Why Films About Musicians Leave So Much Music Off Screen

Amy Winehouse, in an image taken from the documentary Amy, by director Asif Kapadia. (Courtesy of A24)
Amy Winehouse, in an image taken from the documentary Amy, by director Asif Kapadia. (Courtesy of A24)

For anyone more interested in Amy Winehouse's music than in her martyrdom, the most shocking images in Asif Kapadia's new documentary Amy may not be the ones showing her strung out and terrifyingly thin at the end of her short life, nor those capturing her turn into serious addiction in filthy, paraphernalia-strewn rooms she shared with her enabler and eventual husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. The early footage of Winehouse playing music is what proves electrifying, even though it's been available on YouTube for years. It's revelatory to be returned to a time before her international fame, when Winehouse was still feeling out her sound. She'd stand behind a microphone, intently listening to her bandmates as she shaped those trademark rough melismatic vocal lines. She'd smile as she moved her long fingers over the fretboard of her Fender Stratocaster.

Amy Winehouse played guitar. It's something few people talk about, partly because by the time of her second, breakthrough, tragically final studio album, Back To Black, she's put it aside in performance, instead focused on balancing the beehive on her delicate head. But the instrument was essential to her musical development. She didn't really play like a rock or even jazz guitarist; more like a singer exploring phrasing in a different way. The Stratocaster was her personal decoder, translating the complex rhythms and tones of instrumentalists she loved, like John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, into lines she could grasp and incorporate into her vocals.

The guitar also made her feel strong. "I guess it must be akin to having a dick," Winehouse once said in an interview not excerpted in Kapadia's film. "It must be that. When I go onstage and I've got a guitar, I feel like no one can touch me — not in an 'I'm so good' way, it's just all my strength, right here [gesturing to her lower torso, what believers in kundalini know as the second chakra, or pleasure center]. To me the guitar represents my music that's inside me, but external, you know what I mean? So I guess that's why it's like having a dick. It's like, myself, but out."

This explanation says a lot about Winehouse as a woman who fell in love with musical worlds (jazz and hip-hop, her favorites) grounded in the idea that competition among male geniuses is the source of innovation and real meaning. She came up in a club milieu where she had to hold her own with male collaborators whose technical self-confidence outshone her own — she told that interlocutor, "I've never had a dick, obviously," and her laugh was rueful. Music was her first challenger and champion. "She had the most personal relationship to music, the most emotional relationship to music," Sam Beste, her longtime keyboardist and fellow teen genius, told Kapadia. "She needed music as if it were a person ... she would die for it."

Beste's observation cuts through the sordid details that make up so much of Amy. It resonates partly because it puts Winehouse's love of music first, a rarity in a story more focused (in service of sad truth, it seems) on her preoccupation with bad romance and self-destruction. Yet Beste's analogy also applies to the world of music films in general, and exposes what most viewers have been conditioned to seek from them. Films "about" music, in short, tend to focus on everything surrounding the ineffable art, without delving too deeply into its core.

Music-focused cinema could provide something radical: a close view of the processes of composing and performing that reveals the work behind what seems, to listeners, like magic. Instead, like almost any other kind of cinema, it tends to focus on human relationships: on the interpersonal, not the inner personal. This understandable tendency has resulted in many great explorations of how musicians get along with each other, cope in the world, affect social change and build legacies. Yet it means that most music films (with a few exceptions) still sidestep what's unique about music-making: the mix of obsessive practice and spontaneous experimentation; the balance between listening and self-expression; the sensual experience of living through the ears. Making music a character allows us as viewers to relate to these narratives, but it also simplifies something worth keeping complicated.

Amy, as touching and necessary as it is, remains true to convention. The film's first third does, happily, remind us that Winehouse was in love with that rascal, song. Candid footage shows her among her bandmates, happy, hilarious, constantly vocalizing, that empowering guitar at the ready. After fame and the horrifically blank Fielder-Civil enter her life, Amy becomes a more familiar celebrity disaster flick. Stalked by fame and her own compulsions, she wastes away. At the end, there's a moment when music reappears via a valiant potential emancipator: Tony Bennett nurtures a strong studio performance out of Winehouse, despite her intense insecurity. In an offscreen interview, The Roots drummer Questlove notes that Winehouse hoped to form a jazz-fusion group with himself, rapper Yasiin Bey and guitarist-songwriter-producer Raphael Saadiq. But she's too far gone, and in 2011 the distinctly anti-musical experience of being forced to perform stale hits in front of a huge Serbian festival crowd does her in. In the end, Amy is a horror story about a girl who lost her magic instrument in the forest of renown, and is eaten by demons talent alone can't defeat.

Some critics have been frustrated by Amy's downplaying of Winehouse's music itself. In his New Yorker review, Anthony Lane notes that the film barely includes any Winehouse performances, with most interrupted "to make way for a juicy quotation in voiceover. All this strikes me as an opportunity missed," he drily comments. True — but perhaps it was also Kapadia's plan to stay clear of the knotty matter of Winehouse's creative trajectory, and for more than the usual reasons filmmakers work around such matters. Winehouse's cultural allegiances bring up different demons: particularly, the specter of white appropriation of black musical styles, which for all of Winehouse's clear musicality still often surfaces as caricature, in the way she slurs her words and turns her phrases, not to mention her willing absorption of the most abject version of the abused blueswoman persona, victimized by love. Kapadia's less complicated revisionist take on Winehouse — that she was a music nerd, as intellectual in her approach as, say, her producer Mark Ronson, and genuinely drawn to collaborate with black musicians, not just exploit them — is redemptive. But it leaves troubling questions about Winehouse's occupation of a pseudo-"transracial" persona unanswered. They just don't fit within Kapadia's quest to show Winehouse as an innocent corrupted by men and pop success.

Of the current spate of music films attracting attention in multiplexes and on streaming services or premium television, Amy is the most old-fashioned in its tragic arc. The others do suggest that cinema about music might, in fact, be turning more musical, or at least more interested in serving as a form of music criticism. Liz Garbus's What Happened, Miss Simone? dwells on performance clips and the words of its subject, Nina Simone, to examine how an artist becomes radical and then infuses that political spirit into her songs. The similarly constructed Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, directed by Brett Morgen, harkens back to psychoanalytic literary theory in its linking of the Nirvana frontman's artistry with his childhood traumas. And Bill Pohlad's lovely Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy makes a fascinating leap by suggesting that the Beach Boys auteur constructed his inimitable soundscapes as a way of dealing with auditory hallucinations — making pop songs that go deep, in part, because they were designed to converse with the voices in his head.

The stories these films pursue share much beyond music. Each centers on a person struggling with a psychiatric disorder and a family that either can't cope or actively makes the situation worse. These troubled heroes live through volatile cultural shifts — for Simone and Wilson, the '60s of civil rights becoming black power and psychedelic experimentation becoming bad trips; for Cobain, the indie-to-corporate '90s that birthed grunge, also drug-addled. These environments first inspire them, but later exacerbate an essential alienation that drives them toward self-destruction. Each film also turns on a vanishing -- Cobain's suicide; Winehouse's death by alcohol and bulimia, Simone's African self-exile and temporary abandonment of both music and her daughter; Wilson's depression-darkened hermit years. These human stories are important. They show how abuse or rejection can push a fragile ego into serious instability. They critique capitalism's stranglehold on art. And they argue that people — their health, their sincere love — are more valuable than things, even if those things (songs, for example) prove immortal. But what do they have to say about music? And how do they manage to say it?

One strange thing about these particular music films is that they all avoid contextualizing their subjects within larger musical communities. Garbus's film is the most accomplished in terms of framing the genius of its star through her interactions with other creative people, including writers and political activists, but also some fellow players. Simone's longtime guitarist, Al Schackman, gets the space to talk about their seemingly telepathic bond, and to share what he witnessed, as a musician, when Simone went on her most inspired flights in performance. His comments on her 1960 Newport Jazz Festival rendition of the old "Southern dialect song" "Lil' Liza Jane" illuminate how the fiercely proud Simone confronted, altered, and finally found a way to master this racist text — as a player and a singer, not simply as an ideologue.

Garbus also includes much performance footage, which lets Simone's emphatic but sly style speak for itself. Her main idea about Simone's music is supported by what this great rabble-rouser did onstage. What Happened, Miss Simone? portrays an artist always pushing against the frame others would put around her self-expression — a pugnacious, necessary act, this film suggests, rooted in Simone's early rejection from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. That rejection, Simone came to understand, was racially motivated. Taking on popular music, she resented it and maintained her high-art prejudices, only to eventually find in it a way to upend the very hierarchies that initially shut her out.

Simone turned to jazz and blues, she says in a clip in the film, because "I needed money." When she finally arrived at Carnegie Hall — her lifelong goal, achieved in 1964 — she tells a reporter, "I'm in Carnegie, finally — but I'm not doing Baaaach." Simone's righteous anger at being forced into the servitude of entertainment, instead of enjoying the freedom of high art, caused her to reinvent pop music. The musical story Garbus presents is of Simone's resistance against the racist vernacular, then her warming to it by uncovering its buried blackness, and finally her blending it in tense and fascinating ways with the classical traditions she so values. This is crucial. Garbus never overtly states this theme, but it lends authority to Garbus's main focus on how politics can both inspire and thwart art.

Music never feels like a comfort in Simone's story, though performing did clearly make her happy. Because she coped with bipolar disorder, only medication allowed her the mental stability to function in the world. For the Brian Wilson of Love & Mercy, shaping sound is clearly a self-protective act, one that literally orders his psyche. The startling insight of this film, which adheres closely to well-known biographical details, is one that can make even lifelong Beach Boys fans hear Wilson's music anew. Pohlad and main screenwriter Oren Moverman show how the precocious producer's magnificent studio creations were responses to the inner distortions that constantly destabilized him: The songs we listeners treasure are, for him, exquisite containers for the noise of life, which both entranced and terrorized him. Wilson wasn't "in his right mind" when making masterworks like Pet Sounds and "Good Vibrations," but on some level, isn't all music an auditory hallucination? It's risky to romanticize mental illness, yet Love & Mercy achieves real empathy by showing how it can spur creativity. The score Atticus Ross assembled using fragments of Beach Boys songs further enforces this message, as does Paul Dano's embodiment of the young Wilson as a man gifted with a unique level of aural receptivity and determined to turn the noise into beauty because his life depended on it. In the scenes that take place in recording studio, Love & Mercy shows better than perhaps any other portrayal of an artist how music-making can truly become a way to survive, one with the blessed side effect of changing and even saving the lives of later listeners.

The half of Love & Mercy that's about the older Wilson, brutally separated from music-making by his family's betrayals and his own chemical indulgences, isn't really about music. It's a fine, small love story tenderly enacted by John Cusack as the older Wilson and Elizabeth Banks as his redeemer and second wife, Melinda. As Kapadia does with Amy, Pohlad avoids a big sticking point by narrowing the plot: There's no real talk about the fact that the Beach Boys continued without Wilson for decades, a moneymaking machine representing how great music can be emptied of its original significance. On the other hand, the other Boys are slighted throughout Love & Mercy. Their fans, and those interested in 1960s music in general, may be frustrated with the way that all of Wilson's influences are ignored beyond a few comments voiced by a shaky Dano about how The Beatles raised the bar with Revolver.

But then, magical individualism is the coin of today's movie realm. Wilson, Winehouse, Cobain, Simone — they're the Fantastic Four, a compendium of misfits-become-superheroes. They fit right in with the neurotic messes who bring in the throngs at the multiplex everytime a new Marvel movie comes along. Unlike films that explore whole music scenes (and there are many about the same milieus, from The Black Power Mixtape to Hype! to The Wrecking Crew to BBC4's Northern Soul: Living For the Weekend) today's music movies seem more akin to this summer's Pixar hit, Inside Out, which takes place inside a tween girl's brain, or the indie horror favorite It Follows, whose Freddie Kreuger figure may truly be a figment of its victims' imaginations.

The current music film that most effectively (or egregiously, a viewer deep into '90s rock might think) portrays its hero from the inside out is Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Morgen's impressionistic, formally inventive study of the fruitful subconscious of Kurt Cobain. Montage of Heck goes into excruciating detail about the Nirvana frontman's youth spent shuffling among relatives, none of whom wanted him, and it intimately reveals his love affair with Courtney Love, thanks to poignant home movies the family provided. But commentary from Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl isn't even included in the film. Bassist Krist Novoselic is identified as Cobain's "friend," and there's almost no mention of the other Seattle bands who were part of the '90s rock explosion. A brief scene shows Cobain making fun of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell's moustache; a page from his notebooks, projected onscreen as part of a collage, makes reference to his time as a roadie for heavy rockers the Melvins. Nirvana's cover of the Vaselines song "Molly's Lips" takes a plum spot but isn't identified. Most problematically, the film skips over Cobain's formative years in Olympia, where his then-girlfriend Tobi Vail and others in the riot grrrl scene schooled him about feminism, turned him on to much of the indie rock he loved, and gave him a name for the song that made him a superstar.

These omissions seriously mar Montage of Heck. The film cannot serve as a definitive statement on Nirvana. But this clearly wasn't Morgen's goal, anyway. He has his one musical point to make, too: Morgen is interested in how Nirvana's sound and Cobain's lyrics reflect Cobain's lifelong struggle with shame, which also, his movie asserts, led to his suicide. He juxtaposes examples of Nirvana songs that use the language of violation and abjection ("Rape Me," "Something In the Way") with perverse Cobain drawings and other artwork, and with chaotic performance clips, to illustrate how Nirvana's kind of punk rock represented not social rebellion so much as an uprising against physical existence itself.

Cobain, who was given Ritalin as a preschooler, was sexually awkward by his own admission and suffered from chronic stomach pain, wrote the most intense rock songs of the '90s partly because his refusal of norms was rooted in his own strong ambivalence about his own body — an uncertainty that his peers, the first generation to grow up in the full shadow of both the AIDS crisis and the Antioch rules, deeply understood. Cobain's shame, exacerbated by heroin use, ultimately made him suicidal. But it was centrally connected to his creativity, and that's what Morgen gets right.

A second viewing of Montage of Heck, one less concerned with catching what details Morgen shares or ignores, reveals something else. The movie itself hits like a Nirvana song. Its structure is musical: Its narrative is fragmented and dynamically jarring, like the famous Nirvana soft-LOUD-soft song structure, and the images that splatter across the frame and sometimes repeat are ultimately gross and beautiful. Morgen's film may not serve well as music history, and its narrow focus as music criticism will continue to provoke arguments. It doesn't show anything about how rock musicians in the '90s gave the genre back its brio. (Try Instrument, the groundbreaking Fugazi documentary by Jem Cohen, or The Punk Singer, about Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna, which — full disclosure, includes commentary by yours truly. Or enjoy an evening with Grohl's fun tribute to his fave recording studio, Sound City, truly a music nerd's delight.) But Montage of Heck smells like real music. And that's the best that a film about this most provisional, ethereal, impactful art form can accomplish.

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