The Day the Music Hit Clear Lake, Iowa (And My Favorite Musician Movies)

by | Feb 2nd, 2009 | 6:06PM | Filed under: In My Humble Opinion

I've been so busy today with post-Super-Bowl roundups and Groundhog Day celebrations, I completely forgot that today (or rather, tonight at 1 am) is the 50th anniversary of the Day the Music Died.

For you young 'uns out there, we're talking about the 1959 small plane crash that killed musicians Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper following their appearance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Of course, the tragedy inspired Don McLean to write "American Pie," which in turn led to millions of teenagers in the '70s and '80s trying to figure out how to both slow and fast dance to the song during junior high socials. (Other rhythmic dance challenges of the day: "Come Sail Away" and "Stairway to Heaven.")

And it inspired films about two of the musicians killed: The Buddy Holly Story (1979), for which Gary Busey was nominated for an Oscar. That's right, it's Oscar Nominee Gary Busey. A few years later La Bamba attempted to repeat the feat, with Lou Diamond Phillips as young Richie Valens. In fact I've often wondered where the hell is the Big Bopper's musical biopic? "Hellooooooo, baaaaaabeeee!"

Fun facts: The plane was originally intended to be just for headliner Holly and his two Cricket bandmates, while the others rode a bus to Morehead, Minnesota. But J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson came down with the flu that night and asked one of Holly's band members if he could have his spot on the plane. Waylon Jennings agreed, giving the Bopper his seat.

Valens also flipped a coin with Holly's other bandmate for the last seat, since Valens had never flown in a small plane before. Holly infamously chided Jennings, "I hope your ol' bus freezes up," to which Jennings replied, "Well, I hope your 'ol plane crashes." Um, oops. Jennings was haunted the rest of his life by his comment. (Years later, according to Jennings, Richardson's son snuck into Jennings' tour bus to grill the country-western outlaw about what really happened to the Bopper.)

All this talk about the musical biopics inspired by the crash (plus the Grammys coming up this Sunday) got me to thinking about my own favorites from the genre–that is, movies about musicians. (Not to be confused with musicals or movies about loving music, such as Hi Fidelity, or movies with great soundtracks, like Garden State.) And when I started making up a list, I realized it splits neatly into halves: Movies purportedly based on real-life musicians, and those based on fictional bands or singers. (And a few that fall into a sort of gray area in between, as you'll see.)

Today I'll tackle the "real-life" biopics, and then Sunday will be the make-'em-ups.

So rave on right over the jump to see my list (in no particular order) and add your own favorites in the comments.

Now remember, these are my favorites, reflecting my taste and era in both both music and film. So sorry, no Ray, no Sweet Dreams, no Coal Miner's Daughter, no The Rose, no Selena, no Notorious (yet).

The wall
Pink Floyd: The Wall
(1982) — Other than
Bowie, the Beatles, and the Stones, my primary musical obsession in
high school was Floyd. (And believe it or not, I never, um… you know,
did the sort of stuff we usually associate with listening to
Floyd.) I was absolutely enthralled by the dark, melancholy, alienated
world that Roger Waters and company painted. So naturally I spent a lot
of time trying to catch repeated screenings of Alan Parker's weird,
flawed, unsettling adaptation of The Wall. (This was in the days before
easy access via home video or even premium cable.) And yes, it is a
biopic of sorts, a twisted, trippy, visually hypnotic representation
of Water's narcissistic peek into his own childhood, stardom, neuroses
and paranoias.

Grace of My Heart (1996)–The woefully underrated and underused Ileana Douglas stars as a fictional version of Carole King, who for a long time gave up her own singing career to write songs for others. My favorite scenes involve Matt Dillion doing a terrific take on Brian Wilson–the film's fake Pet Sounds Wilson songs are almost better than what eventually turned up on Smile.

8 Mile (2002) — Like Grace of My Heart, this is technically not a biopic since the characters are fictional, but who are we kidding? This is the Eminem story and it's sharp, electrifying, and inspiring. At that point, seven years ago, it seemed like nothing could stop Slim Shady. We're now stuck waiting for the comeback.

Sid and Nancy: Love Kills
(1986) — Growing up in small-town Iowa in the '70s, punk rock was about as far away as the
ocean. (Bowie worship was the best I could muster.) So Alex Cox's edgy
nihilistic story of the doomed Sex Pistols bassist was a revelation to
me–it introduced Gary Oldman, as well as Chloe Webb as his train-wreck
girlfriend/soulmate. (Webb's performance seems to have greatly and
unfortunately inspired young Courtney Love, who also appears in the
film.) Warning: If you're unfamiliar with all this, things do not end

Walk the Line (2005) — I grew up on Johnny Cash and his death was one of the few times I actually felt sad at a celebrity's passing. James Mangold's film is probably the current pinnacle of the pop music biopic (including rock, country, R&B)–it's so well done that it quickly inspired a dead-on parody (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story). I'm no great fan of either Reese or Joaquin, but both are perfect here.

Stoned (2005) — This one somewhat breaks the rule, since
it's not really much about the music, but I felt the Stones should be
represented. It's the dark, mesmerizing tale of the final hedonistic
days of Brian Jones as he lives out his exile from the Rolling Stones
in an English country house. Mick and Keith make a few appearances, but
for the most part it's about Brian's sad wasting of his immense talent.

24-Hour Party People
(2002) and Control (2007) — In Party People, Steve Coogan is frighteningly charming as Tony Wilson, the Manchester impresario who helped launch the new wave in the early '80s. Michael Winterbottom's loose, lively film tells of the rise and fall and rise and fall of Wilson and the bands he managed at Factory Records, including Joy Division, its phoenix-like resurrection as New Order, and the heart of the '90s Manchester rave scene, The Happy Mondays. Control is a much more somber (almost crushingly so) look just at Joy Division and its tortured leader, Ian Curtis.

Immortal Beloved (1994) — Let's throw in one of the older rock stars, Ludwig Von. Gary Oldman's back again, this time as Beethoven. I include it on the list because it has a scene, toward the end, that was one of the most amazing, intense, emotional experiences I've ever had in a theater. (Whenever l get lazy about getting out to see good movies in darkened theaters as opposed to living room DVDs and TV screens, I remember this example of why we sit in the dark.) It comes as Beethoven conducts the final movement of the Ninth and flashes back to a childhood night and the moment at which art and the universe collided and burned for him with terrifying enlightenment.

Velvet Goldmine
(1998) — Time to get Bowie in here. Well, not exactly Bowie, but Todd Haynes' copyright/libel safe version of the story of Bowie, Iggy, and London's glam-rock scene of the mid-'70s. Sure, it's an uneven film, but the soundtrack is amazing, featuring covers of songs from the era as well as excellent new creations meant to invoke Bowie's Ziggy Stardust style. The opening scene overflows with the wild, energy rush of being caught up in a youthful music and fashion movement, while a later scene captures perfectly how it felt to buy a new LP record, bring it home, and listen to it for the first time alone in your room, while examining the cover and feeling your musical boundaries redefined and expanded. Plus, it stars Christian Bale, Jonathan Rhys Meyers (as the Bowie stand-in), Ewan McGregor (as the Iggy Pop character), Toni Collette and Eddie Izzard.

Purple Rain (1984) — Hard to leave this one off. Again,
it's not "really" Prince's life story, but of course it is. The other
day I was somewhere and heard the title track played over the
sound system and thought, my god, this truly is an amazing, amazing rock
song. The film itself doesn't age quite as well–in part due to us all
having had, for better or worse, 25 more years of Prince–but the
performance scenes are still spine-tingling.

(1994) — The story of the Beatles in the early '60s, before the big break. More specifically of the love triangle between Stu Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee) and John Lennon (Ian Hart, who had also played him in The Hours and Times). Paul, George, and Pete are also on hand as the newly formed band tours Europe. (Ringo only has a cameo, a hint of things to come.) But the true payoff of the film is its final scene, as the band, now Stu-less, steps up to perform without his guiding creative light. Lennon starts out with Sutcliffe's belovedly awful cover of "Love Me Tender," but then tosses it aside to lead the Beatles into a roaring performance of "Twist and Shout." There is such an angry energy to that final song, a sense that the past is being burned away, and the young band is charging headlong into a very strange and unfathomable future.

2 Responses to “The Day the Music Hit Clear Lake, Iowa (And My Favorite Musician Movies)”

  1. Buck
    Posted on February 19, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Great list! No “The Doors?”

  2. Buck
    Posted on February 19, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    I think you could actually create a third category – documentary / concert films: “Gimme Shelter,” “The Song Remains the Same,” “Urgh, a Music War,” etc. I would have to have “A Hard Day’s Night” somewhere!