classic Rock.

If the cast had not been so appealing, I never would’ve stayed till the end when the ship sank and the DJs were rescued but the crew disappeared and no one thought to ask about them. How stupid do these moviemakers think we are? Really stupid – after all, we elected Trump.

With Sir Kenneth Branagh as the Monty Python bureaucrat, Philip Seymour Hoffman playing the character he played in Almost Famous, Bill Nighy as something, Gemma Arterton as The Girl, January Jones as The Girl, a boatload of girls as The Girls, Emma Thompson as The Girl of a Certain Age, and Ike Hamilton as the Black Man Who Is Not Permitted to Speak. Two hours. Not subtitled, but should be.

emma blizzard 04

Right you film fans. Our look at movies about music concludes with Category D: Old biopic crud from Hollywood, by which I mean everything from before Hollywood discovered that not all people are white.

I was mainly thinking of the ’50s and before, but once I seriously got into this, I found I didn’t want to revisit these old music flicks. They’re too restricted, racially (you couldn’t make a story about a black entertainer, but you could black the face of a white one) and technologically. Also, I want to move on to something else. These six will stand for all the rest.

The Jazz Singer (1927)
Scholars have written books about this one, so I’m not going to touch it, except to say that the soundtrack is an example of how musical tastes change. No one alive today would choose to spend one minute with “April Showers,” “There’s a Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder,” “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” or that ultimate in cultural appropriation, “My Mammy,” and their incredibly hammy performances. The auditory quality is, of course, dreadful. What else? It was 1927!

The film was remade in 1980 with Neil Diamond and no blackface.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
In 1993, Yankee Doodle Dandy was placed on the National Film Registry for being “the most obvious film ever made.” James Cagney won the Best Actor Oscar, and he earned it – he’s in every scene except the one where his character is born and the Civil War reenactors fire off a cannon because it’s a boy. He never stops talking, singing, dancing, cajoling, bantering, butting in, and exploding off the walls. Jimmy Cagney was a one-man bouncy castle.

I have this suspicion…and I apologize for expressing a negative thought about the film that won the war…that Yankee Doodle Dandy does not accurately portray the life of a working vaudeville entertainer from the early 1900s. I think they fudged some of this stuff. Like maybe all of it.

The official soundtrack wasn’t released until 1989.

Young Man with a Horn (1950)
Kirk Douglas falls in with some African-American musicians who sense his white power and bless him with their black magic. Daring at the time. Even if you can get past this, you’re still stuck inside a Kirk Douglas movie from 1950. Do you believe Douglas as a Roman slave? A Viking berserker? An Australian gold miner? How about as a trumpeter? I wouldn’t hire him to play a green tambourine.

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)
Jimmy Stewart, who flew more than 50 missions over Nazi Germany, plays band leader Glenn Miller, whose plane disappeared in bad weather over the English Channel in 1944. I know I saw this picture several times on the “Million Dollar Movie” rerun channel in the ’60s, but all I remember today is that Stewart looked good in a uniform. The soundtrack is a passable big band compilation. You can find better ones.

The Eddie Duchin Story (1956)
The forgotten Tyrone Power massacres this portrait of forgotten pianist and band leader Eddie Duchin, with music by the forgotten Carmen Cavallaro. Cavallaro’s readings of Duchin’s works are overwrought, about what you’d expect from Liberace. They probably hired him because he was cheaper than Liberace. One grace note: Cavallaro’s “Chopsticks.” Must be heard to be believed.

The Benny Goodman Story (1956)
Suggested by Loyal Reader Wm Seabrook. Good thought, Bill. Steve Allen (“Steverino”) plays Benny Goodman, who made musical history in the U.S. with the first integrated orchestra. “If a man’s got it, let him give it,” Goodman declared. “I’m selling music, not prejudice.”

Whether Allen as Goodman says that in The Benny Goodman Story, I can’t recall. I know this was another “Million Dollar Movie” rerun, which is where I saw it when I wasn’t watching Get Smart! or 12 O’Clock High. I wonder how serious they were about tackling the integration issue: there are nine real musicians in this film, including Steve Allen, but only two are African-American, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson. (There’s one African-American dancer: Sammy Davis, Sr.).

Nevermind the quality of the film. The soundtrack is a must-have collection of Benny Goodman performances, most of them live, and as I type this you can buy it on Amazon for $1.66 or just 1,500 Euros.

Thank you for reading along this past week as I meandered through movie history. I received super suggestions from Loyal Readers mikenr (“I put forth the fantasy biopic Yellow Submarine for your ridicule”) and Darwin (Across the Universe, “one of my favorite movies ever”). In time, gentlemen. Those will be a pleasure to rewatch.

And here’s something I never thought I’d write: Thank you, Queen.

Notes: The photo is of Emma, Boise, Idaho, 2004. She was mesmerized by a bone and didn’t notice when it started snowing. The title is from Loyal Reader lizkatz, who said this toward the end of one of our Passover seders.

 

 

blues brothers bobs country bunker

If you’ve just joined us, we’re examining movies about music, inspired by Bohemian Rhapsody. This list is incomplete, idiosyncratic, and possibly inaccurate. Welcome to Category C: Totally fictional biopics!

The Rose (1979)
Bette Midler stars in a film that’s “loosely based” on the life of Janis Joplin. I’ve never seen The Rose because the Divine Miss M and I go together like peanut butter and SPF 50 sunscreen.

Midler doesn’t have Joplin’s grit and she doesn’t know Joplin’s pain, but she has a superlative voice, and on this platter she proves she can sing rock ’n’ roll and the blues. Two of the songs became hits, “When a Man Loves a Woman” and the title track. Her producer used different musicians for different songs; to my ears, that prevents the songs from hanging together. And yet in many places this record rocks. I’d say it’s unlike anything else in Midler’s catalog but first I’d have to listen to Midler’s catalog. I’ll stop here.

Renaldo & Clara (1978)
Bob Dylan filmed his Rolling Thunder tour and cast the musicians in a movie-within-a-movie. Ronnie Hawkins stars as @RealBobDylan and Bob Dylan stars as the fictional Renaldo. Dylan co-wrote the script with Sam Shepard. Jettison the escape pods.

The Blues Brothers (1980)
This film has as much to do with making a living in music as Raiders of the Lost Ark has to do with making a living in archeology. The soundtrack is a gas, even though John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd don’t sing well. The six people who did the most to popularize American roots music were John, Paul, George, Ringo, Jake, and Elwood.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
What can anyone say about this picture except turn the volume to 11? It’s the closest thing on my list to Bohemian Rhapsody.

The Commitments (1991)
One of those rare moments in Western civilization where the book and the film are equally memorable. The soundtrack, though it was played by amateurs, holds up well on long car trips.

Almost Famous (2000)
A teenage boy cons Rolling Stone’s editors into giving him the sort of assignment an experienced writer would kill for: Embed yourself with Billy Crudup’s band and write a psychologically revealing feature about them. Hijinks ensue. It’s a fun film, the soundtrack is a buffet of early-’70s gold, and I can even accept the two songs written by Nancy Wilson of Heart.

What I particularly loved about this picture was the kid finally admitting to his editors that he had no story and instead presenting them with wadded-up pages of disconnected, almost indecipherable, notes. That, ladies and gentleman, is what I put my editor through every week.

That Thing You Do! (1996)
I was working at a software company when this film was released. One of my co-workers, Hojo*, appeared at my desk one day, proclaimed, “I have discovered the worst song of all time,” and placed his headphones over my ears. This is what I heard:

You got me all tied up in knots
And I’m lovin’ you lots and lots
I’m just lovin’ you lots and lots
I’m lovin’ you lots and lots

Hojo was right. The opening track of That Thing You Do! is so bad that resistance is futile. The rest of this album is a perfect rendering of pop music after The Beatles invaded the U.S. but before the U.S. struck back with The Byrds and The Monkees.

True, this is an all-white lineup, the two songs by girl groups are abysmal, and the true-to-the-period fake band names (Saturn V, The Heardsmen) will only take you so far. But a couple of songs are worth repeat listens. “She Knows It” could’ve been a Beau Brummels B-side. “Mr. Downtown” sounds like the theme song to any American private-eye show of the ’60s, and it’s sung by somebody who can belt out ridiculous lyrics without losing one goddamn bit of his pretentiousness.

The film is silly, and it needed a clash between the two alpha males over Liv Tyler (who plays The Reward), but as a glimpse of that era it’s above average. It was probably written by the kid from Almost Famous.

* I immortalized Hojo in this story. After he read it, he said, “Your Hojo is too nice!”

La La Land (2016)
I was impressed by La La Land, the story of an aspiring jazz pianist and an aspiring actress, and I was happy that so many people would pay real money to see a film packed with all that jazz. This is particularly noteworthy today, where jazz festivals that want to turn a profit usually start by ejecting the jazz.

The soundtrack sounds just like a musical from the swinging ’60s. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling do their own singing; they’re not great, but they don’t embarrass themselves. Gosling’s character is a reactionary who wants to stop the musical clock in 1960, and Legend’s character might as well be walking around with a big sign on his chest that says SELLOUT, but Stone won an Oscar and I’d see this picture again in a heartbeat.

Grace of My Heart (1996)
Illeana Douglas tries to make it as a female songwriter in the ’60s. (Note how often that decade appears on my list.) Douglas is always watchable, but the vaguely Carole Kingish narrative is dizzy with plot and the music doesn’t stand out for me. Joni Mitchell and the team of Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello each contributed a song.

Subcategory: Totally fictional biopics that star actual musicians

’Round Midnight (1986)
A slow, ultra-depressing movie about a self-destructive sax legend played by formerly self-destructive sax legend Dexter Gordon. The real theme of this film is France’s unending love of American jazz. The soundtrack is an avalanche of bop-you-in-the-head jazz players, led by Gordon and Herbie Hancock.

Next time: We wrap up with our final category, Old biopic crud from Hollywood. Brace yourself for some serious suckicity.

 

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.