From Velvet Goldmine to Sound of Metal, the rock’n’roll life has provided a rich seam for cinema
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.