With all the great and at least slightly tragic musical figures who have earned the biopic treatment who could be next? Who could follow such deserving figures as Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Al Jolson, Jim Morrison, Ian Dury, Glen Miller, Gene Krupa, Edith Piaf, Bob Dylan, Serge Gainsbourg, and, of course, Dewey Cox? Marvin Gaye? Jacques Brel? Joni Mitchell? Jimi Hendrix, for crying out loud?
Nope, why make just another flick about a genius who forever changed the face of contemporary music when you give the world the world story of the man without whom there would be no “Der Kommisar” and or “Rock Me, Amadeus.” Ladies and gentlemen, direct from Austria and the year 2008 — sometimes it takes a while for good things to make it stateside — I present “Falco – Verdammt, wir leben noch!” (“Falco – Damn, We’re Still Alive”). Forgive the lack of subtitles, but I’m feeling like we get the gist.
Okay, it should be mentioned that Falco was, in fact, the most famous German language pop artist internationally, at least that I can think of right now. Also, I sort of liked “Der Kommisar” back in the day. “Rock Me, Amadeus” never did it for (for that matter, neither did “Amadeus”). Also, I believe that my first ever paying writing assignment was writing a review of the worldwide-hit free album Herr Falco made betweeen “Der Kommisar” and “Rock Me Amadeus.” If memory serves, I think I gave it a C+ or, perhaps feeling a bit generous, a B-. Shades of things to come.
Talking with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air” while promoting the very funny musical biopic spoof, “Walk Hard,” star John C. Reilly made a telling observation. He noted that such figures as Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Jim Morrison, and Johnny Cash were all very different people with very different lives, but the movies about them tended to be all kind of the same. This month in Europe, that proposition is being tested by two very interesting looking films about two extremely unusual musicians who were so unusual I never particularly expected to see a movie about either of them. Hopefully, both will make it stateside in due time.
The first movie is “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll,” about Ian Dury. Dury, with his crack back-up band, the Blockheads, was a figure in my personal favorite wing of the punk/new wave era of the late seventies that was embodied by his label, Stiff Records. He fashioned a surprisingly effective and popular combination of English music hall, “blue” humor, and Parliament/James Brown style funk and early hip-hip. Partially disabled by polio, he had the requisite difficult life and, physically and in every other way, he was born to be played by outstanding Peter Jackson stand-by Andy Serkis, for once free of make-up efx or motion-capture.
Olivia Williams (“Dollhouse,” “Rushmore”) seems to be everywhere all of a sudden, and I’m completely okay with that. And, as Dury’s son, that’s young Bill Milner from “Son of Rambow.” I do have to say the real-life Dury was slightly better at carrying a tune. Still, looks good and the reviews so far are promising.
Next: an arguably even more dysfunctional, but even more talented, French musical madmen gets his biopic.
Though he was a rich man, an underrated singer in his own right, and the co-founder of Capitol Records, Johnny Mercer is, 34 years after his death, nowhere near as famous as the author of such brain-burrowing mid-century lyrics as “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)”, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” “That Ol’ Black Magic,” “Satin Doll,” “Laura,” and “Moon River” really should be. Lyricists rarely get the respect composers do. Moreover, Mercer worked primarily in Hollywood, which in his day meant more money but less prestige than writing songs for Broadway. That’s show business.
“Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me” suffers slightly from the ill-fitting inclusion of some new material featuring super jazz fan and executive producer Clint Eastwood chatting with film composer John Williams and others, but overall, this TCM documentary written by Ken Barnes and directed by Bruce Ricker is a massively engaging documentary look at Mercer’s often surprising career. The 90-minute film efficiently covers his personal riches-to-(not quite)-rags-to-greater-riches story and tumultuous personal life, including a lifelong affair with Judy Garland, but wisely focuses on the music and takes full advantage of some priceless archival footage. Performances and interviews featuring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Julie Andrews, Blake Edwards, Ray Charles, a young Barbara Streisand, a middle-aged Bono, and new performances by Jamie Cullum, Dr. John and others (seen in their entirety on the DVD bonus disc), beautifully illustrate Mercer’s gifts and chart his extraordinary influence. An obvious labor of love, “The Dream’s On Me” is not exactly great filmmaking but it’s got great taste and is a must for fans of great popular music.
Regulars might have noticed a bit less movie news this week. Don’t worry, I won’t try to cover everything that happened in movieland this week tonight. Unfortunately, I have to start with three notable deaths.
* The saddest for me personally, and perhaps for some of you horror fans out there, is the most recent. Dan O’Bannon has died from Crohn’s Disease at age 63. Best known for the horror-comedy hit, “The Return of the Living Dead,” and for writing the screenplay for “Alien,” O’Bannon emerged out of U.S.C.’s film school with his friend, John Carpenter and together they collaborated on an odd science fiction comedy called “Dark Star.” While few remember that film, it set them both on a pretty interesting path.
When I was in the middle of high school and at the height of my geekness (three terms as president of the Venice High science fiction club!), I actually met O’Bannon in some odd circumstances at a crisis point in his career. Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you the story, but suffice it to say he seemed like a good guy and he was clearly something of a minor genius. He’ll be very much missed.
* Roy Disney, the nephew of Walt Disney and the son of Roy O. Disney, also passed on at age 79. The younger Disney emerged as a king-maker and king-breaker of sorts, launching insurgent movements that wound up putting Michael Eisner in charge of the studio in 1984 and then deposing him in 2004.
* Finally, if you’re a former film student like myself you’ve probably had to read some of the work of famed academic critic and scholar Robin Wood, who was so respected that almost no one noticed when serious film-criticism aficionado Joss Whedon named a supercool cool high school principal/cum monster-fighter after him on “Buffy.” (How could anyone namecheck him on a mere TV show? It had to be a coincidence.) One of the first critics to approach genre films seriously, he is famous for works on Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, among many others. He has passed on at age 78, and the always interesting Glenn Kenny has a remembrance.
So as Fox’s “American Idol” turned the page from Season 7 to Season 8, they vowed some improvements to help boost ratings. Well, we’re finding out that there was a bit of hot air in those promises. Yes, they added a fourth judge, and maybe they extended Hollywood week on TV another seven days, but an improvement? Not really. In fact, they barely showed any performances last night. I think they showed more of the judges deliberating and the contestants’ agony waiting for said deliberation than actual singing. Something is getting stale and the producers of the show can’t seem to learn any new tricks. But I’ll say this…the talent this year is pretty freaking good….and I believe it may carry the ratings regardless of the production.
Anyway, as the 72 remaining contestants got ready to sing in front of the judges solo but with some backup singers and a keyboard, the judges began their unenviable task of weeding out the mediocre ones. Then they were separated into four rooms..and you would think that two of the rooms would stay and two would go home, but that’s not exactly what happened. Only one room was sent packing, and I’m pretty sure there were no more than 15 or 20 in that room.
Among them, Kendall, the first girl of the night, attempted Carrie Underwood, and while yours truly is not a Carrie fan in the least, Kendall made Underwood look like Martina McBride…..Keneshe Young, the 16 year old from Cincinnati, who I thought was great, did not make it past this round…India Morrison, who led a fantastic group performance that included buddies Danny and Jamar, did not stand out enough on her own…..and Michael Castro, Jason’s brother, didn’t stay in Hollywood either, though they haven’t shown him performing since his initial audition (really now, how is that possible?).