Grim music biopics on DVD

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From a pseudo Kurt Cobain to Gary Oldman dieting to play Sid Vicious, Bella Todd looks through the least cheery music DVDs ever

Grim music biopics on DVD
Sam Riley as Ian Curtis in 'Control'
Films about musicians have spawned some of the biggest spirit-dampeners in cinema – and we’re not even recognising the existence of ‘James Blunt: Return to Kosovo’ here. Spurred on by the DVD release of Bruce Weber’s 1988 Chet Baker documentary ‘Let’s Get Lost’, we look back at cinema’s most memorable portraits of drug casualties and battered muses. Watch, weep and thank your stars those GarageBand experiments never got you nowhere.

Last Days

In which disillusioned Seattle rock star Kurt Cobain, sorry, 'Blake' pads around his mansion muttering to himself, occasionally pausing to put on a dress, dig a hole, play guitar, piss in a wood and make… himself… a… bowl… of… cereal… very… very… slowly, finally leaving the milk bottle on the sideboard and placing the Rice Krispies back in the fridge. He’s a man desperately, if rather poetically, out of step with the world, and when he heads for the greenhouse there’s only one possible outcome.

Walk the Line

The bleakest moment in this rags-to-wretches Johnny Cash biopic is not, in fact, the scene in which his brother nearly gets sliced in half by a rotating wooden saw and dies in a pool of blood, prayers and fatherly recrimination. It’s the bit where Cash struggles to manoeuvre a brand new tractor out of the mud while his family look on with varying expressions of disappointment and disgust.

Ray

About as grim as you’d expect from a film about an R&B legend who watched his younger brother die in a washbasin, lost his sight at seven and struggled with heroin for 20 years. It’s not the narrative arc (they shoehorn in a redemptive ending) so much as the incidental detail, like the young Ray wiping grey goo out of his eyes, that’s most affecting.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

‘I’m the ghost of Daniel Johnston’ goes the opening line of this documentary about the living cult songwriter and bipolar sufferer. Extremely disconcerting moments include hearing about the time he tried to perform an exorcism on an old woman, causing her to jump from her second-floor window and break her ankles, and watching the 44 year old dance around in a Casper the Friendly Ghost outfit. The film’s hunch, though, is that Daniel’s illness is almost genetically linked to his ‘genius’.

Sid and Nancy

Gary Oldman put himself on a diet of steamed fish and melon in order to play The Sex Pistols’ heroin-ravaged bass player in this 1986 film about the mother of all mutually destructive relationships. Nancy shrieks incessantly, the pair sit listlessly in bed as a fire spreads through their room, and, finally, Sid watches cartoons as Nancy bleeds to death in the bathroom.

Control

More kitchen-sink drama than rock biopic, Anton Corbijn’s film about the short life of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis emphasises private tragedy over public myth, beginning with an epileptic fit in a Job Centre, ending with Herzog’s ‘Stroszek’, a bottle of whisky and a clothesline. The band’s back catalogue serves as a fittingly murky soundtrack to this portrait of a submerged soul.

Fearless Freaks: Flaming Lips

There are plenty of smile-worthy moments in this home-movie-style exploration of Oklahoma’s psych-rock oddballs. But the scene everyone remembers is Steven Drozd talking about his heroin addiction as he prepares a hit, finally standing in front of the camera as it takes hold of him.

Bird

Charlie Parker was 34 when he died. The coroner reckoned he must be 60. Clint Eastwood’s ultra-moody biopic overrides the optimism of the be-bop saxophonist’s sound and focuses on wife Chan’s battle to get him off heroin, as Forest Whitaker’s Parker signs autographs while delirious in hospital.

What’s Love Got to Do With It

Almost unwatchably sad biopic depicting the abuse of Tina Turner at the hands of her husband and mentor Ike, who, unable to cope with her fame, beats her with his boot in the back of a limo and rapes her during a recording session. Laurence Fishburne’s mercurial performance adds to the unease by making Turner’s connection to Ike frighteningly comprehensible.

Let’s Get Lost

Shot a year before he fell to his death from a window in Amsterdam, this documentary follows the ageing jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (who had to re-learn to play with dentures after having his teeth knocked out) as he plays his last gigs for drug money.‘Let’s Get Lost’ is released on July 28.

Author: Bella Todd


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