An 8-hour flight across the Atlantic from London to Atlanta gave me the opportunity to see films about two American music legends: Miles Ahead, which tells the story of Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, and I Saw the Light, which portrays the short life of country singer Hank Williams. Their musical styles vastly differ, but the films about them tell the same story about the state of the music biopic, and it is not good. These films are big budget versions of VH1’s Behind the Music series: tales of a great artists plagued by drugs, alcohol and personal drama. It is reasonable and inevitable that we look for clues about how great art came into existence – be it music, painting or theatre – through the personal lives of the artists who created them. However, the modern music biopic has become a medium of voyeurism, looking only at the personal without critical reflection on its relationship to the art.
There was a time and place for the VH1 version of the music documentary: the 80s. This is when we did not fully understand the sad and desperate lives of musicians who were selling out stadiums worldwide and producing slick music videos for MTV. But no more. We know that being famous is a dangerous endeavour – drugs, depression, paparazzi, etc. What we need to know more about is the creative process that leads to great music being produced both because of, and in spite of, the troubled experiences of the artist.
Nina Simone, the focus of the next big blockbuster music biopic this year Nina, has become a victim of this voyeurism. Most biopics about Simone start with her increasingly strange behaviour on stage at the height of her career. I must admit I was drawn into the first documentary I saw about Simone by footage of her ‘acting out’ at concerts: making strange statements, pausing for excruciating long periods of time, and playing hurried versions of her best songs. What we learn is that she suffered from bipolar disorder. It is further revealed that her relationship with her husband was abusive. And then this thing happened to her, and then that thing happened, and so on. However, what deserves more attention is her unique musical training. As a young black girl growing up in the segregated south of the United States, Simone studied classical music and became an accomplished classical pianist. She has said that this training underpinned all the jazz, blues, R&B music she produced. How did she make the transition from playing Bach to producing one of the biggest civil rights era songs, Mississippi Goddam? That’s the story I’d like to hear.
Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s biopic on Miles Davis, is 1 hour and 40 minutes long. The only scene that even attempts to examine his compositional talents starts at 1 hour and 30 minutes into the movie and lasts for about 2 minutes. An aging Davis plays new tracks to an upcoming young trumpeter. What sounds like a complete disaster to the audience (we, the movie watcher) and Davis (in the movie), the young protégé reinterprets into something magical. Excited, Davis suggests a note adjustment. In his classic whispery voice has says: “Change the F to a G to open it up.” Now I’m excited – I’m hoping the tune is played again so I understand what Davis means. But no, that’s the last scene of the film. Fade to black. What people will likely remember about the film is that Miles Davis frequently carried pistol and use it.
Similarly, in I Saw the Light, with Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams, you learn that Williams’ early success was connected more to his songwriting than his singing. However, there are no scenes that feature his song writing process in any depth. Instead we see every turn of his tumultuous relationship with his wife, carefully choreographed and replayed for our voyeristic viewing pleasure. It reminded me of the documentary about Amy Winehouse. The best parts were when her lyrics are written across the screen set against the telling of a personal drama she was experiencing. It is only when you see the words that you understand that she was a great poet and lyricist.
The unfortunate consequence of movies and documentaries that focus on artists’ personal dramas is that we (the audience) begin to believe that great musicians are born geniuses and are brought down by life’s problems and the cult of fame. The reality is that these individuals work extremely hard to master their craft, have incredible focus, and work with a range of really talented collaborators to create new music that help us understand ourselves better and see the world differently. This is what I want to know more about; this is what fascinates me. I’ll take as read the drugs, alcohol and broken relationships.