Life, Death, and Biopics

Last night when I finally got to see “Straight Outta Compton,” I found myself suddenly seeing a theme—and it wasn’t just Paul Giamatti playing a voice of demented reason to a breakout star musician. Rather, it was the fresh voice that music biopics were getting.

imrsZosha-circa-mid-2000s could’ve been convinced that avenue was done to death. Between “Ray” and “Walk the Line” it seemed like I could line up everything in the (seeming) boom of musician biopics and they’d hit all the same notes at the same time.

Which is why when “Jimi: All is By My Side” came out last year I didn’t expect much. A fictionalization of the year between when Jimi Hendrix got discovered and when he would release “Are You Experienced,” I didn’t find the film itself all that great. It was messy, tonally, and lacked the psychedelic oomph that its hero had. But since the Hendrix estate had denied the rights to any Hendrix songs, the filmmakers were a bit boxed in how they could portray Hendrix, leading to a biography that erred away from mythologizing its subject, and instead felt like a series of candid snapshots. At the time I felt that—though this film had let me down—there was hope for music biopics after all, if someone could improve upon the concept.

Which they did. This year’s “Love and Mercy,” and “Straight Outta Compton” show (in different ways) a new life in the biopic genre. love-mercyTheir artistry, each tailored to the tone of their subject, creates two dynamic films that sprawl but don’t bore. They introduce hardships without harping on a message. We followed their musicians far beyond a encapsulated period in their life (the other pillar I had found strong biopics to stand on; see “Good Night and Good Luck”) and wound through events big and small.

Music biopics are hardly a new invention, nor are they likely done forever. But this summer has really thrown a wrench in any idea I may have had that any one genre, focus, or technique is “dead.”

Another example would be when I walked out of “The Gallows”—not because it raised the hand-held horror genre to new heights, but because somewhere in the B-string summer scare movie was a good idea; a fresh take. Oddly, the film being essentially an echo of better flicks that came before it felt less like a nail in the coffin of the hand-held camera genre and more like an example of what not to do.

If you want to expand the genre you’re going to have to do a bit more than call it in. And if this summer’s run of music biopics have taught us anything, it’s that you may have to sing for it.

A mood that follows you

I was pretty jazzed for “It Follows.” Ever since I saw the trailer at a SIFF theater, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on some old-school horror. And yet, I walked out of the theater disappointed.

I suppose there’s a case to be made for getting my hopes up; I’ve started avoiding trailers as of late to prevent that kind of thinking, but “It Follows” was an exception, and the hype surrounding it probably didn’t help either.

But for me, “It Follows” had all the right things: a balance between explanation and mystery, a villain whose approach I was constantly on the look out for, a moody and etherial atmosphere, and teens doing their best against a monster that’s out to get (one of) them. Initially I thought that I needed to think on it more, and I would understand what everyone was talking about. But then it occurred to me: the only thing that was missing was a visceral response, and that wouldn’t change over time.

Clearly it was there for others; just look at the film’s near universal RT score or ask your friends if they felt comfortable in their house after watching it. But for me, I looked for the monster in the background, I jumped a couple times during the movie, but never quite felt like the mood drew the willies right out of me. I could appreciate all the different interpretations and strategies of “It Follows,” but without that gut-response it didn’t leave any sort of lasting mark on me.

The creation of the mood of a movie, while arguably up there in pretentious sounding film concepts, is also an important and delicate balance that filmmakers strike. It’s what separates the greats from the bad, and the really ugly—look to “The Room” for an example of just how deep the rabbit hole can go. For me it’s a different concept than a tone; mood focuses on the feeling or atmosphere that an audience feels towards a film, instead of vice versa.

Horror films are founded on it. They prey on our gut-clenching and unease, and when the mood is right you want more but also less. I’d argue that a movie like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (the original; the only one I’ve seen) are so successful decades after their jump-scares and effects were introduced because the movie itself casts such an unhinged, dirty feel throughout the entire thing.

Obviously that’s how some feel about “It Follows.” What I’ve found is that when that mood is absent I feel much more like an anthropologist, cataloguing and appreciating what I’m seeing without ever really feeling immersed in it. I guess now I know that if the mood is wrong, a movie won’t follow me too long after the lights come back on. IT-FOLLOWS-Poster1-e1419019379505