It can be hard for cinema to convey the body-shaking rush of rock’n’roll. There’s something fundamentally different about the performative nature of the rock star and the actor – one possessed and in the moment, the other considered and artfully observed – that can make attempts by the latter to play the former ring strangely false. The charge of live music, meanwhile, doesn’t always penetrate the essential remove imposed by the camera.
Two recent films about rock musicians demonstrate the potential pitfalls and rarer rewards of portraying that scene on screen – both are out on non-premium VOD and DVD this week. Stardust, an anaemic biopic of David Bowie, is the dud. Hamstrung by the failure to secure rights to any of its subject’s actual music, Gabriel Range’s dramatisation of Bowie’s disastrous first US tour, it wastes a pretty valiant attempt by Johnny Flynn to channel the young star’s gangly magnetism on a script that’s all corny name-dropping surface, with little interior investigation. (Cracked Actor, the BBC’s hour-long 1975 documentary about Bowie on tour the year before, renders Range’s drama pointless. It can be found on YouTube in variously fuzzy forms.)
Would that Stardust had the cinematic imagination and psychological curiosity of Sound of Metal, Darius Marder’s much-lauded study of a heavy metal drummer coming to terms with deafness. It’s a premise that threatens clanging irony of the Alanis Morissette school, but is explored with such grace and visceral sensory detail (notably via its Oscar-winning sound design) that we’re right in the addled headspace of Riz Ahmed’s wounded, stage-starved protagonist.
Indeed, the most authentic-feeling rock films often centre on fictional musicians rather than slavish biographical impersonations of icons. Freed from the pressure of direct verisimilitude, there’s more of Bowie’s spirit in Velvet Goldmine (1998; Amazon), Todd Haynes’s marvellous, garishly ravishing dive down the glam-rock rabbit hole, about a mesmerising, enigmatic Bowie-Bolan composite figure. In Cameron Crowe’s endearing Almost Famous (2000; Now TV), the early 70s roots-rock band Stillwater, who so enrapture the film’s teenage hero, resemble a number of real-life equivalents without being quite as good – which is what lends the film its poignancy.
More cruelly affectionate than Crowe’s film, Christopher Guest’s classic satire This Is Spinal Tap (1984; iTunes) mines much of its comedy from the shallow, generic nature of many lesser rockers’ rebel attitude: hardly a rock-centred film made since, straight-faced or otherwise, hasn’t recalled it in some way. (It says a lot that Sacha Gervasi’s 2008 tongue-in-cheek heavy metal portrait Anvil! The Story of Anvil – on Sky Go – feels like a homage to Guest’s film, while also being a genuine documentary about the titular Canadian metal group.)
Other great rock films make a virtue of their imagined star’s bonkers idiosyncrasy. The genderqueer East German punk diva at the centre of John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001; Chili) – a film as scuzzy and propulsive as its music – seems too unhinged to exist in the real world, but you wouldn’t be able to take your eyes off them if they did. I’ve written before in this column about Elisabeth Moss’s reckless, extraordinary disappearing act as an off-the-rails grunge goddess in Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell (2018; Amazon). Moss’s snarling Becky Something would doubtless be a hero to the three 13-year-old Stockholm schoolgirls who team up to form a surprisingly fierce punk band in Lukas Moodysson’s irresistible We Are the Best! (2013; BFI Player), which, notwithstanding its tender, youthful focus, is driven by just the right spirit of itchy, restless anarchy.
Still, sometimes it takes a rock star to play a rock star, which is why Prince’s Purple Rain (Amazon) – critically dismissed in 1984, academically celebrated today – might remain the ne plus ultra of the genre. Not quite a biopic, but a film besottedly about the star’s very aura, it has the slight distance of fiction and the immediate swagger of documentary, capturing Prince in all his cocky, indulgent, brilliantly purple highness. No actor could come close.
British documentary-makers Hilary Powell and Dan Edelstyn take an offbeat, community-minded approach to the imposing subject of debt, both at a personal and systemic level. It’s more of a lark than it sounds, hinging on an extended social experiment in which they make their own currency with an eye to eliminating debt in their London neighbourhood – but there are solid social conclusions to be drawn from the game.
Annie Ernaux’s brief, well-regarded 1991 novel becomes a starkly effective erotic drama led by a precise female gaze. Danielle Arbid’s adaptation stars the tremendous Laetitia Dosch as a literature professor immersed in a headily carnal no-strings affair with a married man – played by the controversial Ukrainian ballet star Sergei Polunin, whose casting gives proceedings an additional, if unnecessary, edge of provocation.
Alex Ferguson: Never Give In
That this documentary on the former Manchester United manager is a warmly sympathetic portrait comes as no surprise – it’s directed by his son Jason, while his wife and other two sons are heavily present. But it does largely eschew the grandstanding bravado promised by the title for a more vulnerable stance, as he reflects on matters of mortality and memory in the wake of his 2018 brain haemorrhage.
Let’s be honest, you’re tempting fate when you insert “chaos” into the title of your would-be blockbuster, and Doug Liman’s embattled, much delayed adaptation of Patrick Ness’s YA sci-fi bestseller is duly messy. Hard to imagine Charlie Kaufman at one point had a go at the script for this convoluted dystopian vision of a planet without women: the most intriguing aspects of the premise are buried under generic derring-do.
Steven Spielberg’s name-making road thriller gets a spiffy rerelease for its 50th anniversary, and still looks formidably lean and mean. Sweatily following a lone motorist as he’s menaced by a faceless but seemingly hell-bent trucker, it’s a tension exercise that still seems thrillingly modern in its spareness, executed with a vicious efficiency that wouldn’t remain the Spielberg signature for long.