The Dirt vs Blaze
Filming a music biopic is probably the most fraught type of film-making and Tinseltown is littered with both half-decent, half-crap efforts and rubbish ones.
You need access to the music, which if your star has passed means access to the family or estate, and who holds the power in the families or estates of dead famous people seems to result from a process of natural selection more ferocious than any Darwin imagined, favouring high levels of greed, pettiness, possessive jealousy or reclusiveness. Thus there are no good films about the Beatles or Stones except Nowhere Boy and Stoned, which pare off the lives of single members at a time in their lives when the music isn’t needed to tell the story. There are no good films about Hendrix or Bowie, though there are those Todd Haynes films about Dylan and Glam which solve the problem by lapsing into fantasy, which allows for substitution. But there’s nothing of the standard of Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker biopic Bird which is my ideal,* nor is has anything as insightful as Michael Apted’s fantasy Stardust (1974) been made about a real personality. We might be waiting a long time for a Syd Barrett biopic, unless Will Sharpe, the only person I think could pull it off, decides to make it, but then – access.
The Dirt (2019) solves the problem of access because its protagonists, Mötley Crüe, are all still alive and seemingly immune to shame. They spoke to Neil Strauss, the rock writer stars just can’t help telling their most discreditable secrets to, and the result was published as The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band. I haven’t read this book (yet) but I’ve heard it’s appalling, for reasons which will become clear. It’s the story of four young men (although the film makes clear guitarist Mick Mars was not-so-young, and his character is by far the most mature/least interesting, the age difference isn’t easy to work out from the casting). Our heroes come up with a particularly vapid style of pop-metal, what Pitchfork’s Jeremy Larson recently dubbed “idiot sex-rock”, and a strikingly gimpy style of rocker dress, and for some reason (LA is the very epicentre of the world’s vapidity) this made them uncountable money and attracted a superfluity of young women (or as Mötley Crüe would say, Girls, Girls, Girls) wanting to immolate and abase themselves to serve the band. One of the paradigms that I find most meaningful in music is the relationship between desire and exploitation; The Dirt leans heavily towards the desire side in telling this story, and away from stories of exploitation; Blonde it is not.
I’m not immune to the charms of pop-metal and sex-idiot rock. There are obviously exciting elements at play there and I’m always happy to feel excited by them. And even a half-decent biopic will sell you on at least one song – surely everyone has one good song in them – even if you really don’t care for the artist. Yet I feel the same way about Mötley Crüe’s music after watching this film as I did in their heyday. As disquieting as some of the behaviour in this film is, the music is far worse. Which makes the behaviour worse – this was the music that enabled it? It moves along much the same in every song, there’s a high level of energy and all the most bargain-basement rock ideas being forcibly expressed, but at its core the songs feel meaningless, and the melodies and chords seem to go nowhere. There’s nothing wrong with monotonous music, unless it’s played like Mötley Crüe played it, with the singer singing in a style I had to tune out so that I can’t even recall it well enough to describe it.
(So far, Mötley Crüe have sold 100 million albums, and exhausted the possibilities of both sex and drugs, so what do I know.)
Yet The Dirt still strikes me as a good film. The story is intrinsically interesting and the plot is well distributed between the four main characters. And though the tone is relatively light, it never shies away from pointing to problems and possibilities that are well worth thinking about. It’s a film that will stick in your mind. Because The Dirt is a misogynistic film, or a film that tells a misogynistic story. All the best laughs in it, as well as the worst, are at the expense of women. There’s an amazing scene where Ozzy Osbourne, played by Tony Cavalero, outgrosses himself to impress the Crüe (The Dirt’s director is Jeff Tremaine, a co-creator of Jackass), and this makes it clear that these musicians didn’t respect themselves either… but Ozzy is wearing a dress in this scene.
The other side of this is that telling the Mötley Crüe story requires a fair bit of nudity and a lot of female energy on screen, and though few of the female players really get enough screen time this is well done. I’m used to sex scenes in Hollywood films being obligatory, fake-looking and horribly-lit affairs that bring the movie down – at leastThe Dirt isn’t like that. Mötley Crüe weren’t the Beatles and it’s probably fair to say that their success (like that of their contemporaries) was created by the LA groupies, girls who saw the members of Mötley Crüe, or the roles they inhabited, as personifications of Godhead (rockers as the misogynistic fetish-objects of a feminine cult) and served them as hetaere (and who also worked to support them in the early lean times). The Dirt is a man’s story, but is an open enough text to suggest that there’s more than enough room for films will that tell similar tales from the women’s point of view – that girl giving blowjobs under the table in more than one scene, what’s her story? - and be every bit as watchable, and much more listenable. Because there’s one moment in The Dirt when my ears felt pleasure – at the lowest point in Nikki Sixx’s life, his song “Live Wire” comes on the soundtrack sung by Meghan Kabir. And this performance, stripped of all the rockist histrionics, felt real; I had to look it up to learn that it’s a Mötley Crüe cover.
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When I heard that Ethan Hawke had made a film of the life of the late country-folk singer Blaze Foley, I was keen to watch it, not because I’m such a fan of his style of music, but because the Tales from the Tour Bus episode about Foley was the most interesting of a very engaging series. The problem of access in Blaze (2018) is solved by the story being based on the novelized memoir of Sybil Rosen (played here by Alia Shawkat - Maeby from Arrested Development), Foley’s girlfriend before he got too far off the rails, and an intelligent and fair observer who obviously cares for his memory in the right way (if every survivor was like her, there would be many more good musician biopics). Shawkat is well cast in the role, as are singers Ben Dickey as Blaze and Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt, who handle the delicate melodies so gently that I cared about the songs and understood their appeal. Blaze and Townes are so dissolute that the performances often meander into being then trail off for one reason or another, which underscores the fragility of the music.
Ethan Hawke’s direction and script (co-written with Rosen) is also delicate, the story is finely-spun in a sophisticated flashback progression and peppered with poignant observations of working-class life which will later flow into the story, and the colour palate is beautifully autumnal. Hawkes has obviously learned a great deal from working with Richard Linklater, who has a cameo in Blaze, but his own work is less literal and more poetic than Linklater’s, and if he makes another film I’ll watch it. One of many things to love in Blaze is the way Dickey and Sexton give life to the free-style conversational ramblings of Foley and Van Zandt, so that each man’s distinctive inner world is laid before us; Hawke has the ear as well as the eye of a poet, someone I’ve tended to think of as a journeyman actor turns out to be more than a journeyman director.
The novelized story we get in Blaze isn’t the whole tale; the telling leaves out as much pertinent detail as The Dirt does. In Tales from the Tour Bus we were told that Blaze sabotaged his performance at an outdoor music festival by singing a song about Idi Amin (former dictator of Uganda, basically the Black Hitler). I waited in vain to hear it. We’re also shown Blaze as too cool for success and his own worst enemy career-wise, and while this is no doubt true (I’ve known too many musicians like him) Wikipedia says
“The master tapes from his first studio album were confiscated by the DEA when the executive producer was caught in a drug bust. Another studio album disappeared when the master copies were stolen…A third studio album, Wanted More Dead Than Alive… subsequently disappeared (reportedly lost in a flood).”
But most of these misfortunes wouldn’t have befallen a less self-destructive artist. If Mötley Crüe weren’t cool enough, Blaze Foley (and Townes Van Zandt) were waaay too cool, indeed prime exemplars of loser cool.
Certainly, there’s some overlap between Blaze and The Dirt when these country boy troubadours do blow and get drunk in a strip club just like their big city cousins, but they don’t throw up on the strippers, and Blaze’s duct tape-trimmed clothes are always more stylish than spandex.
In writing this I forgot about Anton Corbijn’s Joy Division film Control (2007), which does approach the standard of Bird and, in its practice room sequences, realistically recreates what it’s like when a band who can hardly play their instruments accept the risk of sounding terrible in a disciplined enough way that their mistakes gell into a whole new thing and they have the ears to know it.
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