Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Buckleys, and the problem of portraying musicians on film

Originally published at ABC Arts Online, June 2013

It was strange to see Tim Buckley depicted on film in Daniel Algrant’s Greetings From Tim Buckley, shown recently as part of the Sydney Film Festival. For those fans that have thrown themselves into this artist, across all his nine studio albums that covered such blistering diversity, it seems almost shocking to have him whittled down to this portrayal. That the actor playing Buckley, Ben Rosenfield, is poutier, has puffier cheeks and a generally much blander demeanour makes Buckley on screen in this instance an even more uncomfortable fit.

That said, the film is not about Buckley senior. It tells the story of his son Jeff as he struggles with the effects of his father’s legacy, on both himself and the throngs who adore the elder Buckley, and deciding on his own musical identity. The ambitious film features an absorbing performance from Penn Badgley, tasked with a character who perhaps did not “contain multitudes” to the degree of his father, a constantly evolving visionary. While the script pandered perhaps too much to the seemingly unstoppable cult of Jeff Buckley, it was a film that with some tenderness looked at one of the most profound yet troubling family relationships in music.

But with the unavoidably limited and reductive portrayal of Tim Buckley, who appears only in a series of flashbacks, comes the question: how do filmmakers and scriptwriters deal with figures like him? Buckley, a shape-shifting, abstract mystery of colossal creative zeal, surely cannot fit into the 90 or so minutes, to the beginning, middle and end structure, of conventional narrative storylines; to anything like Walk The Line or Ray. Tim Buckley’s career stretches from his period as an elfish troubadour in New York’s folk clubs, through a meandering jazz-folk stage, to some of the most brilliant and advanced music in the pop canon with Blue Afternoon and Starsailor, to the untamed sexual vigour of Greetings From LA.

Twenty-first century pop and rock music does contain, of course, its fair share of mercurial figures ripe for experimental or avant-garde depictions in cinema. Films with an unusual, perhaps surreal approach can penetrate the essence of an artist and reveal their truth, both conceptually and personally, more than straightforward storytelling.

Foremost among these must be Todd Haynes’ majestic I’m Not There. Famously, six actors, including Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger and Marcus Carl Franklin, a black child actor, played Bob Dylan across different moods, periods, interests, values, places and even with different names. As the title suggests, the film is an expression of Arthur Rimbaud’s oft-quoted maxim, “I is someone else”, and in the case of Dylan, his ‘I’ was lots of other people. The Observer’s Phillip French, in his review of the film, aptly quoted the novelist and critic Tom Piazza who weighed up the nature of Dylan by saying, “The central question for an American artist, both as an American and an artist,' Piazza said, 'is how to remain indivisible oneself while, in Walt Whitman's phrase, containing multitudes. Few in our time have done both as fully as Bob Dylan.”

The film is about Dylan’s irresolvable, somewhat chaotic take on the lie of identity, yet also, in the diversity of his personas, hints at his mass everyman appeal. All things to all people, but at the same time nothing fixed.

I’m Not There is a film of intellectual depth that covers existential and spiritual ground. Other directors have chosen a more absurdist way of depicting the complexities of certain musicians.

Take, for example, Ken Russell’s sprawling and crude 1975 film Lisztomania, an outlandish interpretation of the life of 19th century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. Roger Daltrey of The Who plays the lead role, while Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman plays the Norse god Thor, with Ringo Starr, no less, as the Pope. The work is a visual, and to many a vulgar, spectacular with memorable scenes including Daltrey’s eight-foot phallus being guillotined, and the somewhat inflammatory sight of Richard Wagner as a back-from-the-dead machine gun-wielding Hitler figure.

Russell’s picaresque, occasionally nonsensical film shuns historical reality for the sake of indulging his love of the hilariously, plasticky grotesque. His intention was to depict Liszt as music’s first ever sexually magnetic, messiah-like figure. Somewhere in this incoherent, ridiculous film, there is a point regarding fame and the relationship between art and politics.

More than anything though, the film is about the mysterious and moving affect of music on the individual. Of the film, Russell said, ”You can’t expect the composer to fit into the usual idea of normal behaviour patterns. My film isn’t biography. It comes from things I feel when I listen to the music of Wagner and Liszt, and when I think about their lives.” An expression of the exultation felt in response to music must stand as a succinct justification for presenting musicians or artists in a fragmented, fantastical way. Fuel the myth of the artist in an overblown way they may do, but I’m Not There and Lisztomania, in vastly different ways, are responding to the confusing high brought on by musical ecstasy, as well as what disparate mix of qualities make up the artist themselves. Greetings From Tim Buckley does neither, yet Tim Buckley and his music is perfect for such a cinematic exploration.

Finally, perhaps the greatest film in this ‘genre’ is one that has never been made. Alan Greenberg – who was responsible for the landmark 1982 Bob Marley documentary Land of Look Beyond – in 1983 wrote Love In Vain, an exceptional, dreamlike look at the life of the greatest blues man of the all, the enigmatic Robert Johnson. This beautiful, extremely literary script explores Johnson as a mystical seer against a backdrop of erotic, violent and religious imagery in the American Deep South in the 1930s. Love In Vain, the first ever screenplay published as a literary work by a major publishing house, has never been made into a film, despite both Martin Scorsese and David Lynch being linked to it over the years. Scorsese, writing a foreword to the screenplay, defined it “less as a literal history than a spiritual biography.”

Scorsese, Lynch… both would make a decent fist of Greenberg’s masterpiece. Another to throw into the mix must, however, be Haynes. After all, this is the man who, aside from I’m Not There, told the tale of Karen Carpenter using only Barbie dolls with Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), thus confirming him as the king of the weird when it comes to paying tribute to music’s legions of Don Quixotes. 

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