#380. Musicians

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.

Year: 2004
Rating: PG-13
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 LineWalk the Line
Year: 2005
Rating: PG-13
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

#379. Piano Men

Johann Sebastian Bach has said, “It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time, and the instrument will play itself.” While he’s likely simplifying the complex process of playing an instrument, at the very least the piano has all the notes readily available for a musician to play. Anyone can play the piano; this instrument is deceptively simple but can also be incredibly complex. With a single finger, a musician can plink out a recognizable tune or melody. However, some songs require up to 20 fingers to play, a feat usually reserved for two people. Having taught myself some piano, I can honestly appreciate the talent it takes to play this instrument well. Piano players can be a rare breed, but at least a few have become famous because of it. This week’s two films highlight some famous men who earned their notoriety at the keys of a piano.

Year: 2004
Rating: PG-13
Length: 125 minutes / 2.08 hours

Anyone who thinks jazz piano isn’t a dramatic art clearly doesn’t understand jazz. Modern films like La La Land (2016) tout the potential purity of jazz played on the piano, but much of the roots of piano jazz have come from slightly more structured backgrounds. Few jazz songs actually have any lyrics, which is why those that do are much more recognizable in popular culture. While most people will have a passing knowledge of musicians like Dave Brubeck, more will know George Gershwin via his “Rhapsody in Blue.” Even more people can recognize multiple songs by Cole Porter. When Kevin Kline portrayed Cole Porter in De-Lovely (2004), he was able to understand Porter’s attraction to the piano. Kline said, “I totally related to Cole Porter’s magnetic pull to any piano that was in the room, which he was famous for doing . . . You couldn’t drag [him] away from a piano.”

If anyone ever had “fun” with music, it was Cole Porter (Kevin Kline). His catchy songs propelled him into fame and fortune, mostly in part due to his marriage to Linda Lee Porter (Ashley Judd), as she was the muse for most of his songs. At the end of his life, he has to admit that “not all” of the songs were about her since he was secretly engaging in homosexual relationships alongside his marriage to Linda. She was agreeable with the arrangement, even if his flings eventually drove her to leave and move to Paris. The irony was that he moved both of them to Hollywood to get over their miscarriage, but the temptation for his homosexual lifestyle in this hotbed of entertainment led to a moment used as blackmail against him. After Linda left, his music was never the same, and even more so when she died in 1954.

Year: 2004
Rating: PG-13
Length: 152 minutes / 2.53 hours

Music is a very audible medium, but musicians need a modicum of visual prowess to play it. When learning an instrument like the piano, many will glance back and forth between sheet music and their hands on the keys to ensure they’re hitting the right notes. Over time, these musicians develop a muscle memory that will allow them to play more effortlessly. However, what happens when the musician is blind? In these cases, the other senses must compensate to help the musician conquer their disability. They must be able to hear the notes and know if they’re correct. They must know where their hands are on the keys by touch alone. I already admire talented pianists, but blind ones like Ray Charles are even more impressive. His inspiring story was brought to life through Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning performance in Ray (2004).

Ray Charles Robinson (Jamie Foxx) had a hard life growing up. Not only was he living on a sharecropping plantation in Florida, but he witnessed his younger brother drowning when he was just seven years old. To add insult to injury, his brother’s death was one of the last things he ever saw, as he went blind shortly afterward. His mother, Aretha Robinson (Sharon Warren), did not want Ray to be limited by his handicap. She insisted he discover something he could do with his life, which is what ultimately led him to the bench of a piano. This was where he soon learned he was a natural talent, even despite his blindness. While he showed he could play any number of musical styles, his fame came about when he was able to combine these genres into a style that was all his own. Did he play rock and roll or jazz? Country or gospel? He played them all, and sometimes all at once.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 piano players

#193. Singers

There have been many films made about singers. Many of those have been about actual people. These biopics tend to focus on the famous musicians who end up unable to handle the lifestyle of excess that accompanies stardom. Musicians like Jim Morrison (The Doors (1991)), Ray Charles (Ray (2004)), and Johnny Cash (Walk the Line (2005)) cover three different musical styles (Rock, Soul, and Country, respectively), but all highlight the fact that drugs are bad. As such, films about fictional singers don’t have to include this universal element of their downfall. That’s not to say there can’t be conflict in a fictional singer’s life. Entertainers inevitably have to make sacrifices, whether it’s their family or their career. Still, in the end, their voice remains. This week’s two films look at the lives of some singers.

The Jazz SingerThe Jazz Singer
Year: 1927
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 88 minutes / 1.46 hours

It’s strange to think about, but at one time Jazz was the most controversial musical genre out there. This controversy was mostly due to the racial barrier, but also due to the genre promoting “loose morals.” Of course, these aspects of the specific musical genre aside, most families don’t want their children to become musicians because only a select few of them actually make it big enough to survive on it as a profession. Singers are even more at risk than other musicians because their instrument cannot be replaced. Still, the reward of the performer is the enjoyment of the audience, which sometimes is worth more to them than the money. If they can’t do what they love, they know they’ll be miserable trying to do anything else. This can lead to some heated arguments between parents and children, sometimes ending in drastic measures.

Jakie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson) is at odds with his father, Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland), who wants him to follow in the generations-deep family tradition of singing in the synagogue. Unfortunately, Jakie is more interested in performing jazz songs, which causes him to run away from home, thus changing his name to Jack Robin in the process. 10 years later, Jack has broken into the Jazz scene by dressing up in blackface. This was done to fit in with the mostly African American roots of the “up and coming” musical style. Jack’s mother, Sara Rabinowitz (Eugenie Besserer), pleads with him to return to the synagogue, even though his father expelled Jack from the family. Now he must make a decision: should he sing for his ailing father, or go on stage to become a star? There’s only time for one choice!

The Wedding SingerThe Wedding Singer
Year: 1998
Rating: PG-13
Length: 95 minutes / 1.58 hours

Some singers want to have it all. These singers will stop at nothing to advance their career, sometimes damaging themselves in the process. Often, these singers will come to realize the error of their pursuit and will return to the passion for music that started them singing in the first place. However, some singers enjoy just singing. They might have had dreams of becoming rock stars, but when it comes right down to it, the singing is really what brings them joy. Plus, writing songs is hard. These days, wedding singers are pretty rare, as most receptions are run with a DJ and an iPod. Still, there’s something about having a live band with a wedding singer that adds a bit of retro charm to a reception. It’s no wonder The Wedding Singer (1988) was set in 1985, in a time where someone could make a living singing at weddings.

The irony of a wedding singer is that they are people with love lives of their own. When Robbie Hart (Adam Sandler) is left at the altar by Linda (Angela Featherstone), his career suffers. Linda wanted him to fulfill his dreams of becoming a rock star, but when he didn’t proceed past “wedding singer,” she decided to leave him. Julia Sullivan (Drew Barrymore) is a waitress that Robbie had befriended since they both work at the same reception hall. She helps him to get over the breakup by asking him to help plan her wedding to Glenn Gulia (Matthew Glave). However, when they start developing feelings for each other, things become complicated. After Robbie learns Glenn is a two-timing scumbag, and Julia has a misunderstanding with Linda, it looks like their friendship is in jeopardy. Will these two figure out the truth in time to avoid marrying the wrong people?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 stupendous singers

#172. Blindness

In a medium that so heavily relies on visuals, blind characters make for interesting plot points. It can be easy to show the audience something that other characters don’t get to see, even if they aren’t blind. However, when the audience sees the events unfolding around a blind person, they’ll want to shout out, knowing that the character cannot see what’s happening. Often, this is used for comedic effect, since the oblivious character has no idea how close to destruction they have come. On the flip side, the audience is impressed if a blind person can avoid danger, but even more impressed if they can fight it off. We are often inspired by those who can overcome their handicaps, and blindness is just such an example. This week’s two films examine some characters who are affected by blindness.

City LightsCity Lights
Year: 1931
Rating: G
Length: 87 minutes / 1.45 hours

There have been a few blind people who have become famous for being able to overcome their blindness. For instance, Helen Keller was not only blind but deaf as well. She still managed to live an inspiring life. Fortunately for the world of music, Ray Charles wasn’t deaf. However, he made it a point to not let his handicap hinder his life. He may have been blind, but he never let it stop him from changing the musical landscape into what we hear today. Still, even though many people can live normal lives with blindness, those of us who can see will often give them charity. Blindness does limit a person’s life somewhat, so we are more than willing to help those who cannot see. When it comes down to it, the kindness of strangers can be brought out through the simple acts of helping those who need help.

On a day like any other, a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) was selling flowers on a street corner when a man came by and bought one of her wares. She tried to give him his change, but he had already left. The next day, the man continued his generosity by buying out the girl’s entire supply. He then drove her home in a very fancy car, which contrasted the small apartment where she lived with her grandmother (Florence Lee). The man reads a letter to her, which informs them that the two women will be evicted from their apartment soon if they don’t pay up. Feeling moved by their plight, the man promises to help obtain the money. Furthermore, he has learned of an operation that could restore the girl’s sight, which is also expensive. When the girl receives the money, the man disappears. Now that she can see, she keeps watch at her flower shop for a wealthy benefactor, only to find the man is not who she thought he was.

The Book of EliThe Book of Eli
Year: 2010
Rating: R
Length: 118 minutes / 1.97 hours

Blindness can be caused in many ways. Sometimes it’s a medical abnormality that steals someone’s sight. Other times, it’s caused by external forces. Your mother always told you to never look directly at the sun and to not sit too close to the television because she didn’t want you to go blind. However, what if your eyes were damaged from something else? In the case of the superhero known as Daredevil, he was blinded by chemicals but soon finds his other senses heightened to the point that his blindness is actually a superpower. In these instances, fighting in conditions like darkened rooms and heavy fog can actually be an advantage to the blind. But, what if the world enters a post-apocalyptic era where the sun could easily blind someone, even if they don’t look directly at it? Will it become a case of the blind leading the blind?

For 30 years, the world has been reeling from a nuclear apocalypse which has caused the sun to shine a much harsher light on the land. A traveler by the name of Eli (Denzel Washington) makes his way into a town run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman). It turns out that both men can read, which is a rare skill after the apocalypse destroyed most of the literature in the world. When Carnegie learns Eli has a particular book in his possession, he sets out to get that book. Unfortunately, Eli is skilled at fighting and can fend off wave after wave of attackers. SPOILER ALERT Eventually, Carnegie gets the book Eli was holding: a copy of the Bible. With this book in hand, Carnegie had plans to control the region but soon realizes this won’t be possible because the book is written in braille. Freed from Carnegie’s pursuit, Eli arrives in San Francisco, where he recites the whole Bible from memory. Now it can be printed again.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 sightless stories

#142. Jamie Foxx

Comedian, musician, actor. Jamie Foxx is one of Hollywood’s best examples of rising through the ranks to become a well-known and household name, even if it’s his stage name. Working his way up from being a stand-up comedian to a television actor, Jamie Foxx made the jump to the big screen while still working on television. Once he completed the run of his own, eponymous show, Foxx had more time to commit to movies, which meant that, as a result, he landed a few roles in more dramatic films like Ali (2001) Dreamgirls (2006), and The Soloist (2009). This propelled him forward toward some fantastic performances. Even though he also stars in some popcorn fodder like Stealth (2005), White House Down (2013) and this last summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), the fact remains that he’s won an Oscar for his acting. This week’s two films focus on some Jamie Foxx roles.

Year: 2004
Rating: R
Length: 120 minutes / 2 hours

If there was a defining year for Jamie Foxx as a movie actor, it would be 2004. In a rare occurrence, Foxx was nominated for two acting Oscars in the same year. While he didn’t win for Best Supporting Actor in Collateral, he did win Best Actor in the biopic Ray about the life of Ray Charles. From that point on, all future trailers could market Jamie Foxx as an Academy Award-Winning Actor. Of course, there have been many great actors who have yet to win an Oscar, so it’s really saying something when someone wins an Oscar so soon after delving into dramatic roles. And yet, director Michael Mann saw Foxx’s talent when he cast him in Ali and continued to cast him after Collateral in Miami Vice (2006). This director/actor pairing really pushed Foxx into the spotlight of Hollywood’s elite.

Sometimes, we take a job just to earn a living. However, when that job means we’re aiding a hitman, we soon realize the money he has offered isn’t worth it anymore. Taxi driver Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx) has been driving Vincent (Tom Cruise) around Los Angeles in order to kill six people on a hit list. As the night progresses, Max attempts to stop Vincent on several occasions, even going so far as to destroy the list. However, since Vincent wanted Max to maintain his routine for the night, he now has Max’s mother used as leverage to get the rest of the list back. Max is helpless as he interfaces with a drug lord to retrieve the last few names, but he is almost saved by an LAPD detective, who is killed by Vincent. After crashing his cab, Max and Vincent race into the subway after the last victim. Will Max save the day, or die trying?

Django UnchainedDjango Unchained
Year: 2012
Rating: R
Length: 165 minutes / 2.75 hours

With his Best Actor Oscar for Ray securing his ability to act in a lead role, Jamie Foxx has seen very few leading roles since then. Aside from being the titular cello player in The Soloist five years later, it took another four years for Foxx to star in an eponymous role. This role was Django. While he has played real-life musicians with certain limitations (blindness in Ray and schizophrenia in The Soloist), he has also been in quite a few action roles (like Stealth and Miami Vice). So when Foxx was cast in a historical action role, you knew he could handle it. Still, it doesn’t hurt to have a well-known director like Quentin Tarantino behind the helm of this film to get Jamie Foxx’s name out there even more. After all, it worked for the careers of Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson before.

In the opening scenes of this film, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) buys Django (Jamie Foxx) and gives him his freedom in exchange for help on collecting a bounty. After killing the Brittle Brothers (from the aforementioned bounty), Django is trained by Dr. Schultz to become a bounty hunter like himself. This is all done so Django can rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Unfortunately, Broomhilda is owned by one of the most notorious slave owners of the south: Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). As a result, Dr. Schultz thinks up a plan to get onto Candie’s plantation, Candyland, by pretending to be interested in purchasing a slave fighter known as a Mandingo. Unfortunately, the whole plan is put in jeopardy when the head house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) smells something fishy. Can Django save Broomhilda, or is the whole operation about to explode?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 fantastic Foxx performances

Bacon #: 2 (Collateral / Tom Cruise -> A Few Good Men / Kevin Bacon)