There’s a reason most movies about artists don’t work.
No matter what art form we’re talking about, the work of an artist is essentially, necessarily interior. Sure, you can see or hear the finished product, but that’s a cheat – allowing the artist’s work to provide insight into the creative process of the artist that your movie couldn’t.
So movies generally work with a limited pool of clichés to convey their subjects’ genius. Try to find a movie about an artist that doesn’t include a frenzied montage of him or her scribbling, looking pensive, and most likely taking a swig. (A pivotal childhood trauma is always a close second.)
Portraying the life of an artist in any meaningful way has proven nearly impossible for directors to get right.
But if anyone has a chance, it’s the Coen brothers, whose new film “Inside Llewyn Davis” opens Friday.
The tale of the titular fictional musician attempting to break into the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, the film provides the Coens with another chance to satirically plumb the depths of a would-be artist’s soul, something they accomplished with unprecedented success in their darkly comic masterpiece “Barton Fink.”
That one was about a writer, but this time, alongside their longtime musical collaborator T-Bone Burnett, it’s up to the Coens to somehow translate the mind of a musician to the big screen.
Like I said, my money’s on them, but others haven’t been so lucky.
Many will point to “Amadeus,” but has there ever been a more banal script for an Oscar-winner? (Oh, wait, “Forrest Gump” – but besides that.) Tom Hulce’s giggly Mozart is presented with crippling daddy issues as a sole motivator for his success, and eventual downfall.
The only scene (and it’s a doozy) that gives a real, tantalizing hint of Mozart’s genius is on his deathbed, where Mozart dictates his final composition to his rival, the jealously competent Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). As Mozart gives his rapid-fire instructions, we hear the music as he imagines it in his head, swelling and triumphant, even as Salieri – like us, unable to truly understand his process – begs him, “Please slow down – you go too fast!”
Composers are one thing, but in order to portray a musician in performance, audiences have to believe that the actor on stage is, you know, actually playing his or her instrument.
Denzel Washington does a credible job in Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues,” employing his innate intensity (and Lee’s judicious editing) to lend authenticity to the film’s brilliant, temperamental (fictional) jazz trumpet player.
Jamie Foxx similarly brings blues legend Ray Charles to life in “Ray,” his breathtaking skill for mimicry helping to sell the performance part. (Plus, it’s easier to hide behind a piano than a trumpet.)
Perhaps it’s best to get inside the musical mind by largely eschewing performance entirely, as in the mesmerizing film, “32 Short Films About Glen Gould.” Here, actor Colm Feore and the filmmakers rarely show the late pianist Gould, widely regarded as the greatest interpreter of Bach, actually playing the piano.
Instead, each of those 32 shorts examines a different aspect of the pianist, some seeming only tangentially related to his creative process. By far the best musician biopic (it’s fragmented structure is aped in the Bob Dylan-inspired 2007 film “I’m Not There”), the film seems to understand, the way most such movies don’t, that true artistic genius is essentially unknowable to the rest of us, that sometimes the best we can do is look at – or listen to – the art, and try to assemble an incomplete portrait from the scattered pieces of them that we can understand.
Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.