Monday, January 05, 2009

Three Movies

On the first weekend with our new satellite connection, one of the movie channels was running two full days of music-related films. So of course I celebrated my newest at-home toy by watching "The Commitments" (my Great White Whale of music movies -- somehow I had never seen it), "Control", and "24 Hour Party People".

After a second viewing, my opinion of "Control" is essentially unchanged. I did, however, take a lot more notice of how much effort the movie puts into drawing (or perhaps it would be best to say "forcing") links between Curtis' epilepsy and his depression. Everyday at work, he saw clients in the employment office that he was essentially powerless to help. Their illnesses prevented them from leading normal day-to-day work and social lives. When Ian took his meds, he couldn't he couldn't do his job properly (because of the side effects), but if he ignored his meds, he of course suffered from increasingly worsening seizures. Either way, he started to see himself as a freak, no different from any of his sad, helpless clients. In seeing himself as a misfit who was incapable of holding down a normal job and marriage, his sense of self-worth became an increasingly self-fulfilling prophecy. The problem with this viewpoint is that it glosses over the huge elephant in the room -- the main thrust of Debbie Curtis' book upon which the movie is supposed to be based -- that being the following: Ian Curtis was depressed for his entire life. His epilepsy was not the root cause of his depression, rather, his depression was the root cause of his depression. The movie tries to partially transfer "blame" for his suicide from one illness to another, in a way that, in my opinion at least, is entirely speculative.

"24 Hour Party People" was a blast the second time around. I didn't stress over inconsistencies in the plot and the timeline and just absorbed the craziness as it was thrown at me -- all the better to marvel at Steve Coogan's sensational performance (which feels all the more poignant and comforting now that the real Tony Wilson is gone).

Remarkably similar themes are central to all three movies. There are no real plots to speak of. They loosely chronicle the stories of bands that formed from modest origins, built up sizable followings, and eventually collapsed due to a complicated web of mismanagement and volatile personalities. The main character in each film is arguably not a person, but the city in which the events take place. The city provides the context for everything -- the inescapable greyness and the perceived trappings of an non-evolving daily working class grind are the key influences that drive these characters toward music in order to escape from their otherwise wretched lives.

The character of Jimmy in "The Commitments" is something of a tragic figure. He's a visionary, practically a prophet amongst his unenlightened peers who knew exactly what Dubliners were looking for. He has his music mag rhetoric down pat, and knows how to sell his vision to anyone who will listen. Despite his many gifts, by the end of the film he is right back where he started -- a failure in the music industry, on the outside looking in. Most of the characters in "The Commitments" could be painted with a similar brush of failure. And yet, who would describe the movie as sad?

"The Commitments" succeeds where "Control" does not because the motivations of its characters are made perfectly clear. They care about what they are doing. Some of them selfishly want to use the band as a springboard to bigger stardom, some badly need the band as a distraction from the horrible stresses at work and at home, and some simply love the music and enjoy being along for the ride. Although they might pretend to be all in the same North Dublin boat, in fact they're all very different people who want drastically different things from the band, so it's hardly a surprise that all sense of a common focus becomes lost and the band falls apart. All this happens despite Jimmy's heroic efforts to steer the ship. His fatal flaw is that he wrongly assumes that everybody will drop whatever grievances they have against each other and will stay loyal to his vision of the band -- all because they want it to succeed just as much as he does. But at the end of the day, the movie shows us that even if you fail, the thrill of being on stage and mattering to people (even if it's for a very short time) is the best compensation that a musician can receive. Basically, it's his or her reward for giving a fuck about the music. This makes "The Commitments" a feel-good movie despite the somewhat tragic ending.

"Control" never implies that anyone gives a fuck. It's far from clear that the band truly matters to any of its members and somewhere in this stew of apathy is a guy who walks around depressed for no obvious reason and we can't understand why he won't just grow a set and deal with his relatively simple problems: tell his wife he's leaving her, take a break from the band, whatever. The brief scene in "24HPP", where Wilson fondly remembers a drunken Joy Division bludgeoning their way through "Louie Louie" during one of their final gigs, displays the band's human side more effectively than any single scene from "Control". In those brief moments, a gang of friends are acting like real human beings instead of robots, and are having a blast on stage in a way that "Control" won't allow us to see.

You could still claim that nobody gives a toss in "24HPP" either, but the giant exception to that rule is Tony Wilson, who obviously gives a giant toss and is the sole element that holds the movie together amongst all the frustration and foolishness. Shawn Ryder looks nothing like a genius and exactly like a selfish crack-addled prick, no matter now many times Wilson tries to convince us to overlook the latter and focus on the former. However, it's Tony Wilson, and hyperbole is the currency that he deals in, which not only provides constant reminders about the significance of everything we're seeing, but proudly displays the svengali aura that kept people believing in him for so long. He all but takes credit for inventing rave and pioneering the superstar DJ -- both viewpoints are contentious to the extreme, e.g. see: Chicago warehouse scene in the 80's among many possible alternate starting points -- but it works in the context of the movie because these are exactly the kind of things that the real Tony Wilson would (and did) say. He claims that he's a minor character in his own story, that the city of Manchester and its music are the real stars, and as far as real life is concerned, that's the truth. Except that in the MOVIE, Tony Wilson is the star and the MOVIE understands that. "Control" never even comes close grasping this concept. It's supposed to be an Ian Curtis biopic, and the "star" doesn't convey any reason for us to believe that his band or his life was important. If he doesn't care, then why should we?


Amit said...

freakshow, check out "Ex Drummer", it's a dutch or belgian movie about a group of loser that start a punk band:

Lesley G said...

B, The Barrytown Trilogy are some of my favorite books. The Commitments is awesome if you have the time. The Snapper and The Van give a glimpse into the lives of the family.

Barry said...

Thanks for the recommendations guys. I should probably wait fewer than 20 years before reading "The Commitments", the novel.