If there’s anything Hollywood likes to glamorize, it’s sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It’s then no wonder that at least a few musicians have had their lives immortalized in film. Something about their rise to stardom and fall from fame provides a fitting story arc that works well in the movie format. While there are documentaries (like the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter (1970)) and mockumentaries (like Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap (1984)), the personal stories of musicians usually tend to follow the same narrative structure. Of course, this structure is ready-made for drama, since there is plenty of room for conflict with the extremes of notoriety and infamy. One thing is certain: these musicians didn’t arrive at their fame by accident. Their talent at an instrument or songwriting is what set them apart to become something greater. This week’s films highlight the lives of two famous musicians.
Length: 152 minutes / 2.53 hours
While most people on the street would be hard-pressed to name more than three famous pianists off the top of their head, there seems to be an abundance of them in film. From The Pianist (2002) to Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), some of these musicians are obscure pop culture references at best. Also, it’s not enough to be able to play the piano well, but there has to be some other element of the musician’s life that makes their music that much more impressive. Whether it’s being a tortured savant like in Shine (1996), or being blind like in Ray (2004), these challenges add to the depth of the story surrounding their success. Still, even though the piano is often seen as a classical instrument, the modern pull of drugs is an ever-constant presence in these musicians’ life stories.
Playing the piano requires finely-tuned senses. Not only does a pianist need to know where their hands are on the keys, but they also need to hear if their instrument is out of tune and be able to read sheet music to learn a new song. Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx) lost his sight when he was a child, so before he even had a chance to learn the piano, he was at a disadvantage. To compensate, he learned songs “by ear” and kept them locked away in his memory so he wouldn’t have to rely on sheet music to play them. While his talent was undeniable, his personal life haunted him. Aside from his blindness occurring at a young age, he still carried the burden of his younger brother’s death, which took place a short time before he lost his sight. His heroin addiction threatened to take away everything he had worked hard for. Over time, therapy, and rehab, he was able to kick his addiction.
Walk the Line
Length: 136 minutes / 2.26 hours
Some musicians have very prominent personalities. Even if films like The Doors (1991) only capture the public perception of a musician, there are others like Amadeus (1984) that are awarded Best Picture Oscars. Mostly, these movies tend to boil an individual down to what their personalities were like outside of the music scene. Were they heavily into drugs like Jim Morrison, or were they flippant prodigies like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? Sometimes, these personalities attract a fan base, in part because of the music, but also in part due to who the musicians were as people. Does their music become popular because it represents the people who like it via the musician themselves? In any case, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone nearly as influential to country music as Johnny Cash was.
Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) was raised in the church on hymns and gospel songs. After the accidental death of his father, he joins the Air Force and soon finds he is at peace strumming the strings of a guitar and expressing his feelings through his own, original songs. When he returns to the United States after his time in the military, he works to make a living for his family but is still drawn to the music that soothes his soul. Using the song he wrote during his time in the Air Force, he quickly becomes a musical superstar. Unfortunately, his rise to fame puts his marriage in jeopardy when he falls in love with June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). Unable to be with June, he turns to drugs and alcohol to cope. This eventually leads to his arrest when he is caught with narcotics while returning from Mexico. However, his “outlaw” status speaks to the prisoners who love his first song: “Folsom Prison Blues.”
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 magnificent musicians