07 April 2010

The Same Old Song(s)

Not quite a Lizard King: Dupont

If a cliché is repeated often enough, it becomes mythology. That’s the belief, evidently, of the people who make movies about musicians, especially fictitious ones, and this thought occurred as I watched two recent movies in which absolutely nothing unexpected happened: the American Crazy Heart and the French Bus Palladium.

The French effort is the weaker of the two, a profoundly unoriginal picture that labors under the impression that it’s both profound and original. Bus Palladium tells the story of Lust, a rock band on the brink of hitting it big in the 1980s. The music is pretty good, actually, striving for a sound that, as one character describes it, recalls that “of the Rolling Stones before Brian Jones left.” But the drama is just the same old song. The lead singer/songwriter is charismatic but doomed; the mellower, thoroughly goodhearted guitar player loves him like a brother. When they fall in love with the same woman, trouble ensues. Eventually, one drops out of the band, and the other dies. (Sound familiar?)

Orpheus and the Sphinx: Dupont and Sednaoui

The actors are engaging, for the most part, particularly Elisa Sednaoui as the beautiful, sphinx-like girl; and Marc-André Grondin as the guitarist. Five years ago, Grondin made a big splash in C.R.A.Z.Y., a Québecois coming-of-age story; as soon as he made his first French picture, Le premier jour du reste de ta vie (The First Day of the Rest of Your Life, 2009), he snapped up the César for “Meilleur Espoir Masculin” — even though the role he played fell far, far short of his C.R.A.Z.Y. tour-de-force. He’s the reason I went to see Bus Palladium, though now I’m beginning to think the French don’t know what to do with him, and I might be better advised to wait for his next Canadian project.

Most Promising: Grondin

The most challenging role in Bus Palladium falls to young Arthur Dupont, as Manu, the lead singer. With his curling Jim Morrison locks and genuine musical ability, Dupont gives a respectable performance, but he’s no rock star, and we simply don’t see the charisma that such a character requires. (Paradoxically, Sednaoui does have that kind of personality; you never wonder why the boys are driven mad by her.) So what if Manu occa­sion­ally climbs onto the rooftop? It doesn’t neces­sarily follow that he lives on the edge. Ultimately, he’s just the pleasant, handsome, mildly troubled lead singer in a pretty-decent garage band.

Unfortunately, the movie underscores its own failure by concluding with David Bowie’s “Rock and Roll Suicide” on the soundtrack. Ziggy Stardust precisely represents the elevation of cliché to the status of mythology: for all his “starman” modernity, Ziggy is an Orpheus, and Bowie’s Ziggy album has the richness and well-worn truth of tales told over an ancient campfire. Whereas Bus Palladium doesn’t even rise to the level of a re-run of VH1’s Behind the Music. The movie falls so far short that you’re left scratching your head. Maybe you had to be there: the movie is dedicated to the members of a band (I don’t know which), so perhaps in his youth the director, Christopher Thompson, felt the kind of excitement that he failed to bring to the screen.

What mythology looks like.

By contrast, Crazy Heart is so dominated by Jeff Bridges’ performance that you go for long stretches without worrying what story the picture is telling — or whether it’s telling any story at all. You’re perfectly happy just spending a little time in Bridges’ company. You can pretty much identify with Maggie Gyllenhall’s character when she entrusts her four-year-old son to whisky-swilling, chainsmoking, foulmouthed, smelly, utterly captivating Otis “Bad” Blake. You’d probably make the same mistake.

Yet every now and then, I kept thinking, “Haven’t I seen this down-on-his-luck country singer before, battlin’ the bottle and lookin’ for love on the open road? Wasn’t this movie called Tender Mercies, and didn’t Robert Duvall star in it?” Just then, Duvall himself turns up in a supporting role; he’s also one of the film’s producers.

Crazy Mercies? Tender Heart? Bridges and Duvall

Crazy Heart lacks the gently poetic sensibility of Horton Foote, who wrote Tender Mercies, and the two movies’ concerns don’t overlap entirely. (Also, Mr. Foote eschewed the obvious, and I suspect he would have balked at naming Bad’s foil, his more-successful protégé, Tommy Sweet.) The picture’s worth seeing, not for the truths it reveals in the story of a musician’s life, but for the grace of Bridges’ acting. I daresay he deserved that Oscar; not many other actors can make puking seem quite so lovable.

And in his singing, Bridges taps into the mystique that makes the rest of us want to tell musicians’ stories in the first place, no matter how many others have tried and failed before us.

The Singing Dude

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