Rocking in a hard place

How 2007 became the year cinema got the music right

(Note: Includes updated links to reviews of Honeydripper and Once.)

Trivia quiz: Which director said the following ...

"I think cinema is what you aim for, whether it's a documentary or it's a fictional film. I'm interested in cinema as an art form, and I don't have any distinction, really, as long as I make it in those terms. Cinema implies adventure, it implies not working in a kind of bureaucratic, TV kind of context. When you make a documentary, you're telling your version of someone's life. It's a fiction, anyway."

Was it ...

A) Todd Haynes, I'm Not There

B-) Anton Corbijn, Control

C) A.J. Schnack, Kurt Cobain: About a Son

D) Julien Temple, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

E) Julie Taymor, Across the Universe

The literal answer is at the end of the article, but the actual answer is it could have been any one of these filmmakers, who already have made 2007 (or even just this fall) the time when rock 'n' roll movies consistently became a thing of audacity, beauty, originality and passion. Critically speaking, each one has more than one flaw, and a cynic could argue that none is a masterpiece.

But this may be the year that showed making movies about rock 'n' roll – particularly some of its most iconic figures – need not be overburdened by formula, deification or condescension. It searches for greater truths, however elusive, however elliptical, and never settles for easy answers.

Simply put, this is the year cinema rocked the hardest, and the best.

Most of them have been either documentary or narrative-feature biographies – the biopic, if you will, though I wonder if any of the filmmakers like the term – chronicling the lives of the great icons of the past four decades. There is Control, photographer-turned-director Anton Corbijn's fictionalized account of the late Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis; Julien Temple's Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, about the late, great Clash frontman; Kurt Cobain: About a Son, A.J. Schnack's documentary about the late Nirvana leader; and Haynes' I'm Not There, capturing the many lives of Bob Dylan.

It's tempting to throw in Across the Universe, Julie Taymor's musical based on the music of the Beatles; even if it's not a biography per se. The film is an aural and visual feast swimming (and almost drowning) in a sea of Rent-meets-Up With People musical optimism that connects the group to its generation.

And the year's not even over yet; we still have yet to see Jim Brown's documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song or John Sayles' latest, Honeydripper, a fable about a juke joint in 1950s Alabama. (Glastonbury, Julien Temple's chronicle of the famed music festival, was released on DVD in June. Once, John Carney's commercially overlooked but enthralling Irish folk-rock musical, will be released on DVD Dec. 18.)

Together, these movies just may have changed the way we look at rock musicians, at their music, and how the two are related. Not two years removed from the likes of Walk the Line and Ray, rock movies may have found a glorious new rhythm.

They've done it with nonlinear storytelling, with stunning set pieces, brilliant acting and bold, even risky decisions – from Haynes' multiple characters and Temple's interviews by campfire to Schnack's focus away from Cobain's image and music and Corbijn's photographer passion for the cinema verite grains of black-and-white.

Perhaps the greatest strength of all of these movies is their ability on various levels to tap into the nature of persona and how important it is to the rock musician. Todd Haynes' approach is by far the boldest and riskiest in trying to convey how much Bob Dylan sought to continually shed his skin.

This desire to keep moving forward – call it maturation or evolution, call it escape – runs through practically every other film. Temple captures Joe Strummer's restlessness throughout his life and career, partly by revisiting his Dylanesque transformation from busker to rocker and from career pinnacle to wilderness years. Schnack seemed just as interested in Kurt Cobain's early fascination with arena rock and the Beatles as he was Cobain's eventual, counterintuitive but genius cramming of big rock through a punk-rock prism.

And while the obvious temptation is to search out Cobain's persona through careful studies of his face, interviewing the people who knew and loved him, and rifling through Nirvana's musical catalogue, Schnack made a pivotal artistic decision that had many critics scratching their heads. He matched the simplicity of Cobain's words – culled from 25 hours of interview tape courtesy of Come As You Are author/Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad – with seemingly countless sweeps, pans and other shots of the cities of Cobain's Pacific Northwest world. Where other directors might have settled the gaze of their lens on the rehearsal rooms, studios and nightclubs where Cobain and his bandmates perfected their craft, Schnack settled for contemporary images of an alternately industrial and natural region complete with belching smokestacks and soaring birds. Cobain may be revealing on audiotape but remains a cipher on film, reduced to occasional black-and-white photographs (mostly seen from behind, on stage).

"Of all people, Kurt was a product of his environment," Schnack points out. "I think when people think of Kurt being a contradiction – how he felt about fame – some people think he abhorred fame. That's not the truth. He listened to Queen, Cheap Trick, Kiss, Black Sabbath. That's what it meant to him to be a rock star. And then he moves to a place where you thumb your nose at that, Olympia. Here's a city where there's a record label called Kill Rock Stars. There's this battle of the values of Aberdeen and the battle of the values of Olympia. I wanted to put these two cities in stark contrast to each other.

"It also speaks to both his presence and his absence. Both these towns will be identified for what he did there. But life goes on."

This relationship between the director and subject often seems to inform the approach to the movie. Schnack admits to being what sounds like a typical Nirvana fan, one who might have taken a passing listen to Bleach but was hooked by Nevermind. Other directors work from either a lifelong passion for their subject, like Haynes and Bob Dylan, or had a personal connection to their subject, as Temple did with the Clash's Joe Strummer. Clearly films such as Taylor Hackford's Ray and James Mangold's Walk the Line came from directors who went from fan to collaborator; each worked with his subject before the subject's death. The result may be loving tributes with the mandatory revealing of the artistic dark side, but neither really surprised with its structure.

You can trace this approach back to Oliver Stone's trippy but predictable take on Jim Morrison in 1991's The Doors and even softer works such as The Buddy Holly Story. Is it any surprise that there's been no vibrant Elvis Presley story on film?

"I tend to dislike the kind of Hollywood biopic approach where you can have a movie like Walk the Line and a movie like Ray, and you can intercut them and they'd be the same movie, the only problem being one's black and one's white," Temple says. "The clichés of both stories kick in at exactly the same time in both movies. They follow the Hollywood dictum of what makes an efficient plot, and are virtually interchangeable. It reduces the magic of someone like Johnny Cash and Ray Charles to the lowest common denominator, and it's pretty appalling that that's allowed to happen."

But getting too close to a subject is just as risky, and Temple somehow evokes a loving tribute while capturing the complexity that was Strummer.

Like Dylan, he changed identities as it suited him, and Temple deftly chronicles those changes through Strummer's own words, and what at first might seem like the "usual suspects." But the twist is in the execution, as Temple places most of his interview subjects around a bonfire reminiscent of those Strummer hosted at the Glastonbury music festival, in which everyone was invited to say his peace in an artistic exchange of ideas. While critics rightly felt a bit thrown off by the technique (which Temple also employed in his recent documentary about the festival), it fits perfectly with his artistic sensibility.

"I think one of the big problems is the curse of the talking head ... in these kind of films," says Temple, a music-video maverick who also directed two documentaries about the Sex Pistols. "In this sense, the campfire was a good device for me because it had some mystery. When you light people with fire, you see their faces in the flames and they disappear. The camera is hidden behind the flames from them ... it's in the darkness. They're no longer aware that it's there after a while. You get this feeling of people telling stories and conversing rather than being grilled in some kind of spotlight.

"I also think that one of Joe's main messages was like a lot of the kind of central punk message was, really make sure that you think for yourself, and that thinking is not just a chore; it's a beautiful, liberating thing if you do it," Temple adds. "I like the idea that you have to think for a bit. Is that the prime minister of Chechnya or is it Mick Jones? Those little riddles are kind of good in a film."

Anton Corbijn also came from a visual background going into his feature-film debut, Control, a fact-based account of Ian Curtis, the lead singer for Joy Division. A renowned photographer and music-video director, Corbijn once shot photos of the band but says his personal relationship with the group ended there. Still, Control brims with intimacy even while creating a human portrait of a troubled soul. But where many biopics become subsumed in the artist's self-destructive tendencies, Ian Curtis' downward spiral earns an original portrait.

Hoping to escape the industrial crush of his hometown of Macclesfield, Curtis found solace in the music of David Bowie and the poetry of Wordsworth, both of which informed his work until he committed suicide just as Joy Division was about to make it big. Corbijn, working from the biography written by Curtis' widow, traces the singer's fall to a stifling marriage at a young age and an increasingly severe case of epilepsy.

Control will perhaps best be remembered for Corbijn's black-and-white cinematography, which captures both the ashen depression that envelopes Macclesfield and the visceral atmosphere of early Joy Division concerts in pubs and halls. That's a shame, because it is Corbijn's portrayal to Curtis' romantic and physical frustrations – made more tender by the portrayal by Samantha Morton as Curtis' wife – that gives Control its heart and its uniqueness of vision. Corbijn also deserves credit for an inspired bit of casting the lead for Curtis; Sam Riley was at the time a struggling musician who decided to return to acting more as an act of desperation.

Todd Haynes will certainly get more than his share of praise of the visual and aural feel of I'm Not There, the most recent biopic rocker of the year. Like Corbijn, Haynes has more than a passing affinity for the grainy, cinema-verite cinematography style that marked D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 groundbreaking Dylan concert-tour documentary, Don't Look Back. But like the number of Dylan personas, Haynes doesn't stop there. As a filmmaker who is used to capturing a certain era – the glam rock of the early '70s in Velvet Goldmine, the Edward Hopper colors of the '50s in Far from Heaven – Haynes outdoes himself here by employing every technique in the book to keep the atmosphere matching the changing personas of Bob Dylan. It's as if Haynes had his own personal library of period film stock, so saturated are the colors in one scene and so washed-out in another. It allows him to check every pop-cultural reference he wishes – and he wishes a lot – to properly place Dylan in his time and place.

In between we have brilliant performances by almost all of the "Dylans," most notably Cate Blanchett as the most disillusioned of the Dylans, though my personal favorite is Heath Ledger as the actor/lover Dylan, invoking the frustrated lover of Brokeback Mountain.

That Haynes may have gone overboard – did we really need Richard Gere to reference Dylan's performance in Sam Peckinah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid? – shouldn't detract from the notion that Haynes has gone where no filmmaker has gone before in taking on a rock icon. Though no one's saying Haynes should have made I'm Not There using crib notes from Ray, they are wondering if he went too far. Better that, though, than not enough, leaving Dylan and his music almost as mysterious now than before the 2 hours and 15 minutes of pure odyssey.

Or, as Temple puts it, "I think it's good to see things in different ways. It's nice to see things you're used to being used to tell a certain idea used in another way."

He was also the correct answer, D, the owner of the comment that opens the article. But he speaks for everyone, really, who made 2007 hit all the right notes.