Alright, I’ll be the first to admit that the above title is a little bit presumptuous. Really though ‘5 Somewhat Lesser Known Films About Fiction (or Semi-Fictional) Bands and Musicians Which Really Capture the Spirit of the Musical Artist Through the Lens of Cinema’ wasn’t really working for obvious reasons (using ‘musicians’ and ‘musical’ in the same title, preposterous). Anyway, documentaries about music and particular artists are all well and good, they give you deep, narrative-driven insights into their worlds, biopics the same, but creating fictional ones? That’s hard, it’s difficult enough a task to convince the audience that the characters in front of them are real, but if you’ve got them playing music too then you’re setting yourself an even greater challenge. The music has to be convincing, but more than that it’s got to be good, unless it’s meant to be bad, which in a way is even harder.
You can go about this by casting musicians as actors or actors as musicians, but either way it can go horribly wrong. Mariah Carey is the first name that springs to mind on the former side and Russell Crowe on the latter. When you get that balance though, amazing things can happen, you get great performances, great music and in some cases you get a piece of storytelling which unearths some really resonant truths about the music industry. Almost Famous is probably the best cinematic reflection of how rock’s golden age finally ended, This Is Spinal Tap eviscerated its remains and then School of Rock demonstrated that it will never really die. Obviously music films cover a lot more bases that rock in the early 70s but it was fun finding a way to knit those three together (in fact, that would make a good film night). Anyway, there are dozens of lesser-known but no less brilliant music films out there in the ether, so I thought I’d run through five of my favorites. MIC CHECK.
Inside Llewyn Davis
The chart of Coen Brothers films probably looks a bit like a steady heart beat, as they roll up and down between overblown, wonderful absurdity and somber, reserved character drama. Inside Llewyn Davis is on the lower, latter end of the spectrum, focusing on a struggling folk singer living in Greenwich Village in 1961. There’s a lot of wistful romanticism surrounding that place and that time, but this film isn’t the least bit idealistic, it’s cold and often dismally dejected. The first song you hear in the film is called ‘Hang Me Oh Hang Me’ and that does go some way to setting the tone.
Most of the music you hear in Inside Llewyn Davis is played in dingy, sparsely populated hideaways (with the exception of one utterly grotesque pop song studio recording featuring Justin Timberlake at his cringe-worthy best and Adam Driver not far behind him). There’s emotion behind it, but it’s recognised by almost nobody outside of the people who are actually playing it. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is dedicated to playing what he wants to play, but he’s trapped in a vicious cycle of couch-surfing, bad gigs and worse auditions. There’s a biting, cutting humour to it, but even without that edge it would still be an evocative, compelling film.
Leningrad Cowboys Go America
If you think that title is weird you should see the film. It follows the titular Leningrad Cowboys, a Russian band who play out of a tiny village in Sibera. For reasons best known to themselves, they all have footlong greaser-style quiffs of hair, matched by equally long Winkerpecker shoes that look like they could kill a man. Their music is an energetic amalgam of gypsy jazz and blues rock (I’d wager at least one member of Gogol Bordello has seen this film). They have one fan, Igor, he is a moron. Frustrated with their lack of success, the band travel to America to try and achieve wider acclaim.
Whether or not they do is neither here nor there, the utter absurdity of the film is the real draw. The band is largely made up of members from a real Finnish group called Sleepy Sleepers, and in a bizarre twist, the Cowboys effectively became a real band after this film came out, touring extensively. Luckily the band members all bring heart and personality to their roles, enough to draw you in past all the madness (except the bass player, who spends most of the film as a frozen corpse being carted around by the others). It the kind of film that you’ll find yourself heavily invested in, but you won’t be sure exactly why, in the end it doesn’t really matter.
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