Every generation gets their own A Star is Born movie and every other year brings a Bohemian Rhapsody. We delight in an unknown persevering and achieving fame and reminisce in the familiarity of beloved old songs and Behind the Music-esque storytelling.
But what about those for whom stardom is forever out of reach? Or those bands who don’t quite qualify for a greatest hits album posing as a movie since they never had a single hit to begin with? What of those struggling musicians who go from couch to couch and put off falling back on a second career option far longer than any sane person would advise? What of the vast array of talented artists who simply don’t make it, either due to personal defects, bad luck, or both? Where are their movies?
Um, there aren’t a lot of them because making a movie about an artist nobody’s ever heard before is oddly not a hot selling point for film financiers. However, here are three worth watching:
Blaze (Where to See It: Still playing in theaters).
Blaze Foley was a homeless country music singer who’d never met a friend’s couch he couldn’t call home until Merle Haggard chose to cover one of his best songs, “If I Could Only Fly.” With the royalties from that, Foley rented his first apartment at the age of 39. He was dead weeks later, taken from the world right on the cusp of a long-awaited financial and artistic breakthrough. His final words after being shot in the chest while trying to protect an elderly friend: “Please don’t let me die now.”
Fate’s a bit of an asshole, clearly.
Ethan Hawke, stepping behind the camera to direct, found inspiration in this story because it’s truer to him than any version of A Star is Born or Bohemian Rhapsody. Whereas music biopics tend to play into our cultural mythologies surrounding success and celebrity, Hawke, who recently claimed his family dentist probably makes more than him in a year, relates more to stories about artists who don’t make it.
As he told The Frame:
We all can write a musical biopic: He’s struggling, he came from a poor family. Something really bad happened where he is hurt. Then he finds his voice, then gets signed, then the demons of success come in. I wanted to make a movie that celebrated an artist that the world didn’t celebrate, that was met with absolute indifference — like almost all the artists I know. I wanted to do that movie.
So he recruited his musician friend Ben Dickey to play Blaze, Alia Shawkat to play Blaze’s girlfriend Sybil (who is still alive and has a small on-camera role in the film), and a killer lineup of supporting stars (Sam Rockwell! Kris Kristofferson!) to tell the story of a singer too talented to ignore, but too self-destructive to ever truly make it. RogerEbert.com calls it “hands down the best movie of its kind since Inside Llewyn Davis,” which will show up later on this list.
- Dickey had never acted before. So, one of the tricks Hawke used to ease him into feeling comfortable in front of the camera was to lie. For the first couple of days of shooting, Hawke told Dickey they were just doing some lighting and costume checks with the camera meaning he could relax and act out the scenes naturally. It worked. By the end of the shoot, Dickey took to acting so quickly he was calling up Hawke to dish about what they might work on together next.
Inside Llewyn Davis (Where to See It: Streaming on Amazon Prime)
Leave it to the Coen Bros. to look at Bob Dylan’s life and wonder: what about the guy that played right before him at the Gaslight Cafe? What’s that guy’s story like? Melancholic, that’s what.
Starring Oscar Isaac (so pretty) in the title role, Inside Llewyn Davis focuses on a week in the life of a 1961 Greenwich Village folk singer, following his various misadventures and one or two run-ins with possible success. He’s effectively homeless, relying on friends or house sitting gigs for somewhere to sleep, and while he’s undeniably talented he’s also a bit of an embittered ass and incapable of censoring himself. For most of the week, he simply struggles to scrape two pennies together, chasing one ill-fated money-making opportunity after another. Along the way, he proves too short-sighted to recognize a hit song underneath his own nose and too uncompromising to join a Peter, Paul and Mary-like group, who were actually the first of the Greenwich Village folkies to actually cross over into the mainstream.
It’s a profile of an artist’s ongoing struggle to get out of his own way, and in the hand of the Coen Bros. the story goes a long way toward deromanticizing New York’s folk music movement of the early 60s. There was a lot of beautiful, soul-baring music and a vibrant artistic community built on a healthy mix of collaboration, competition, and intermingling, but there was also a lot of bumming around from one couch to another, hand-wringing over how to ever actually make any money, and “Oh, shit. You’re pregnant. What do we do now?”
And, yes, if you know the movie there’s also the adorable cat Davis never can seem to keep in one place. That’s not really a Greenwich Village-specific thing, as far as I know; it’s a metaphor for an artist’s alley cat like existence. Or, ya know, that’s just the Coens being the Coens, God love their mercurial souls.
- The story is inspired by the autobiography of Dave Von Ronk, a Greenwich Village figure who is more remembered for his famous friends of the era (including Dylan) rather than any of his own compositions. Like Davis in the film, he almost ended up in a Peter, Paul and Mary but was rejected for having a voice considered “too idiosyncratic.”
- Last year, the New York Times named this the 11th best film of the 21st Century, ranking it above No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man. Them’s fighting words?
Killing Bono (Where to See It: Rent/Buy only right now)
Before being vilified for daring to give the world a free iTunes album and certainly long before their lead singer was depicted as a literal piece of shit in a typically sophomoric South Park episode, U2 was just a Dublin, Ireland-based garage band which formed when bassist Larry Mullen posted a flier on his high school community board. But young Paul Hewson (aka Bono), David Evans (aka The Edge), and Adam Clayton (aka, um, Adam) weren’t the only students at Mount Temple Comprehensive School with musical aspirations. Heck, they weren’t the only ones to respond to Mullen’s flier.
Enter England-born brothers, Neil and Ivan McCormick, who had moved to Ireland and ended up in Mount Temple at the same time as Bono and pals. Ivan was there the first night U2 played together. In fact, he was actually a part of the band as their rhythm guitarist. Except they didn’t even have a band name yet and Neil, who has a decent singing voice, really wanted Ivan to be in a band with him. So, that’s what he did.
Within four years, U2 was signed to Island Records and released their first album; the McCormick’s, meanwhile, were onto their third different group and still hadn’t scored a record deal. Success would simply never come for them, forcing Neil to eventually give up on rock stardom in favor of becoming a rock journalist. In 2004, he wrote about all of this in I Was Bono’s Doppelgänger, which was loosely adapted into the quasi-music biopic/ quasi-revenge fantasy flick Killing Bono.
Neil, played as a deluded, fame-obsessed, every-decision-he-makes-is-the-wrong-one sad sack by Ben Barnes, is presented as Salieri to Bono’s Mozart, jealous to the point of eventually turning homicidal. He just doesn’t see U2’s success coming, not that many did. By their own estimation, U2’s early years didn’t present much promise since they could barely play their instruments and were (and continue to be) a subpar cover band. Then they became the biggest band in the world.
That would be bad enough if it was just Neil left on the outside looking in, but it wasn’t. There was Ivan (played by Robert Sheehan) as well, and Killing Bono’s main emotional throughline comes from the following revelation: U2 actually wanted Ivan to be in the band full time. It was Neil who told them to back off, unbeknownst to Ivan of course. So, as the brothers continue to play shitty gigs and always fall just short of success and U2 sells out arenas Neil has to deal with the guilt of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity he denied his brother as well as the various hoops he has to jump through to keep that secret from him.
Unfortunately, that makes for a better logline – how do you tell your brother it’s your fault he isn’t in the biggest band in the world? – then an actual movie. Killing Bono’s first, more fact-based half is more engaging than it’s goofier second half where an increasingly deranged Neil begins to plot Bono’s assassination as if Jodie Foster told him to do it, a case of the film taking its own title too literally. Still, if Sing Street is the unofficial U2 origin story Killing Bono is an at-least watchable ode to Dublin’s also-rans. Plus, if you just want to see a young Paul Hewson have a friend openly laugh in his face when he first demands to be referred to as Bono from now on, Killing Bono’s got ya covered.
- There’s a third act romantic complication which is completely fabricated. Neil is shown to cheat on Gloria, his girlfriend/band manager (played by Krysten Ritter), thus ruining their relationship. It’s not in McCormick’s book. It didn’t happen in real life. In fact, as of 2011 Neil and Gloria were still a couple, had been for over 20 years, and had a child together. Still, after attending the Killing Bono premiere with the real Gloria McCormick noticed she was being especially mean to him at dinner afterward. Here’s how he described it in the Telegraph: “It eventually dawned on me that it was because my film character had cheated on her film character with another film character who never even existed. When I pointed out this, she said: ‘Well, it’s just like something you would have done!’”