Saturday, October 16, 2010

How long has this been going on?

I would like to apologize to my younger self, with regard to my complete ignoring of punk rock. In my defense, pop music and mainstream rock was in a tremendous creative doldrums during my high school and college years, and I spent the time learning about jazz, classical and theater music and dismissed most everything else as not worth my time. With regard to punk, the adolescent desire to outrage for its own sake was tiresome to me, and so I declined to pay attention to the music because of the juvenile label that was wrapped around it.

The Runaways (2010) is, by all accounts, a reasonably accurate telling of the story of the band by the same name, a band, which to all outward appearances was a cheap bit of exploitation -- "let's make a bad girls band as an answer to all those bad boy bands." In fact, it seems to have been music-based, and that is an unusual thing in ANY rock movie, especially one featuring young women.

The musical process is something that is usually botched by filmmakers. Only a handful of filmmakers ARE musical. George Roy Hill, who used Bach brilliantly in Slaughterhouse Five and introduced the world to Scott Joplin in The Sting was one. (I like Hill because he avoided underscoring, letting the music stand side-by-side with the image, rather than hover down below the dialogue.) My brief research has not turned up any other examples. A number of directors, including Spike Jonze, F. Gary Gray and Floria Sigismondi, director of The Runaways, began with music video, and therefore had some practice with the fusion of music and images. (Ridley Scott, Taylor Hackford and Baz Luhrmann have also demonstrated a flair for music.)

But all this is a matter of expressing music visually. The question before the court now is the creation of music. Stories of sole composers fall into the same trap as movies about writers. There is nothing visual about a person sitting and thinking. When they do write some music, it is usually a travesty -- improvising a full-blown song-hit. Amadeus avoided the problem by relying on the legend that Mozart composed the entire piece in his head and then merely transcribed what he had already composed. Most musicians find that fairly doubtful. There are always technical, engineering-type problems to be solved when composing, especially for an orchestra. There is a line that doesn't sit correctly for that instrument in that range, voice leading to be corrected, parallel lines to be eliminated (or perhaps emphasized). Even allowing for Mozart knowing exactly how the architecture of the music would work, there are nuts and bolts matters to be worked out.

But when the story is about a band, about people playing together, now you have a dynamic among people which can be dramatized. We've seen bad jam session movies, but there have been good ones, including Jammin' the Blues and the TV special The Sound of Jazz. In those cases, actual music conversations were taking place and the director and the camera operators were astute enough to actually capture them.

The Runaways is not a documentary. Its scenes are staged, using actors, not musicians. But it has some good scenes of the musicians finding their way toward each other and coming up with a collective cohesive style. This has nothing to do with music videos or musical staging. It is about the way musicians communicate with each other and sublimate their individual expression into a group product. When The Runaways is on this course, it is exciting and powerful. When it drifts into the usual drugs-and-sex tropes in every rock-and-roll movie, it is the Same Old Stuff. Because that stuff has nothing to do with what is going on between the characters, but is simply trading in what we are supposed to think about them.

And while theater is well suited to address the distance between us and the characters, film is better at dealing with the spaces between the characters. In this case, the space between the characters is taken up with music. When The Runaways sticks to that, it is first rate.

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