Fans of Hollywood movies concerning the trials and troublesome turns in the lives of gifted musicians, real and imagined, will doubtlessly note a curious habit among many of the movies attempting a cogent blend of music and moving image. What I’m thinking of in particular are those portraits of a singularly brilliant musician, a jazz improviser, who struggles to rise to the top of his game, a savant obsessed by his art at the sacrifice of all other things. Not especially well-read; insecure; socially awkward; manic depressive to a degree; and perhaps bedeviled by drug addiction, alcoholism, or some other inescapable self-destructive impulse, it becomes a story that you can anticipate the progress and resolution of before the second reel.
The musician has a series of good breaks, achieves success in finance and romance, and then, through an unlucky series of bad breaks that result, as often as not, from bad decisions and sheer selfishness, our genius player hits the skids and descends to the gruesome and grimy depths of incomprehensible demoralization. Hitting bottom, perhaps, whatever the reason, but this being the product of Hollywood myth-making, recovery and reconciliation is on the way. Our brilliant player climbs up the mountain a changed man, with humility and gratitude, returned to his art with a greater purpose. A happy ending, a Hollywood ending.
Against my better judgments I’ve watched and re-watched movies concerning daring musicians, both real and fictional, attracted by the assumption that a story about someone capable of making music that forces you to suspend your disbelief and spend time in that enticing sphere of pure joy and elation might be just as exciting as the sounds themselves. But where the music was often the hallowed “sound of surprise” that kept your attention, the tale of the musicians depicted on screen lack any such spontaneity. They were a clichéd hodgepodge rarely rising above the level of a soap opera. Where the music was lively, the fictionalized biographies were two-dimensional, utterly flat, and unconvincing in their attempts to move us. Music, something that we consider the invisible but persistent essence that gave life a pulse, a verve, a general massage of the senses, had become something akin to drab and irrelevant wallpaper to a string of clichés, mere cues for ham-faced depictions of convenient emoting. I doubted I was the only one who felt cheated by how Hollywood was treating the creators of vital music.
Young Man with a Horn, a 1951 film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring an unlikely combination of Kirk Douglas, Doris Day, and Danny Thomas gives us a tale of a deadbeat ne’er-do-well whose life is on a rudderless cruise, unmotivated until the main character, performed by Douglas, discovers that he has a knack for producing wild sounds with a trumpet. As such, he attracts attention, becomes popular, achieves fame and fortune and much acclaim, but he becomes a victim of his own success. Becoming insufferably self-centered and coming under the lash of vicious alcoholism, the young man falls apart. A particular scene highlights the young man, in a wildly melodramatic performance by Douglas, hitting bottom after he tries to play his trumpet and is unable to hit the high notes, producing only a muffled gargle of a sound. He tries several times again to get that golden high note—that piercing, clear sound at the highest end of the register that had been his trademark—but again there’s nothing but glottal choking.
Kirk Douglas, who always seemed to me to be on the verge of nervous collapse, is especially overheated in this sequence, collapsing in a slew of tears and whimpers, a man utterly defeated and hitting bottom. It comes down to the convenient solution of a good woman’s love and dedication and a humbling of oneself to the source of true happiness, the sharing of a musical gift for the joy of others rather than his own personal gain, which retrieves this sorry musician from the trash can of life. It is a cozy, comforting resolution to a life’s dilemma and utterly unsatisfying. The glory of improvisation was reduced to an analog for the young man’s egotism and self-seeking. I watched the film a number times for matters of pure style and to appreciate how splendidly unreal Kirk Douglas’ vein-popping histrionics were, but it was not about the music, it was merely an excuse for a morality tale whose insights were, at heart, pedestrian.
It wasn’t just a habit confined to jazz musicians, of course, as we can witness in the classic Elvis Presley movie Jailhouse Rock, released in 1957. This Richard Thorpe-directed effort is one of Elvis’ first films and is something of a guilty pleasure. Released from prison after serving an inexplicably short sentence for manslaughter, Vince Everett, an uneducated hick but oozing with a certain kind of slicked-haired sexuality, comes to the attention of a record promoter due to his knack for singing a tune and strumming a guitar. Fast forward, he gets a contract, has success, and is the heartthrob of a nation of bobby soxers. Vince, though, is uneducated and fantastically insecure, a man who knows not the world nor books but only his sense of not fitting in.
Early in the story line, a female record promoter takes him to a party filled with effete intellectuals smoking pipes and wearing owl frame glasses, drinking high balls, and listening to modern jazz. Introduced as a musician, Vince is asked what he thinks of the discordant, post-bebop jazz that’s been coming from the stereo. Here is Presley’s best bit of acting or of acting natural; Vince stares at the woman who had asked him the question, baffled by the inscrutable jargon he’d been listening to, his eyes half cast and empty. He feels threatened that he’s being mocked. His response: “Lady, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” Ashamed, Vince Everett leaves the party abruptly, his head slumped between his shoulder blades.
Jailhouse Rock repeats this theme throughout its playing time. With each humiliation and success Vince becomes more self-centered, autocratic, and a real dick. This goes on until such time that at the peak of his success, after reneging on a bargain he made with a cellmate prior to his success, he gets punched in the throat. He cannot breathe, he cannot sing, everything looks like it’s going to hell in a hand basket until—wait for it—Vince realizes that he’s been a bastard and that those around him care for him and want to help him and that he needs to appreciate them and conduct himself as a man among men, not a king among subjects. His voice comes back, his career continues; everyone is happy. Fade to black, cue the commercial.
To be fair, Jailhouse Rock has its virtues despite the fact that the carnal primitivism of rock ‘n’ roll is conquered for plot purposes by the civilizing effects of good manners and right living, as it contains a terrific sequence of Presley performing the title song. It rocks, of course, and Presley is seen less as an intelligent being than as a force of nature. The sequence remains a joy to behold—Elvis on screen before his persona was lobotomized to be something safe, cuddly, cute, and ineffectual. The film, though, follows the conventional thinking of how a musician’s story ought to be conveyed to the screen: the struggle from humble beginnings and hardships, the rise to the top from hard work, the fall from grace due to character defects or bad habits that reverse a hero’s fortunes, the recovery commencing when the artist admits his faults and is able again to pursue his life and provide the audience with a greeting-card bit of philosophy.
We can go to great lengths to list Hollywood films that show the lives of musicians as tawdry tragedies whereby the gifts that the players have are matched with the character’s genius for getting in their own way. Self-destruction is a default position. A Man Called Adam was released in 1966 and directed by Leo Penn. This brief précis on the IMDb website states: “A famous jazz trumpeter finds he is unable to cope with the problems of everyday life.” 1959’s The Gene Krupa Story from director Don Weiss is based on the true story of the jazz drummer and concentrates on the musician’s career decline from a marijuana bust. Unable to get work because of his drug arrest, he gets the chance to be a guest drummer at another band’s concert. Introduced to the unsuspecting audience, Krupa is mocked by the cynical crowd. Nervous, he flubs the opening of his solo, which draws more jeers and boos. Krupa, though, starts again at the urging of another drummer on the stage, and soon enough Krupa is wailing and flailing in full fury, getting the crowd on his side. Reputation restored, the miracle cure applies again. To say that this was a formula that Hollywood producers stuck to for decades is an understatement; the soap-operafication of musician-themed films influenced the collective opinion of what a performer’s lot is—that of quick riches and sudden tragedy resulting in occasional redemption but, more often, death. It was something akin to a strain of poetry criticism, which implied that poets of the confessional variety, those poets who wrote about embarrassingly personal issues and disorders, had to commit suicide or die in a loathsome manner in order to confirm a person’s bona fides as a poet.
Many earnest conversations about the art and the artist over several decades convinced me that otherwise intelligent people with impressive tastes in writers and music were of the opinion that being creative was nearly the same thing as a death wish. The artist, successful or not, had their narrative already mapped out. It was the fate of the artist, the poet, the blues man, and the jazz innovator to have their creativity stunted earlier on. This wasn’t, though, a deranged view that floated only among those with high IQs and fancied that they had a grasp of the metaphysical dynamics of tragedy. Rather, the flawed concept spread into the popular culture. What had been a perversion of the romantic view of the gifted artist had become an easy means with which to get a reality TV show on the air.
Case in point: the loathsome example of the VH1 cable channel’s show Behind the Music, a reality program that tells the stories of pop and rock musicians, managing to concentrate the artists’ stories into 60 to 90 minutes, featuring the highlights and the low blows, the success, the ego battles, divorces, deaths, law suits, renewed success, or the continued lingering in pop culture limbo. The criteria, of course, was to expose the musician’s clay feet and how easily they could be shattered. Old footage, interviews with band members, producers, divorced spouses, and high school friends who wanted something first-hand to report about marginal pop music acts decades beyond their five minutes in the sun pushed the idea that music, above all else, mattered most of all to the background, even out the back and into the alley of anyone’s concern.
Behind the Music spotlighted has-beens from across the pop spectrum, whether it was Madonna, Usher, DMX, Ricky Martin, Donnie and Marie, REM, and KC and the Sunshine Band, the idea being that style of music, choice of dress, sexual preference, and the sort of drugs of you did or didn’t do had no sway over the quality of life you’d have as a musician lucky enough to experience financial success and popularity. It was implied that dark things were going to happen; they were unavoidable. The same demons that visited the fictional young man with a horn pestered the insecure Vince Everett and added a drug charge to Gene Krupa’s resume will indeed visit them with a custom-made batch of tough luck and bad breaks. I sometimes wish that this notion of the genius musician being fated for awful things would have evaporated long ago and that we could henceforth do justice to the artists and the music they create. This is not the case, though; I was just a bit despairing to learn that Behind the Music, which first aired in 1997 and is still on the air, is making a mess of the stories and earning a profit while doing so.
Was there a way around what seemed like an intractable impulse to sensationalize the lives of musicians, real and imagined, when they are brought to the screen, theatre, or television? What if an acclaimed director noted for his counter intuitive approach to assembling a narrative arc in films were to take interest in an actual self-destructive music genius? Wondering how a filmmaker would take on the assignment of making a compelling film of someone whose biography appears to fulfill the clichéd formula and avoid the easy way out of the plot complications is a question worth asking. This is where Clint Eastwood meets Charlie “Bird” Parker.
Much of the inspiration that helped elevate Eastwood’s 1988 Parker biopic, Bird, comes from smart choices in the treatment of the material, with a good amount of the credit going to the Joel Oliansky’s circumspect script. The screenplay doesn’t sensationalize Parker’s weakness for alcohol and heroin.What emerges instead is a fuller picture of a man wrestling with both his virtues and his vices. Eastwood’s direction maintains equipoise, walking the line between the sensational and the sentimental with impressive agility. The final result is both a fitting tribute to and power of Charlie Parker’s talent and a compelling portrait of a gifted man creating something beautiful despite great personal and social hardships. The basic story of Parker is well known: a young black jazz saxophone player makes the rounds and pays dues in myriad jazz circles and societies, finds himself impatient with the way the music had been played from a generation before his, and is eager to find other musicians with whom he can explore new ideas and techniques of improvising, thus creating different kinds of harmony and reconfiguring old song structures to provide a basis for increasingly complex and accelerated methods of soloing. He meets like-minded visionaries and, to be sure, a new music—bebop—comes from the combined talents of Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Red Rodney. Quite unlike the host of other jazz-themed movie narratives, Eastwood focuses on Bird with the music in the forefront. This allows the camera to linger a bit on a live performance and present the preternatural fluidity and pace of Parker’s spontaneous compositions to command the audience’s focus. The legendary problems with drug addiction and the consequential inconsistency of Parker’s personal life—missed gigs, infidelities, shirking of obligations to business arrangements and to those closest to him—handily avoid the kind of countdown effect of past biopics that signify the artist’s deteriorating state. Rather, the personal disasters are less a device to forward the plot than they are simply a part of the loosely woven fabric of Charlie Parker’s convoluted life. Parker was a literate man who was blessed a large talent and cursed with large appetites. Forest Whittaker’s performance is a subtle, understanding interpretation of an amiable musician who an intriguing web of contradictions that comes undone; charismatic, exasperating, brilliant, and unreliable. What is compelling about Whittaker’s performance and the way Eastwood handled the story is that Parker reminds you of someone most of us know from our own lives, a real person who has the best of intentions but who cannot be depended upon due to problems of drugs or other mental quirks. This Bird is not a cartoon depiction of a smack-crazed hep cat looking for crazy kicks; he is a complex, fully realized character, more human than we’ve ever seen him before. That makes Charlie Parker more relatable and, I think, makes the audience feel the tragedy and loss of drug addiction even more deeply.
Eastwood has shown a genius for the ways the events in his films are paced and how the narrative events are layered over one another with the emphasis, stylistically, being the textures and tone of a story as it’s revealed, not the otherwise pedestrian approach of cause and effect. Mostly, though, it is not a matter for Eastwood to hit all the marks, to land exactly, to mix the parlance and all the chord changes with a metronome’s exactitude. A jazz lover and pianist himself (Eastwood composed the soundtrack for his 2008 film Grand Torino), there is a jazz-time feel to the way the film unfolds. Strategic points of narrative and editing strongly create the sense of a jazz soloist being in the moment, anticipating being on the beat, behind the beat, in front of the beat, and alternating among the three aspects of time-keeping, which reveals what’s occurring in a fuller, richer context. Instead of being just about the skill of the soloist in a clinical display of riffs, we have instead spaces, color, and suggestions of emotions more varied and subtler than mere virtuosity can give us.
Bird, though, is not a perfect film. It contains transitional devices that seem contrived—a flying cymbal somehow became the repeated image that mechanically cued the flash back sequences—but it is a revelation in what good a good filmmaker if there are sufficient levels of empathy with the subject matter and the music that was made. I had hoped in 1988 that Eastwood’s film would raise the bar on future musician-centered movies and that the old way of telling these stories would be cast aside. Audiences love tragedy, though, and the musician-as-fallen-angel paradigm remains with us in force. There is hope, however, a glimmer that the treatment of real musician’s stories can change at least some things.
Ray, the 2004 tour-de-force telling of the story of Ray Charles, deftly directed by Taylor Hackford, highlights a singular performance by Jamie Fox as the blind singer/pianist. Charles, we know, was a man who overcame his adversity—racism, blindness, anxiety, and the like—who went on to have along and brilliant career. It was a hit, a big one. Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for best actor. It seems to me that movie goers are up for musical heroes on the screen who don’t kill themselves. More movies about musicians with real lives making real music? Sounds like a plan.