When the English literary critic Walter Pater said that "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music," he hadn't taken cinema into consideration. Not that we should blame him; Pater died a year before the movies were even born. In the ensuing century, cinema found its feet by combining the achievements of its creative ancestors in all their forms and, for better and worse, swiftly rose to the top of the artistic food chain.
And yet, to my mind, Pater's aphorism still stands. Isn't the condition of music-unencumbered, intangible, and directly sensual-a kind of grace that movies still hope for? And why shouldn't they? Just look at (and listen to) some of the films people are talking about right now; from fiction to documentaries to concert films to category-busting combinations thereof, we seem to be awash in movies about musicians.
You needn't have liked it, or even seen it, to suspect that Walk the Line, the big-screen tale of Johnny and June Carter Cash, was inevitable. Anyone with even the faintest sense of the Cash mythology could have picked his story for mega-popular film fodder, regardless of Ray's success the previous year. Walk the Line may reign for a while as some sort of music-movie benchmark of the mid '00s, but that's okay; we still seem to be making room for its diverse and more exciting contemporaries.
For example, how could Daniel Johnston's life not become a movie? Here must be the only alt-music legend to have played CBGB a few hours after a clerical error saw him being prematurely released from New York's Bellevue Hospital. A hero to the likes of Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth, and an heir to the wounded-recluse legacy of Brian Wilson, the tender and brilliant singer-songwriter Johnston suffers terribly from bipolar disorder, even as his art and his esteem have profited by it. This tragic truth is at the center of Jeff Feuerzeig's Sundance-darling documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which manages to venerate Johnston without exploiting him.
Feuerzeig's film is an engrossing mosaic of the artist's tormented life and work, much of it self-documented in the drawings and tapes Johnston made in his parents' basement. It tells the tough story of Johnston's wrenching, intuitively melodic and utterly guileless songs, and says what's hardest to hear about the costs of creativity. And moviegoers have been eating it up.
Like Walk the Line, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is basically a biopic, but of the documentary variety (a dramatization may occur one day, but casting it will be dicey. Let us pray that Kevin Spacey has retired by then), and it is also about a musician doing battle with his demons.
"He suddenly lost all his wonderful confidence," recalls Johnston's beleaguered mother early in the film, "and I guess that was the beginning of his illness." It's one of The Devil and Daniel Johnston's most affecting moments, and it struck me as a relative-albeit inverse-of my favorite moment in Walk the Line: the moment where Cash suddenly finds all his wonderful confidence.
The moment comes in Walk the Line during Cash's audition for Sun Records founder Sam Phillips (well-played by Dallas Roberts), who quickly grows bored by a limp rendition of an old gospel saw and tells Cash to give up or come back when he can sound like something else, something his own. So Johnny pulls out an original and puts all he has into it. Well, you know how these things usually happen in movies. The scene could have gone soft with cliché-everybody involved in the production could have easily phoned it in. But they got it right, and we get a glimpse of an artist discovering his gift, snatching his destiny. It wasn't just the music that made the scene so true. It was the yearning, the aspiration to the condition of music. Who can't relate to that?
Awesome; I Fuckin' Shot That!, another Sundance buzz-machine, is described by its press release as "a formally innovative feature film experience," from (and about) the Beastie Boys. The trio had given out fifty cameras to their audience during a Madison Square Garden show in October, 2004 and had them film the performance. Yes, 2004 is some time ago now, but you can imagine that for such a picture, postproduction might take a while. "To create additional frenzy," the release continued, "THINKFilm is continuing its partnership with MySpace.com, the leading lifestyle portal for online networking, with a special promotion." Can you feel the additional frenzy? Actually, I can, and I'm convinced that the promotion-a one-night screening throughout North America on March 23-will be mobbed, as will the official release on March 31. I haven't seen the movie yet, but what the hell-I'll buy the PR line about it "prismatically and kinetically capturing the experience of a live musical performance like no film has ever done."
It's tempting to suppose that music-movies have grown desperate for the gimmickry of self-reinvention. But consider Jonathan Demme's profoundly non-gimmicky Neil Young: Heart of Gold, as straightforward a concert film as one can be and a wonderful, potently unaffected piece of work. Demme spent a couple of nights in Nashville's Ryman Auditorium with Young and friends as they played music from the rueful and reflective album Prairie Wind live for the first time. Here Demme, whom you may recall was also the director of Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense, obviously followed Young's example and dispatched with any bells and whistles, favoring a warm and plainspoken presentation. He doesn't show the audience at all, but instead stays very close to the performers, honoring their music by letting it speak for itself.
Of all the arts, movies remain our boldest agents of vicarious experience and it's telling that they can't get enough of their music-making artistic counterparts. Next up: Stephen Woolley's <Stoned>, about the last days of guitarist and Rolling Stones co-founder Brian Jones. Maybe cinema can never achieve something as pure and ephemeral as music, but how tirelessly it augments our musical experiences, and how variously it helps us to process and enjoy them.
Jonathan Kiefer is Maisonneuve's film flaneur. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Jonathan Kiefer.