Posts Tagged ‘movies about music’

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.