Saturday 1 June 2019

Three British Biopics of Musicians (2019, 1975)

Some fisherfolk, cavorting
Fisherman’s Friends (2019)

‘Fisherman’s Friends’ is a lively but very by-the-book story of an unlikely rise to fame. It’s the true story of a band of Cornish fishermen who sing folk music, are discovered, and then sell a lot of records. The music is good and the group’s performances have plenty of sparkle, but the script gave me no joy. It seemed such a film-shaped film, with its plot’s rises and falls following the pattern of the genre too lifelessly.

The A&R agent who discovers the band gets into some contrived conflict which blossoms into a romance. Not because that’s what really happened, but because there’s always a romance in a film like this, playing out the same way. (There’s nothing wrong with changing the truth to make a better film - as the others on this list will show, but here it had no magic and no surprise, just formula).

The romance is between Daniel Mays and Tuppence Middleton, good actors who do what they can with the material. Without Tuppence, ‘Fishermen’s Friends’ would be quite the sausage-fest. I bracket it together with ‘Dawn of the Battle of the Apes’ (2014) in that it’s obviously set after a female extinction event that left them at a 1:20 ratio with men, but nobody mentions it.

I saw it with my parents and none of us had cause to regret it, but I doubt we’ll ever seek it out again. It’s a passable film - passable in that it fulfilled my baseline criterion for an okay movie (that being, did two hours pass without me thinking of Donald Trump?).

My love for this shoe cannot be adequately stated
Rocketman (2019)

This is a far more interesting sort of biopic! The tagline, ‘based on a true fantasy’ sums it up perfectly. The film-making matches the real Elton John’s flamboyance, and his sincerity. I’ve heard ‘camp’ defined as being a jaunty exterior which masks the more complex, vulnerable humanity inside, and this dramatises the idea wonderfully.

It’s sort-of a musical, told within flashback. Young Elton, and others in his life, put their situations into the familiarest of his songs. I reckon this aspect is likely to divide audiences - if you’re expecting Elton John to sing The Bitch is Back, it’s disconcerting to pass from modern Elton to child Elton, to a full chorus of 1950s neighbours singing - it was certainly more Disney than I was expecting (and the second song of the piece ‘I Want Love’ was so straight and sober that I worried the movie was haemorrhaging all its glee - I was proved very wrong on this). The songs in this style work because this is a story of Elton’s imagination, his fantasies, and how he moves from imagining the absurd to really living it.

I don’t normally like flashback settings, but it really worked in this case. Adult Elton John’s storytelling wasn’t just narration to move things on - the act of telling the story challenges and changes him. The segue between different ages (and thus, different actors) of Elton John in Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting manages to satisfy, rather than annoy. I already liked Taron Egerton in ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ (2014) - he has a cocky, likeable quality that makes him satisfying to watch, and in that film he manages to anchor absurd situations. Elton John is inherently absurd, and so he was a great choice. As full-blooded as the real thing, without becoming comical. He did all his own singing in the role (including a duet with real-life Elton John for the closing credits) and it has the energy, and style style you'd hope for, but manages to preserve its own freshness. This is not just imitation.

The film takes its liberties with chronology, cause and effect to give neater resolutions, but it’s a no hagiography! At one point I wondered if the real Elton John would ever see the movie, or whether its portrayal of him and his upbringing would seem too raw, too ugly - but when the end credits came round I discovered he and his husband David Furnish were producers, and had worked closely to bring this true fantasy to the screen.

I liked this movie a lot, and it makes me want to make movies.

I would be misrepresenting 'Lisztomania' if I didn't show you this big willy
Lisztomania (1975)

Back in the 19th Century, Europe went wild for Franz Liszt. Screaming crowds, a cult of personality, the whole Beatles Schtick. This is an immensely energetic and peculiar film about the man and the myth. Roger Daltrey is Franz Liszt, galavanting around with (at one point) a ten-foot long penis which is sent to the guillotine. Rick Wakeman is Thor, and his songs make this a musical. Ringo Starr is the Pope, for some reason.

I tremendously enjoyed this film. It joins ‘Casino Royalo’ (1967) in being so unpredictable that I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t dreaming it. I’m glad I watched it alone, though. So many scenes of bare-breasted women, their bosoms very much for the viewers’ pleasure! Astonishing titillation. It’s a full-on sex-comedy - very dated, very of its time - but in other ways audacious, finding a uniquely absurd take on the life of Liszt. To give you a sense of it, the movie culminates in Liszt dying, going to Heaven, but returning in a space rocket to kill Richard Wagner, who in this movie is both a literal vampire and a kind of a Hitler Frankenstein, blasting people with his murder guitar.

I like to find films like this.

Those were some films

Yes, those were some films, and together they’ve given me a desire to make a music biopic of my own (perhaps in the vein of ’Some Deaths of Vincent van Gogh’ which I made in 2018, and which you might, for eight minutes, enjoy). It’s good when books make you want to write, when clothes make you want to sew, and when movies make you want to move … pictures! I hope I’ll actually do this at some point, once I find a good candidate, a good story and a visual angle that can be made loudly and colourfully in a bedroom. We shall see!

I didn’t have an appetite to see ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (2018), but I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about it already. I hope the trend of music biopics continues in cinemas - I hope to see some which aren’t so male. Alas, the only biographical film of a female composer's life that leaps to mind is ‘Hildegard of Bingen’ (1994), a one-off BBC drama starring the wonderful Patricia Routledge. I enjoyed it a whole lot, but it ticks my boxes more than it may yours.

Apologies for the larger-than-usual gap between Penciltonian posts. If you missed me, you can find most of the art I'm up to over at

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