What I saw this summer: Music at the movies

One of the more transcendent moments of this past summer was Meryl Streep’s rendition of Dobie Gray’s 1973 classic “Drift Away” in the film Ricki and the Flash. Though the movie, a story about an aging musician who reconnects with her children, is muddled and incomplete, there is a startling clarity about the power of music in the scene. The deliberate pacing, the soulful crevices of her voice, and the communal feeling among the dive bar’s spirited working class patrons resonated strongly. After the movie I went home and made a playlist of songs celebrating music ranging from “Drift Away” to the O’Jays’ “I Love Music” to standards like “I Hear Music” and “Without a Song.”

 Depicting music’s impact and the music making process is a difficult feat for most films to capture. Film is a filter that can stifle the crackling energy and insinuating vibration of live music. This barrier is why so many musical biopics are emotionally unsatisfying.  Hearing actors’ overdubbed voices while they lip sync or mimic playing an instrument, and play to the camera is so staged it usually feels perfunctory. Several recent films including the documentaries What Happened Miss Simone and Amy, and the narrative film on Beach Boy Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy stood out for me recently. A similar and slightly older film I viewed recently, All Is By Side, a 2013 film about Jimi Hendrix, also enchanted me. Each film succeeds in letting viewers into whom these musicians were and how they experienced the world.

 A few notes on what I saw:

 Love & Mercy (directed by Bill Pohlad) vacillates from portraits of Wilson circa 1967, during the recording of what eventually became Pet Sounds, and his vulnerable status in the late 1980s as a near hostage of therapist Eugene Landry who had guardianship over the depressed, vulnerable singer-songwriter. Though much of Wilson’s story is well-known and well-documented (i.e. The 1995 Wilson documentary I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times) the film’s most compelling scenes focus on music making. In addition to snippets of Wilson (whose genuine whimsy and bubbling artistic frustrations are captured by Paul Dano’s nuanced performance) singing at the piano, the movie shows him working through arrangements in the recording studio with the “Wrecking Crew” (also the subject of the 2008 documentary of the same name) a group of highly gifted session musicians who played on countless pop records in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

 The scenes depict Wilson’s layered, neo-symphonic approach to harmony as a product of countless hours working with the musicians to create complex backings that would later be complemented by dense vocal harmonies. Central to the film’s dramatic tension is the conflict between Wilson, who is chasing the sonic innovations of the Beatles’s seminal Sgt. Pepper, and Wilson’s notoriously unsupportive father Murry as well as Beach Boy Mike Love who want the group to continue recording sun-drenched surf music. The struggle of an aging, controlled Wilson to lead a functional, autonomous life under Landry’s domineering “therapy” (with ace performances by John Cusack as Wilson, Elizabeth Banks as his wife Melinda Ledbetter, and Paul Giamatti as Landry) comprises half the film.

 But, I was most taken by the film’s ongoing portraits of the often laborious but frequently rewarding and surprising process of recording. Several scenes showcase little moments where Wilson hears a small variation by a musician that opens him up to textures beyond his initial compositional and sonic visions. Though the Beach Boys’ records are meticulously produced, the film illustrates how “live” recording and spontaneous moments transformed Wilson’s music.



I saw What Happened, Miss Simone?  (directed by Liz Arbus) in Netflix shortly after the Brian Wilson film; both were tortured geniuses for disparate reasons. The title immediately suggests something went awry; in a sense it did as the film documents Simone’s struggles with racism, an abusive marriage, her commitment to civil rights and liberationist politics in her music and the subsequent backlash, as well as mental illness. Like the artist the film is overflowing with eclecticism spanning from her childhood musical intrigue with the piano to her commercial triumphs, personal struggles, and comeback in the late 1980s through her death.

 Simone is widely understood as an influence on many contemporary singers including jazz vocalists like Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson, and experimental R&B musician Me’shell N’degeocello who recorded an excellent Simone tribute in 2013 with guest vocalists. Simone’s repertoire of signature songs is also vast including definitive renditions of “Love Me or Leave Me,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” and “I Loves You Porgy,” and notable originals like “Four Women,” and “Mississippi Goddamn.”

 Yet, she always seems underrated and misunderstood to me. Simone is a difficult artist to “capture” because her career was so varied. 1959-1972 is her most notable period as a recording artist, a period characterized by significant social transition and the movement away from jazz-inspired pop as mainstream music toward a greater rock and R&B influence in popular music. At the independent Bethlehem Records she recorded a jazz-oriented album featuring traditional standards sung in her inimitable, almost drone-like style. After the label folded she switched to Colpix Records (1959-63) where she sang everything from Yiddish folk songs to Duke Ellington to TV theme songs. This eclectic approach continued at Phillips Records (1964-67), the label where she recorded her strongest work ranging from “Mississippi” to “I Put a Spell on You” to Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” to the Baptist traditional “Take Me to the River.” Her final major label period was a characteristically diverse set of recordings for RCA from 1967-72 featuring Simone’s political signatures like “Backlash Blues” (a collaboration with Langston Hughes), “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free,” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.” Her RCA stint also includes Simone-ized renditions of (then) contemporary fare like “The Look of Love,” “To Love Somebody,” and “Ain’t Got No-I Got Life” (from Hair).

 After this period her recordings became more sporadic as she struggled to manage her sense of political disenchantment with U.S. politics. She refused to pay taxes and made homes for herself abroad in Barbados, Britain, Liberia, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and France; she was beloved worldwide. During the mid-1970s she mostly lived apart from her husband/manager Andy Stroud and her daughter Lisa. As the film details, she also struggled with bipolar disorder, an important element of her life detailed episodically in Nadine Cohodas’s 2010 biography Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. She recorded a an assortment of random, mostly live recordings for independent labels before recording 1993’s A Single Woman for Elektra and focusing on touring up until her death in 2003.

 As a Simone fan I was ecstatic Simone finally received documentary treatment. So many of her songs are recycled on commercials and in film without her face that my hope is the film closes this gap. The most stunning element of the film is the live footage, characterized by her warm rapport with her audience. Simone did not suffer fools gladly and commanded a high level of respect. Beneath her stern façade lie a certain playfulness and humor she used to whip her audiences into a kind of adoring docility.  The film features some amazing rare footage; my favorite is a late 1950s/early 1960s clip featuring her languorous drone like approach to the standard “For All We Know” that feels like a profound meditation on mortality sung with enough melodic distortion and retardation of tempo to feel wholly original. Later scenes feature her performing in front of primarily black audiences in the late 1960s, including a performance in Amherst, affirming their humanity in her stage patter.  

 One of the film’s more interesting narrative threads is the morphing of her image. Simone aspired to make her living as a classical pianist but was unable to continue her classical training and played and sang to make a living. Her earliest recordings feature standards mostly, but in the mid-1960s social tumult inspired her to move from cocktail jazz and saloon music repertoire toward more topical material. This generated tensions between her and Stroud who wanted her to stick with more emotionally neutral commercial music. Her daughter Lisa is interviewed throughout and it’s amazing hearing her daughter describe her family’s place within an intimate circle of black activists, artists, and scholars of the time including close relationships with Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz’s family and luminaries like Langston Hughes. Interestingly in a televised interview (from the 1980s I believe) Simone essentially downplays the political music of her past noting the Civil Rights movement as a movement of the past rather than carrying the torch. This may shock people who only think of Simone in political terms. She always insisted she was an artist first and declined to fit into boxes.

 Viewers might also be shocked and disturbed, as I was, by the level of physical and emotional abuse Simone endured in her marriage. The film is strangely neutral and matter-of-fact about this fact of her life. Stroud is featured in a lengthy interview circa 2006 and he is not the least bit apologetic or regretful which only made him seem crueler and Simone more vulnerable.


Amy (directed by Asif Kapadia), a documentary of British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse’s short-lived commercial and artistic glory in the mid-to-late 2000s, and her death at 27, is more horror film than traditional documentary. Almost entirely eschewing talking heads and the typical “Voice of God” narration it’s a remarkably candid film that lets the pictures and the music tell the story. The film begins with a clip of a teenaged Winehouse singing promisingly at a friend’s birthday party, delves into her family life, and shows her progression as she nurtures her talents and lands the opportunity to record her 2004 album Frank a pop album mixing originals with jazz covers. The clips of her playing guitar and recording her vocals for select songs on the album reveal a raw, but promising talent, and various interviews from the time show her endearingly candid, off-the-cuff humor. She also makes it clear that her original material all draws from her loved experience; a veiled reference to her boyfriend who inspires songs like “Stronger Than Me.”After her initial musical success she’s somewhat adrift and falls in with Blake Fielder-Civil a sybaritic bon vivant whom she idolizes, eventually to a fault, and marries.

 Their colorful relationship informs her 2007 breakthrough album Back to Black which spawned the hits “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good.” Here again the film provides viewers with access to her recording and performing songs from the album, and you witness her communion with her music unfiltered. As Back gains critical attention and commercial momentum Winehouse the celebrity, appearing on red carpets and talk shows, is far less assured than Winehouse the musician and she succumbs to alcohol and drug abuse. As she descends into addiction, including stints in rehab, the film makes you root for her though you know the outcome. There are countless moments, such as when she seems to be physically and emotionally restoring herself in Saint Lucia, where you feel she’s close to surviving when everything gets disrupted. In this instance her father, who was characterized as emotionally distant during her childhood, seizes the moment turning her rehabilitation as a reality show opportunity.

 One bit of relief is footage of her recording “Body and Soul” with Tony Bennett who admires her talent and encourages her. She flubs her version a few times but her eggs her on and they get a satisfying take. This is only temporary respite. By the end she struggles for privacy, surrounded by bodyguards, and constantly dodging media attention and passes abruptly. In the film music seems like the only thing that provides a sense of equilibrium and confidence for Winehouse; without it she seems confused and numbed by fame.


John Ridley, who won an Oscar for the screenplay of 12 Years a Slave, wrote and directed the independent film  Jimi: All Is by My Side. Though it was released in 2013 it slipped in and out of theaters quickly but is available for streaming. I was intrigued by how one might approach a musician like Hendrix who is sadly one of the infamous musicians to die at 27, a list that includes Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Winehouse. Of these individuals Hendrix is arguably the most innovative and influential as a musician, writer, and singer.

 Jimi is an intimate character study and a close-up portrait less concerned with hagiography than the way Hendrix floated between different worlds, soul and rock, the U.S. and the U.K., black culture and white culture, to generate something new to rock music. Andre 3000 (of the hip-hop group OutKast) embodies Hendrix deeply, capturing Hendrix’s ethereal personality from his laid-back posture to his slurred, almost mumbled style of speaking to his casual grin. His performance anchors the story which tracks Hendrix from singing and playing guitar as the ‘60s soul act Jimmy James and the Blue Flames to capturing the attention of British musician Chad Chandler (of The Animal) who ultimately helped him create the Jimi Hendrix Experience featuring bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, a combo that yielded hits like “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze” in the U.K. chart in 1967.  Ridley focuses specific attention on Hendrix’s casual, humble perspective on his innovative guitar, his appeal to women, and the admiration he inspired in fellow musicians. These are all well-executed but conventional.

 But when he delves into Hendrix’s navigation of race, Ridley, who is African-American, uncovers a subtext of tension that bubbles beneath the surface of the psychedelic haze. Three interesting scenes include the following: Hendrix calls his father collect from England to tell him he’s living in England making his living as a musician. They are clearly estranged; Jimmy’s enthusiasm is dampened by his father’s skepticism. Even when Hendrix asks his British female companion to confirm his location his father is dismissive. A discernible racial and generational shift plays out as his father, undoubtedly part of a generation seeking stability and respectability in the U.S. has limited context for understanding how his son, who discharged from the Army in 1961, was actually surviving on something as flaky as rock music, abroad no less.

 Another fascinating scene involves Hendrix walking proudly in a velvet war jacket with his British girlfriend when they are accosted by three men who disapprove of him wearing the jacket so casually. They assume it’s from a dead WWII veteran and accuse him of disrespecting a soldier’s memory, but clearly the scene is about their disapproval of the interracial relationship. Throughout the film Hendrix is surrounded by mostly white admirers and its one of the clearest reminders that he has a complex life offstage.

 The other scene that stuck out involved a black British nationalist (played with flair by British actor Adrian Lester) who berates Hendrix for playing apolitical music in a time of racial strife globally and domestically. He urges him to focus on music about the black experience aimed at black listeners. Hendrix rejects his politics as divisive and incompatible with the communality of his music. Ridley’s portrait places you inside Hendrix raising fresh questions about Hendrix’s navigation of his life offstage touching on race, desire, and family.


 Though each film differs in subject and approach each drew me closer to the musicians they depict, which is a genuine contrast to the redemption stories that suffocate most biopics. While I sense that each of these filmmakers respects and admires their subjects, it’s also equally clear they learned something richer about the musicians, something beyond the victim-hero cycle. Their success transmitting these discoveries elevates the films and adds a dimension to the musicians themselves. Even though Ricki and the Flash is a minor film I got lost in the rock ‘n’ roll in its best scene; the band hit all the right notes reminding me of the power of music to shine through the Hollywood clutter.