If cinema is the seventh art, music is surely one of those first six. (In case you were wondering, music clocks in at #2 in Zhou Dynasty Chinese education, and it’s #4 of Hegel’s “Lectures on Aesthetics”—thanks Google!)
Music is frequently one of the most memorable parts of a film, but what about when the film is about music? Better yet, what about when the film is about that character we know all too well in life: the mopey, misunderstood, fatalistic, tortured sad-sack musician? The one blindly convinced that the cosmos is purposefully conspiring to keep his melodies obscured from the masses? The one feverishly spamming your Facebook with gig announcements at puke-stained Irish pubs in obscure, transit-resistant neighborhoods? These toiling troubadours now have a new patron saint—a cinematic icon to represent their struggle to the wider world. His name is Llewyn Davis, a character worthy of both sympathy and scorn, played by Oscar Isaac in the Coen brothers‘ fantastic new film “Inside Llewyn Davis” (read our review here).
‘ILD,’ derived from trace elements in the life of ’60s folk revival hero Dave Van Ronk, is a symphony of the sad sack. The Coens set Davis on a sloshy journey in wet shoes to face rejection and hardship, much of which he can only blame on his bad attitude and poor business sense. Oh, if only he’d bend a little, oh, if only he were nicer, oh, if only he stopped for a minute before he signed away the royalty agreement on the silly pop tune. Why must so many who try to lift us through song be so steeped in misery, themselves? To give poor, doomed Llewyn Davis company, here are a dozen of the great musical sad sacks from film history. We’ve arranged them alphabetically, because surely they would all take issue with where they landed in an ascending or descending list.
In Vienna, the city of composers, there is an Italian restaurant called Salieri’s. I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind ever going there. “Honey, what I can really go for tonight is some sub-par, run-of-the-mill, uninspired grub. A real mediocre meal.” To throw further salt in the maligned Maestro’s eyes, Salieri’s is visible the moment you walk out of the Haus der Musik, a marvelous modern museum dedicated to Vienna’s unparalleled place in the history of Western Classical canon. And you can believe there’s an enormous section devoted to the one “Loved by God,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Milos Forman’s “Amadeus,” adapted from Peter Shaffer‘s play, is no biopic of Mozart, it is a study of Salieri’s envy. F. Murray Abraham‘s tormented Antonio Salieri, a decent man who only wants to bring beauty into the world (and receive a modicum praise, wealth and prurient affection in return, let’s be honest) has his world destroyed upon meeting Mozart—impudent, ungrateful and, in Salieri’s eyes, unworthy of the talents which come so naturally to him. A masterpiece on every level (and so quotable), Forman’s film splits your sympathies between the epicurean Mozart and the dour, rage-filled Salieri. In the end, of course, both are miserable, but Salieri, whose name has become synonymous with mediocrity, is the one with the wing in heaven for everyone who lacks the chops to jam with Hendrix and Trane.
My personal introduction to Joy Division came via an older kid in school in a trenchcoat who said, and I swear I’m not making this up, “you think The Cure are depressing? Listen to this!” Anton Corbijn‘s biopic of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis is a surprisingly effective portrait of the group’s short career. Curtis, ever the ur-emo, drew his sadness from a real place and the film’s black-and-white cinematography go a long way to evoke the bleak Manchester, U.K. setting. Each of Curtis’ seizures, stage-sweats and sobs are, lets face it, fetishized to the point that even his embarrassing dance moves take on dramatic heft. The film ends with Curtis hanging himself, though not while standing on a block of ice that slowly melted—that’s an urban myth that, when you think about it, is absolutely preposterous.
“The Devil and Daniel Johnston” (2005)
We’re gonna go easy on the docs or else we’ll be here all day. But Jeff Feuerzeig‘s account of Austin, Texas’ Patron Saint of Strange is an emotional workout that, in addition to many other things, is about a sad sack musician. Daniel Johnston, like Ian Curtis before him, has real mental problems that we don’t mean to treat flippantly. What’s tragic about him, however, is how he’s devoted so much of his life’s work pining away for an unrequited love who spent decades unaware that these (considered by many) masterpieces even existed. There is much debate as to whether Johnston’s popularity is due to audiences making fun or taking advantage (or maybe just staring at a traffic accident), but the film goes to great lengths to show this outsider artist’s innate songwriting ability. And while Johnston does have a sizable group of fans, the film’s summation, focused on his worried, aging parents, is absolutely heartbreaking.
While both Courtney Taylor-Taylor and Anton Newcombe have both lobbed accusations at director Ondi Timoner of manufacturing conflict beyond what’s expected in a documentary film, “Dig!” is a remarkable, seven-years-in-the-making record about the twin careers of the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. To boil it down: the Dandy Warhols are mentally stable sell-outs, and the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s central figure Newcombe is a tortured genius and his own worst enemy. But his music is great! And you want him to do well, so that a wider audience could hear, enjoy and respect this man … only he’s such a dick! Anton Newcombe is the variant of the sad sack musician, the angry sack—no less self-destructive and pouty, but a little more likely to smash a beer bottle over your head.
People throw around the phrase “brave performance” a lot, but half the time it’s meaningless. Jennifer Jason Leigh in Ulu Grosbard‘s “Georgia” is some daring stuff. To intentionally sing Van Morrison‘s lengthy, emotional “Take Me Back” poorly, but not demonstrably poorly, is something few actors would tackle. This uneasy ambiguity may be part of the reason no one talks about this movie. It seems, at first, to be just another cautionary tale about drugs and drink luring a gifted musician off the road to success, but it is actually much more. When should an artist know their limits? What happens when passion surpasses talent? Leigh’s character Sadie can nail a cool version of Elvis Costello‘s “Almost Blue” (backed by John Doe on guitar and John C. Reilly on drums!) but that’s just about all she can do. With her older sister (Mare Winningham) a successful singer-songwriter, Leigh is compelled to push herself beyond her capacities. And, being a struggling addict doesn’t help her woes.
An under-discussed film from theater director James Lapine (his only other feature was “Life With Mikey”), you’d be forgiven for shrugging this off as a pure BBC period piece wankfest. Judy Davis is George Sand, Julian Sands is Franz Liszt, Mandy Patinkin is poet Alfred de Musset and character actor Ralph Brown plays Eugene Delacroix. Relevant to this discussion, however, is the young Hugh Grant as Frederic Chopin. Chopin isn’t so much a sad sack (he is successful) but he’s something of an effete wuss. His soul is perhaps too beautiful for this world (his compositions make a good case for this) so the bulk of the picture is Davis’ Sand basically trying to woo him in between fainting spells. As a light comedy, the movie ends on an up note, but “Impromptu” registers as what we’ll call The Chopin Variation of this trope—a musician in triumph who still finds a way to be annoyingly unhappy.
“Last Days” (2005)
Gus Van Sant‘s roman a clef of Kurt Cobain is welcome cockblock to any other director who may feel the need to make a straightforward biopic of the inadvertent spokesman of grunge, Generation X, the 1990s, the rock implosion, the last days of analogue, etc.. etc.. etc. “Last Days” shares the detached, plot-light aesthetic of the director’s earlier “Gerry” and “Elephant” (and, to an extent, the later “Paranoid Park”) but in some ways this is the most grounded in commercial cinema from that set. There’s plenty of shtick with the stoned longhairs, there are hypnotic musical breaks and we know that the film will end with a bang. (Oh, God, please forgive me.) Still, we project what we feel about Cobain onto mumbly Michael Pitt, and ache at his isolation and distress from the cultural weight of the world.
“Young Man With A Horn” (1950)
Very loosely based on jazz pioneer Bix Biederbecke (who died within walking distance of my apartment!), Michael Curtiz‘s film is a bit of a whitewash, but still one of the better jazz movies of the classic era. Kirk Douglas is the titular man with the horn, overdubbed by the great Harry James (who was too young to have played with the doomed Biederbecke himself.) “Young Man With A Horn” is a lengthy, agreeable chorus of bars and bandstands, drunken arguments and difficult love. (Douglas ultimately chooses the psychologically damaged, possibly bisexual Lauren Bacall over sunny chanteuse Doris Day—wouldn’t you?) Conventions of the day changed the ending (Bix lives!) but there’s enough of sad sack Kirk Douglas wandering around Manhattan in a drunken stupor to recommend this picture. Also, the music is updated from early dixieland to the more generally enjoyed pre-bebop jazz of the late 1940s/early 1950s. If you’d like to hear Beiderbecke rip through the fabric of music’s conventions with one arpeggio, dig this link and its 1:31 mark. It’s the aural equivalent of “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.”
“Round Midnight” (1986)
This terrific picture is loosely based on the life of Bud Powell, who led one of the most tragic lives in jazz. (His sad sack-ness originated from getting cracked on the head by a racist policeman in Philadelphia; the affable Powell was mistreated and was never quite the same again.) In Bertrand Tavernier‘s film, the Powell character moves from behind the piano to the saxophone and was played by the legendary musician Dexter Gordon in his first and only real film role. (He was nominated for an Academy Award but lost to Paul Newman for “The Color of Money.”) Gordon’s Dale Turner is a world-weary would-be poet warrior saddled with bad relationships and crippling addictions. “Round Midnight” captures the Paris ex-pat jazz scene of the 1950s, and acts as something of a wider essay on post-war France’s relationship with American culture. (The young Parisian Gordon’s character falls in with, played by Francois Cluzet, is a designer of film posters.) This is a jazz film in the true sense—less dependent on plot than on extrapolations of themes. And the cameos—from Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter to Alain Sarde and Martin Scorsese—are tres hip.
“One Trick Pony” (1981)
Paul Simon had such a good time playing an exaggerated version of himself in Woody Allen‘s “Annie Hall” that he went in for the full feature version just a few years later. “One Trick Pony,” which Simon wrote for Robert M. Young to direct, is the cri de coeur of a folk/rock musician trying to keep his head afloat as sleazy record execs and other assorted suits try to change him, man. It may’ve been a little presumptuous of Paul Simon to play the role—almost as if he’s mocking those who just couldn’t find success in the biz—but his heart, his mopey, sad sack heart, is certainly in the right place. The film is also loaded with good music, outstanding costumes, notable cameos (Lou Reed as a shamelessly slick producer) and fabulous location photography, and the opening scene features Daniel Stern as an airport Hare Krishna.
“Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (1987)
One of the more famous illegal movies, Todd Haynes‘ notorious 45-minute biopic of the doomed pop star Karen Carpenter is good enough to work beyond the shock of its gimmick. It is a cheaply made stop-motion film that uses Barbie and Ken dolls to tell a tragic tale of the pressures of fame—and believe me when I say that you will actually care, not chuckle, when a plastic doll is caught stashing Ex-Lax tablets. There are many who find the film mean-spirited, but I think the few existent gags at the Carpenters’ Nixon-era smoothness would probably be found in a more straightforward biopic, too. Knowing what we do about eating disorders today (and Carpenter was something of a martyr to this cause), maybe this isn’t a sad-sack tale, rather just a sad one.
“Sweet and Lowdown” (1999)
Woody Allen‘s rich love of jazz paid off in this terrific portrait of a talented schlemeil. Framed as an “American Masters”-esque documentary with the usual jazz talking heads (Nat Hentoff, Stanley Crouch and, oddly, Woody Allen appearing as themselves), “Sweet and Lowdown” features Sean Penn as one of the great musical sad sacks Emmet Ray (modeled in some ways after guitar jazz legend Django Reinhardt, who is the heard from, but unseen rival in the film as the world’s #1 rated jazz guitar player). A narcissistic, perfectionist guitarist in the 1930s, Ray lets his ego get in the way of true love and popular success. Also, the typical dependence on alcohol, womanizing and general jerky behavior (his hobby is to go to a trash dump and shoot rats). “Sweet and Lowdown” is discussed as Woody’s adaptation of Fellini‘s “La Strada,” and while there are similarities, Emmet Ray is different from Anthony Quinn‘s Zampano. He may be a brute in his mind, but in physicality he’s a pipsqueak—and this makes him all the more of a sad sack.
There are plenty of other sad sack musicians on film worth checking out. Another from Woody Allen is the drunken has-been crooner Lou Canova from “Broadway Danny Rose.” While the movie itself isn’t that great, is there a more famous composer than Ludwig van Beethoven? If memory serves, Gary Oldman‘s performance in “Immortal Beloved” is that of a heartsick wimp. Also there’s Jeff Bridges Academy Award-winning turn as the sloppy country musician with a heart of gold in the good-but-not-great (but still very good!) “Crazy Heart.” Don’t forget that before their Middle Eastern adventure begins, Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty are a loser Simon and Garfunkel in “Ishtar.” Another pair of workin’ humps are Forest Whitaker and Jeff Goldblum as session musicians/jazzbos in the criminally under-seen “Lush Life” from 1993. And a recent entry is last year’s solid “A Late Quartet” featuring Christopher Walken as an A-level cellist whose mastery of his instrument is deteriorating due to age.
If you want to dip your toe into documentaries—where it seems like every band that ever did anything has their own feature length film—the one that seems most apt is the portrait of the band that should have made it but didn’t, “Anvil! The Story of Anvil.” Lastly, even we creators of Playlist list articles can’t have seen everything. But I’m excited to learn that the Dustin Hoffman-as-folk musician flop from 1971 “Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?” is finally coming to DVD in January. If it belongs on the list ( and I suspect it does), I’ll let you know.