It is the anniversary of the day Don McLean dubbed ‘The Day the Music Died’, in his world famous song American Pie.  The sudden loss of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson in 1959 was catastrophic, and each became immortalised in film keeping their music alive and forever young.

Steve Rash’s The Buddy Holly Story, 1978, with Gary Busey received wide acclaim and condemnation alike and the 1987 La Bamba starring Lou Diamond Phillips, was a timely reminder to all of us eighties kids of the wonder of the music that was created by those legends and which affected rock and roll from the 1950’s onwards; from Little Richard, Bob Dylan to The Beatles and beyond.

I believe that films about musicians have a thrall to them unlike that of ordinary stories.  Many films and television series have been successful because of their musical scores (I am thinking Dirty Dancing and more recently Glee) and we all recognise that music in film plays a pivotal role.  But films about musicians have an extra resonance.  My personal favourites include the 1986 film Crossroads, Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991 with Val Kilmer) and Immortal Beloved (1994, starring the inimitable Gary Oldman as Beethoven himself), I also enjoyed What’s Love Got to Do With It which Angel Bassett. There is a strong line of drama in each of these films, and our understanding and appreciation of the music which features is deepened as the story plays out.

There are many films whose musical focus makes them stand out.  Immediately to mind springs This is Spinal Tap (1984), The Blues Brothers (1980) and A Hard Day’s Night (1964).  These lack the biographical edge for my taste, but I can still enjoy them.  I challenge anyone not to love Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles or James Brown in The Blues Brothers, or not tap along to A Hard Day’s Night.  It is as though sound and vision have fused together in a wonderful alchemy and bonded forever in our hearts.

Musicals, and Jukebox films (Mama Mia a recent example) also show the continuing love for some of the music used.  It is the love of the music that makes these films are so special.  In this iPod generation where we can carry with us the soundtrack to our lives, these are films that offer us the opportunity to witness the music being created vividly, often dramatically, if not always accurately.  And on a day that has marked such a loss to music it is we should be thankful to the film-makers out there retelling the stories of our musical legends and keeping the music alive.

  • Ian Gilchrist

    Just to take the other side on the issue of ‘to music biopic, or not to music biopic’ for a moment: the problem with the genre is that it almost ALWAYS reduces complicated and interesting artists’ lives to a kind of shorthand sketch that tries to fix the unfixable to a very static chronology and expository arc. For example, in its reductionist way, RAY tries to make Ray Charles’ issues with drugs and his general self destructiveness and pain all due to the drowning death of his younger brother. Really? Is life that simple a matter of cause and effect? Did he create great art simply because he was poor, blind and tormented?

    It’s not that simple. All of our lives involve an element of mystery and the unknowable, and no one’s more so than artists’. This is part of the wonder of artistic creation; a good researcher/biographer can certainly pinpoint key influences and events in creators’ lives, but there is almost always something else in the makeup of the real innovators that is somehow unknowable. Most music bios (and let’s keep Mama Mia out of the mix, because it’s not a music bio) simplify events and conflate characters and events (as do all biopics), but viewers assume they are getting an honest portrayal of an artist and his creative process; they’re not. What they are getting is a drama with a great soundtrack, and that’s why producers love music biopics other than the sex and drugs and other bad behaviour that is so titillating – the music is a great sales tool hook that panders to nostalgia as the lurid personal aspects pander to voyeurism.