I'm still thinking about movies and music – really, the proliferation of music-related movies lately. On my list to see these days are Heart Of Gold and Be Here To Love Me, about Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt, respectively. These are clearly much different from the biopics Ray and Walk The Line, being of the documentary rather than the blockbuster pedigree. And in the way that many things seem to refer back to a singular experience that in some way introduced me to a specific idea, this makes me think of O' Brother, Where Art Thou?
Nobody would argue with the revolution that O' Brother inspired – in the film industry, regarding soundtracks and quality (Dirty Dancing has a great soundtrack but how can you compare Patrick Swayze with Ralph Stanley?), and in the music industry, where it singlehandedly influenced the entire cultural opinion towards a more southern, roots-oriented kind of taste. How many of you knew people back when O' Brother came out that thought it really was George Clooney singing "Man of Constant Sorrow"? Neither a biopic nor a documentary, the movie pretty much did everything perfectly – really, absolutely perfect. The Coen Brothers' collaboration with music producer T-Bone Burnett includes The Big Lebowski and Ladykillers as well, both exceptionally done.
So then I start comparing the musical motives of the songs in O' Brother with it's follow-up, cinema verite-styled Down From The Mountain, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, of Don't Look Back fame. The movie is comprised of interviews, performances, and behind the scenes shots of a show at the Grand Ole Opry that the musicians from O' Brother put on, and then eventually went on tour as well. Where one movie fictionalizes the music of well-respected artists and simultaneously catapults many of them into the mainstream consciousness (Stanley's been around since the 40's and didn't really get national recognition until 2000, despite his patriarchal position in the world of old-time and bluegrass music), the other movie gives the real artists credit where credit is due. Dan Tymisnki (Clooney's doppleganger), for example, is better known as a member of Union Station, the band that Alison Krauss plays with, but in Down From The Mountain, he is front-and-center.
Here's where my thoughts are overlapping. The biopics intend to give the artists credit as well, and they do it without using the actual music. This is a little confusing to flesh out, but there is a big difference to me between the O' Brother/Mountain scenario, where the actors were mostly lip-synching, and the biopic thing where the actors are basically doing impersonations. Every single musician from the O' Brother soundtrack got a gigantic career boost, and overall there was a really positive feel to the whole thing. Concerns about the A-word (can you guess it? It ends with "thenticity") hardly have to be addressed. Meanwhile, I am a bit apprehensive about Jamie Foxx's musical career, and I wonder what, if anything, will come from Reese Witherspoon or Joaquin Phoenix via an opportunistic record label. While they do have track records of being talented actors, they aren't anything more than karaoke experts in these movies. Clooney wasn't giving off the karaoke vibe in O' Brother.
As I write, I am thinking that maybe it is mainly the difference between a Coen Brothers film and the more mainstream-tastes of the biopics. After all, the Grammys haven't drawn a line, since all these movies have been nominated, and neither has T-Bone Burnett, who was the musical director for Walk The Line. I think that in the end, I feel like the Coens treat the music with more respect, because they do not employ the uber-cheesy impressions in an attempt to be sincere. Coen sincerity comes from an altogether different angle, one that has alot more to do with irony, sarcasm, and perversity than a straight-up pop mentality.
I look forward to the Townes Van Zandt movie not because I am one of his adoring fans, but because I think we need a break from the big-Hollywood glamour. And besides, maybe it will open the door for that Gram Parsons movie I mentioned earlier. Maybe Joel and Ethan Coen should think about doing a movie about Gram and Emmylou. Imagine the possibilties.