Lady Sings the Blues
The most celebrated singer-turned-actor performance ever might be Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. It revived his career and was a turning point in his legacy as he moved from a teenybopper idol to the more mature crooner he is best remembered for today (and he followed it shortly with another important performance in The Man with The Golden Arm). But Sinatra had been acting in musical films for years (On The Town). In terms of degree of difficulty, for a first major role Bjork’s performance in the torture-fest sorta-musical Dancer in the Dark is certainly impressive and many singers have gone on to have their film careers eclipse their singing success (Cher, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, and to some extent Bing Crosby and Barbra Streisand). But the most audacious acting debut from a mega-star singer has to be Diana Ross taking on the role of troubled iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. Directed by journeyman director Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress File, The Boys in Company C) and based on Holiday’s own (said to be mostly fictional) autobiography, Ross throws herself into the role with aplomb, having to go to emotional depths that would challenge even the most veteran thespian. The film also made a kinda-star of her leading man, Billy Dee Williams, and helped establish a movie career for stand-up comedian Richard Pryor. Executive produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr, it was the first flick made under the Motown banner and it would also prove to be the apex of the the historic record company’s forays into filmmaking.
Lady Sings the Blues is a mostly typical music bio in that it's one of those classic “rags-to-riches-to-total self destruction” stories. No matter how many times I’ve seen this kind of tale, if the lead performance is dynamite, I’ll buy in. I don’t know how much of it is actually true but it’s still a doozy of a rollercoaster ride. After being raped as a girl, Billie took the only jobs that seemed to be available for a young black woman during The Depression: a cleaning woman and a prostitute. She eventually talked her way into singing in a little smokey nightclub where she meets her dream man, Louis (Williams), and catches the attention of a couple of white musicians who take her on the road to build up her name and also turn her on to drugs. The film seems to be more fascinated with Billie’s messy and ugly personal life than her voice, which most experts rate as one of the most seminal and important of the twentieth century. As Billie climbs the stardom ladder she is met with racism and humiliation, with her devoted but frustrated husband Louis lending support. (Though he comes off as Mr Wonderful here, it’s been reported that in real life Billie’s husband was just as much of a creep as the other men who exploited her. Ironically he was a technical advisor for the film, which may explain the whitewash.) Billie continues to sing her way to the top, but she falls deeper and deeper into heroine addiction. Her only friend appears to be her piano player (real life junkie Pryor, excellent here in a supporting role). Of course Pryor would reveal his own special kind of genius later with his two landmark concert films, Richard Pryor Live in Concert and Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. Hospital stays, arrests and even true love aren’t enough to end the torture for Billie. Though she does have a triumphant Carnagie Hall comeback show, it’s still a story of another legend dying young.Continue Reading
Straight Outta Compton
The music biography has been a popular source of material for movies going back to the creation of the talkies. Even forgetting all the classical composers, the music of the last one hundred years--from jazz to rock and everything in between--seems to continually stir the imagination of filmmakers. And why not? The music bio is a tried and true genre that usually follows the same rags to riches formula and all the excesses that comes with it. From the Glenn Miller and Gene Krupa Stories through Lady Sings The Blues, The Buddy Holly Story, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Sid and Nancy, La Bamba, Great Balls of Fire, The Doors, Selena, What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Control, and of course Ray and Walk The Line, all these films offer different levels of entertainment value. And you can be sure many more are on their way as the greats of the 1960s and '70s continue to reach super-icon status and death.
The last major popular music genre to explode on to the scene has been rap or hip-hop. Though less than forty years old, it has already gotten its share of bios, mixing the “sorta fictional” with the more traditional “lets put on a show” type of music film (Krush Groove, 8 Mile, Get Rich or Die Tryin', Notorious and the lost & forgotten Run-D.M.C. flick Tougher Than Leather). But with Straight Outta Compton, the still young rap-bio has finally gotten its first nearly-great movie. It’s the mostly true story of a fairly diverse group of teens from the tough streets of Compton who came together to form N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitudes). They had a quick and controversial rise and an even quicker implosion, but their impact is still felt today. They weren’t The Beatles of rap. They were more like The Sex Pistols, a band who came on later in the game and only briefly, but whose energy and rage helped make everything before them sound overly safe and instantly dated.Continue Reading
It’s called The Doors but director Oliver Stone’s hyper-bonkers bio of the band should have just been called Jim Morrison. Because the real show here is Val Kilmer’s brilliant performance as the self-destructive lead singer, while the rest of the guys--Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan), Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley) and John Densmore (Kevin Dillon)--spend most of the movie standing around scolding Jim and telling him to grow up. As usual, Stone hits his points with a sledge hammer, and Doorsaphiles may take issue with the actual facts. I mean, was Jim’s LSD-inspired obsession with an Indian shaman a Morrison or a Stone concoction? But that’s neither here nor there; like Stone’s greatest film, JFK (also released in ’91), in the end the actual facts don’t matter. What does matter is the incredible filmmaking skills on show here. From the camera work to the editing to the use of sound, Stone is in his element with his usual all-star crew at their most dizzying and superfluous. If Morrison was one of music’s most self-indulgent windbags--some love The Doors while others call them overrated--Stone is in a similar boat. The guy has won a couple Oscars and penned a couple kinda-classics (Midnight Express, Scarface) but often gets eye rolls when his name is mentioned. And that proves to be part of the beauty here; the excess of Morrison’s short life is perfect for Stone’s excess on film.
Though living members of The Doors at different points of production were consulted, in the end they all publicly disavowed the final movie, claiming Stone ignored their suggestions. So in Stone’s world, the story of The Doors goes something like this. Transplanted from a nice all-American, middle class childhood, Jim was a groovy, shirtless UCLA film student, influenced by Literature 101 (The Beats, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, etc.), making ridiculous overly arty student films. After discussing his coolness with a classmate, Manzarek, they decide to form a band. They add the less hip, but apparently talented Krieger and Densmore to the band and pretty quickly start to gain a rep on the Sunset Strip club scene for their rulebreaking improvised style. Jim, in full swagger, also stalks and then seduces a young flower child, Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan), and she becomes his old lady. The band navigates the swirling waters of the swinging sixties rock scene, having hit records, meeting Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover), dealing with police arrests and a general far-outness. Meanwhile the more successful they get, the more Jim alienates Pam and his band with his excessive egomania and drug and alcohol abuse, until he finally overdoses in Paris at the age of twenty seven, just after the publication of his poetry book.Continue Reading