Monday, March 8, 2010

Those musical biopics

Last Friday, my husband and I went to see "Bird," the 1988 film directed by Clint Eastwood about the life of Charlie Parker. I've seen several films like this one, and once again I left the theater scratching my head and wondering: What the hell were they thinking?

See, for me, it would be really interesting to know the person's background, how he learned to play, and how much he had to practice. Instead, there was one measly scene with a small child squawking out a few notes on a recorder, and then another measly scene with a teenager standing on a porch tooting on a saxophone for a few minutes (playing "Oh, Christmas Tree," for some reason, though it didn't appear to be that time of year).  The rest of the movie had a lot of really boring depictions of arguments between Parker and his wife, Parker stumbling off to shoot up, Parker getting drunk, and so on. We all know the guy was (a) a genius and (b) had a lot of problems; what we (or I, at any rate) want to know is why. What were the demons that drove him to self-destruct?

There are stories about how Parker practiced 16 hours a day. Was that true? If so, what did he practice, and what inspired him? There is a total of one scene in this movie in which Parker seems to be explaining what he was trying to do when he improvised his solos, but it's kind of buried among the murk of the rest of the film.

I was especially disappointed because Clint Eastwood actually is a jazz musician of sorts, so you'd think he would have been interested in delving into some of these subjects. Alas, no. The movie was sort of artsy; you could see he was trying to give it the feeling of a piece of music played bebop style, with the jumping around in time, returns to a "theme" (though exactly what the theme was, it was hard to say), and excursions into other areas and relationships. There was some good music in it. But it was not at all satisfying.

I had the same reaction to the movie about Ray Charles that came out a few years ago. At least there, the film maker did explain what had happened to him -- why he went blind, how he felt about it, and how it came about that he got interested in music. Then, though, the movie jumps from the child playing his first notes on the piano to the grown up Charles making his way as a performer. Again, no attempt to show how he learned to play and sing or what he had to do to work at it. That would have been really interesting. Instead, again, there are scenes showing fights with the wife, drinking too much. Who wants to see a movie about a guy behaving badly?

The thing is that depictions of people's problems, especially with addiction, are pretty boring to watch because they are all basically the same. What would be enlightening is gaining some understanding of how and why these artists develop their art and what makes them different from the average joe (or jo).

1 comment:

clp150 said...

I agree completely. I was so disappointed with "Ray" because he seemed to have sprung fully formed from a kid hitting a few notes on the piano to a terrific pianist. Unless he was a genius (quite possible) or an idiot savant there must have been lots of hours of learning in there somewhere.