Gigs on Film

8 01 2010
Andy Serkis

Andy Serkis in 'Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll'

2010 is still young, but already our screens have been graced by two films about dead rock stars. The first, Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy, told the story of the turbulent upbringing of John Lennon, and of the strained relationship with an estranged mother that helped to fire the future Beatle’s artistic ambition. The second, released in the UK today, is Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a warts ‘n’ all biopic of Ian Dury, singer, songwriter and leading light of the British punk scene.

In theory, popular music and cinema should go together like love and marriage or cheese and chutney. Both are popular art forms after all, both came of age in the 20th Century, and there’s a big overlap between gig-going and cinema-going audiences. Film inspires music and music inspires film, so naturally film-makers are tempted from time-to-time to tackle the subject of popular music and its stars.

And yet, somehow, this promising partnership rarely seems to work out well. If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then filming music is like, I don’t know, singing about theatre: not quite so remote, but still a difficult trick to pull off. 

Film-makers have set about tackling musical subjects in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most obvious, particularly when you have a Johnny Cash or a Ray Charles or an Ian Dury on your hands, is to go for a straightforward biographical approach, telling a story about a musician’s life, or part thereof. The problem here is that, firstly, once you’ve seen one TV thrown into a swimming pool you’ve seen them all, and, secondly, biography tends to be a distraction from the music. Are great musicians’ lives really all that interesting in themselves?

A noble attempt to break out of this narrative straightjacket is Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007), a Bob Dylan biopic that tackles its subject by telling six fragmented stories to represent different aspects of the singer’s personality. In each story, a different actor (or actress) portrays Dylan, or a character very like him. So Cate Blanchett is the electric Dylan of the mid-Sixties, Richard Gere the reclusive Dylan of the Eighties and Marcus Carl Franklin a young boy travelling in box-cars and playing his guitar; a Dylan who never was. I’m Not There doesn’t really address the singer’s music head-on, but by dispensing with a linear, fact-based approach to his life it does have a convincing go at exploring him as a cultural icon,

Film fares less well when it comes to the tricky matter of capturing the essence of live music, with all of its energy and excitement and sweat. By far the weakest scenes in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002), for example, are those involving the epoch-making gigs attended and organised by its central character Tony Wilson. Similarly, Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991) never quite captures what it was that made Jim Morrison so compelling, and Walk The Line (2005) gives but a taste of the energy and anarchy of Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison gig. (For the real deal, see instead the documentary footage of Cash at San Quentin Jail.)    

Sam Riley


One film that manages to buck this trend is Control, Anton Corbijn’s 2007 retelling of the life of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. Control is primarily a biographical piece but somehow, miraculously, its live concert scenes seem to come alive, or at least to grip and compel much more than they do in most films about music. I’m not quite sure why this is. It could have something to do with the intensity of the lead performance from newcomer Sam Riley. It could be because Corbijn chose to let Riley sing the songs himself rather than mime to the originals. Or it could be because, increasingly, the viewer comes to expect and fear the epileptic fits that periodically strike down Curtis, often while he’s on stage.

Without wanting to cast any aspersions on Control’s director or his performers though, I’m not sure that even they would be able to say what the magic formula is for making gigs on film work. Live music triumphs or fails for reasons that are very hard to quantify, let alone recreate; the mood of the crowd, the feedback on Amp 6, and whether or not the drummer has a headache. The truth is that sometimes on a film set things just happen, and it’s all the cast and crew can do to scramble gratefully after the moment, and try to preserve it for the ages.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is on general release in the UK.



5 responses

8 01 2010

Maybe another part of the reason, ‘Control’ works so well is that the director was actually there and knew the people, not to mention Corbijn’s photos/imagery of the band were part of the mythology.

You missed mentioning the ultimate combination of film and gigs ‘9 songs’! 😉

8 01 2010

Unfortunately I didn’t get around to seeing 9 Songs when it was out in the cinema, mainly because I was too embarrassed to buy a ticket. Maybe I’ll have a cosy night in with the DVD some time…

8 01 2010

I saw ‘9 Songs’ with girlfriend and another couple who are not exactly art cinema types! Probably not the best choice!
Brave film, shame it wasn’t very good.

22 01 2010
Paul Wiseman

‘9 Songs’ is in my top 5 list of most pretentious and worst films ever made, alongside ‘The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael’. I don’t recall what the others are at the moment but the criteria for this status is that they compel me to force my head through the tv screen (i wasn’t stupid enough to see them at the cinema) and vomit inside. Please don’t watch any of the above mentioned ‘films’.

23 01 2010

One of the benefits of an unlimited Cinema Pass is [at he rate I go] that all films after 2-3 months are free.

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