Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Why is Music So Unpopular at the Movies?

I've almost finished watching the cable TV series Treme, which ran on HBO between 2010 and 2013.  Named after the New Orleans neighbourhood renowned as a centre of the city's musical scene, Treme (which is pronounced like "trem-ay") dealt with the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in 2005.  But it was no hit, in spite of the critical praise it received.  I thought it was a standard cable program - which is to say, if it aired twenty years ago, it would have been considered revolutionary. I really thought Treme hit its stride by the second series, but nevertheless it had very few viewers. When I mentioned the show to a relative of mine (who watches cable shows to the exclusion even of movies), he'd never heard of Treme.

This had me pondering as to why movies and programs about music aren't  very popular.  The indifference of the viewing public to the lives of musicians isn't reserved for niche tastes like New Orleans jazz.  Forty-five years after his death, Jimi Hendrix remains popular among youth whose parents were then years away from being born.  A few months back, Rolling Stone had a short profile on an upcoming feature film about Hendrix's breakthrough period.  Starring Andre Benjamin, from the rap-group Outkast, and entitled All Is By My Side, I periodically wondered when it would appear in theatres.  However, it showed up instead on the "rapid-borrow" shelf of the library near the beginning of the year.  Evidently, no one would distribute it theatrically. Personally, I enjoyed it; but I'm a huge Jimi Hendrix fan. Benjamin (who is more than a decade older than Hendrix was at the time of his death) puts in a very credible performance as the ill-fated guitarist.  It could be presumed that there is a built-in audience for such a film: but theatre-chains guessed, probably correctly, that no one would go to see it (the movie does suffer from the apparent inability of the filmmakers to secure the copyright to Jimi's music, and the performances consist of songs written by others).

The coolest guy that ever lived.  Yes.

A similar, and more so undeserved obscurity has attended to Nowhere Boy, a 2009 film about John Lennon's youth.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson, then just nineteen, is outstanding as the future Beatle, holding his own alongside fellow novices and deft veterans, such as Kirsten Scott-Thomas (expert as John's aunt Mimi Smith).  It was well-directed and edited, too, and the fact that no Beatle music is heard, is excused by the fact that it portrays events years before Beatlemania.  I'd never heard of it, though, until I came across the DVD while browsing titles at the library.  It could be argued that Hendrix's popularity is of more limited reach, but there is no question about Lennon's widespread renown.  It seems, however, that almost none of his many fans have the slightest interest in seeing movies or watching TV shows depicting his life.  Earlier attempts at a cinematic Lennon have been similarly unsuccessful.  In the 1990s a film called Backbeat, about the band's early days in Hamburg, met cautious praise but did little business either.  In 1988, a documentary called Imagine was released to theatres.  Though it had a great deal of rare or previously-unseen footage of Lennon, it similarly played to sparse crowds (as I was surprised to find when I went to see it). 

Speaking of Oscar-worthy performances...
As I remember it now, I went to see Imagine as a second-choice.  We had intended to view instead Rattle and Hum, the documentary about U2's mega-successful U.S. tour in 1987.  Scanning the movies page, though, we found it had disappeared from theatres soon after release.  Lennon's global popularity aside, U2 were the hottest thing in music in the late 1980s.  Not even this could encourage their fans to come see a movie of the band performing, in spite of good reviews it received (one of the At the Movies duo even put Rattle and Hum on his top-ten-of-the-year list).

The lack of popularity for films and documentaries about world-famous musicians, could be explained by their subjects' very ubiquity in the mass media.  Which is to say, John and Jimi's voices and personae are so familiar that any attempt to portray them will seem inauthentic and artificial.  Meanwhile, Rattle and Hum's failure could have resulted from public fatigue from the hype about the "new Beatles" (the accompanying soundtrack album didn't sell as well as expected either).  Yet the simultaneous flop of the Imagine doc, which did indeed feature the real McLennon with an intimacy not seen before, points to a generic indifference for musical cinema. 

This is even more striking, given that musicals were an integral part  of movies during the first decades of sound-film.  The relatively few musicals that have been produced since the 1960s, have been more successful than not.  It is specifically movies about the lives of musicians or their fans, which are terminally unpopular. This is so even for fictional films specifically about popular rock music.  Almost Famous was about a rock band that was something like Led Zeppelin dressed up as Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Set in 1973, the story was based on director Cameron Crowe's earlier career as a teenage journalist.  Released in the year 2000, Almost Famous was a surprise flop; its director had just made the Academy-heralded Jerry McGuire, and Famous was expected to be a smash.  

In 2010, a film called the Runaways was released, based on the first all-female rock band, from the late 1970s.  Though it featured popular young actresses at the time, Kirsten Stewart (as Runaways' guitarist Joan Jett) and Dakota Fanning (as the lead singer, Cherie Currie), the Runaways did little business, earning back less than half of its ten-million dollar budget at the box office.

Can't beat those seventies...

The mass indifference toward rock-themed movies goes back long before Almost Famous or the Runaways.  Robert Zemeckis has been one of the most successful Hollywood  directors of the past few decades.  His first studio feature was I Wanna Hold Your Hand, from 1978.  It is about New Jersey teenagers attempting to get into the hotel where the Beatles stayed when coming to America in 1964.  It was also well-previewed and reviewed, but did so poorly that Zemeckis was unable to direct another film for several years.  The director's constant efforts to merge a fictional present with the factual past are no less expertly accomplished (so I recall, not having seen the movie in decades) than in later attempts by Zemeckis that were much more successful at the box office.  Thus, when the kids finally obtain entry to the theatre where the Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan show, the shot cuts away to the actual Beatles performing through the monitors of old-style television cameras (which in turn obscure the faces of the actual actors pretending to be the Beatles).  By the 1990s, when Zemeckis made Forrest Gump, computer-graphics were advanced enough such that the title character, played by Tom Hanks, could be rendered in conversation with president Kennedy and other historical figures.  This jumbling of time-frames was indulged even to a tiresome degree in the Back to the Future trilogy, in which the years are traversed in a nuclear-powered sports-car, and characters observe themselves doing things already shown before (hence the ennui).  Nevertheless, Future and Gump were very popular films.  Audiences do not reject Zemeckis=s particular thematic approach, except when it is applied to music.

Not surprisingly, the Beatles have been the most successful at the cinema.  But even this has be$en relatively unspectacular.   Made at the height of Beatlemania, A Hard Day's Night was very popular.  But the followup, Help!, was not as well-received.  Not counting the Magical Mystery Tour fiasco, only Yellow Submarine was an unqualified success, and the actual Beatles appeared in it only briefly.  The documentary Let It Be, appearing just as the Beatles broke up, was little-seen either at the time of its release, or for years afterward (for the good reason that it was boring).  The documentary featuring the Woodstock festival in 1969, was a box-office success upon its release to theatres the following year.  It was broadly popular less so due to the performances contained therein, but because of the extensive footage of the concert-goers themselves, which takes up probably half or more of the film's original three-hour running time.  This lack of interest of movie-goers in rock-music movies, obtains only when musicians are, onstage or off, the subject of the movie itself.  Music is an essential part of nearly all Hollywood movies, with popular song having an increasingly large place on soundtracks.  Frequently, songs become hits as the title-tracks of popular movies - even old radio-hits have undergone revival because of their inclusion in films (such as Stuck in the Middle with You, by Stealer's Wheel from 1974, which saw airplay nearly twenty years later, after it was heard in an infamous scene in Reservoir Dogs).  Again, however, rock and other popular songs only became famous in movies, if they are backing-tracks to some different activity than watching musicians perform.

The question is, why is this so?  I will tackle that in the next entry 

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