Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Die Trying

Mutt Ploughman on two recent films about musicians.

I’ve never been delusional enough to believe that I would become a successful writer. I have also never tried to hide the fact that doing so was something I aspired to anyway. If you’ll pardon the semi-spicy verbiage, why the hell wouldn’t I? What can you possibly expect to gain without aiming high? Better yet, what do you have to lose by it? One of my favorite expressions about my own literary career is that I have always intended to die trying. You may or may not ever read one of my books. But you definitely will not hear me say I am giving up.
The music business has been a sometime fascination of mine, and the subject for some of my writings that actually have appeared in print. I probably don’t need to say why I relate to struggling or aspiring musicians. The ones that conquer all the odds on the way to massive success are very inspiring to me. The ones that struggle long and hard without ever getting there are sometimes even more so.
The Irish film director Jim Sheridan knows all about overcoming the odds. He also knows about tragedy and struggle. He is the creative force behind some of my all-time favorite films. The Boxer, a love story set in Northern Ireland, is in my personal top five. The central performance of another Jim Sheridan film, My Left Foot, delivered by the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis, is possibly the greatest I have ever seen on film. And one single shot from his beautiful and nuanced film In America – a close-up of a baby’s eye fluttering open for the first time – accounts for what may be the most moving moment I’ve ever experienced in a theater.
Sheridan is an extremely talented director and writer who as a knack for telling stories about individual souls struggling against long odds in a way that moves the audience while staying clear – I’m not exactly sure how – of sentimentality. Most of the stories he tells are either set in, or have something to do with, his native Ireland and the plight of its citizenry. Whether his characters are laboring to eke out a living on their own home turf, suffering in an English prison, or competing for a slice of the pie in the United States, they are unmistakably Irish, both in accent and in temperament. Jim Sheridan’s characters waver; they fall; but they do not stay down. It’s no accident that one of his finest films concerns a hard-fisted fighter with an oversized heart.

This celluloid history is one of the things that made his 2005 picture Get Rich or Die Tryin’, based loosely on the biography of its star, the famous and notorious rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, so striking. The idea of a rumpled, gray-haired Irishman giving direction to a muscular, street-savvy rap artist with a million-dollar smile and zero acting credentials was a fascination to cinephiles, and, I suspect, to insiders in the hip-hop community. Sheridan had made some amazing movies, to be sure, but 50 Cent was a world away from Day-Lewis, whose courageous performances made My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father and The Boxer so believable. How would the grizzled director who rose from urban poverty in Dublin make a screen presence out of the former drug dealer-turned-rapper who rose from the same in the Bronx?

As it turns out, he couldn’t. Sheridan isn’t God, after all. But even in the bottom line-driven world of cinema, there is such a thing as a noble failure. I would place Get Rich into such a category. The final product lacks a couple of things that would have been necessary to make the film more memorable.
A credible central performance, for one. As the orphaned Marcus, Jackson looks intense and compelling. He possesses a kind of natural charisma. But in the film, he is unable to shoulder the emotional weight of the story, even if it is based largely on some details from his own life – or maybe because of that. His face remains mostly impassive, no matter what the moment calls for; one becomes far too suspicious that a single tear on Jackson’s cheek during a particularly pointed scene with his childhood muse-turned adult love interest (a remarkable Joy Bryant) might have been added with an eye-dropper before cameras rolled. Another famous urban wordsmith, Eminem (who discovered 50 Cent, the rapper), was able to deliver a performance in a similarly-themed 2002 film set in Detroit, Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, within which the viewer could sense depth, turmoil, and a life-changing determination all roiling beneath the surface of his storm-tossed heart, to borrow a phrase from James Joyce. Jackson is a stone that even Sheridan’s gripping emotional sensibility couldn’t wring blood from.

The mention of 8 Mile introduces another quibble with Sheridan’s film: you’ve seen it before. There’s no disputing that 50 Cent’s personal story is remarkable, given that he survived being shot nine times in 2000, made it out of the drug culture, and was able to elevate himself in the post-Tupac universe. The re-enactment of his shooting in the film, though under somewhat different circumstances, is well-staged and horrifying, even though the audience knows it’s coming. But you feel as though you’ve seen many of the other sequences in other films. The triumphant ascendancy of the rapper onto a stage a la Hanson’s picture; ultra-violent thugs making aggressive power plays a la New Jack City or Scarface; a montage of revenge killings a la every Martin Scorcese mafia picture. Hell, there’s even a torturous payback scene that would please fans of the Saw franchise.

Much like another film that worked extra hard to spin gold from arguably straw-like talent (rather successfully), Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, the real star here is on the other side of the camera. Credit Jim Sheridan for recognizing and attempting to illuminate for us the shared humanity between poor Irish families struggling collectively for their national dignity and motherless children victimized by the drug underworld in New York City. In every frame of Get Rich or Die Tryin’, one can feel the emotional investment the director has made in telling this story. This is one DVD where watching the “making of” feature is a must, because it gives the viewer a chance to observe Sheridan guiding 50 Cent through his old Dublin neighborhood, choreographing a nasty knife-fight in a jail with his own physical stunt work, even instructing the rapper on how to express himself more effectively in the recording studio! In spite of the film’s debatable artistic success, the uncommon collaboration that produced it is special.

Get Rich or Die Tryin’ may not have made an actor out of Curtis Jackson. But the man made it out of his own story alive. And he was smart enough to put the telling of it into the hands of a visionary filmmaker who, while perhaps looking like a fish out of water on the streets he shot it on, clearly could hear and feel the steady pulse hammering between and around them, and in his film he put his finger right on to it.


On the subject of tapping into a steady beat, there’s another kind of pulsing rhythm that has been marking time for decades now, and that – contrary to popular convention – still bangs just as hard as ever. I’m talking about the brain-throttling pulse of heavy metal. And nobody knows that better than the subject of the second film I wish to discuss here – the two founding members of a band called Anvil, singer/guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, who met one another at age 14 and are now in their 50s.
Anvil: The Story of Anvil, first released in 2008 and directed by newcomer and über-fan Sacha Gervasi, is a compelling and surprisingly effective documentary about nothing less than the unwavering pursuit of a lifelong dream. It helps if you go into this film with an appreciation for the under-sung cultural legacy of heavy metal music, which peaked in the 1980s. I happen to be of the correct gender (i.e., male) and the appropriate age (I was a teenager during that glorious decade) to have acquired as much.

I have written before [hyperlink to] about my personal history as a trooper in the metal militia, and can report with all honesty that I have always resisted the inclination to denounce this heritage. What fun would that be? Maintaining one’s embrace on heavy metal requires one to keep a stranglehold on the last vestiges of juvenile bluster. My suspicion is that this is easier to accomplish for men than women. But I have not worked both sides of that particular aisle.

Another way to express the operative principle at work here is to deploy the motto from those old KISS concert t-shirts: IF IT'S TOO LOUD, YOU'RE TOO OLD.

Anvil, the documentary, opens with 1982 concert footage from an outdoor metal festival in Japan. Do not adjust your sets: people actually looked and acted like that once upon a time. The film points out that every single band participating in that show went on to sell millions of records – with one glaring exception. The viewer is introduced to Anvil doing what they did then, and have continued to do ever since, no matter who is or is not listening. The song “Metal on Metal” is performed in all its chord-crunching glory, and it becomes the musical and thematic centerpiece, illogically, to the entire film.

From there, we are transported to freezing Ontario, Canada, the hometown and current stomping grounds of Kudlow and Reiner. Kudlow works diligently delivering food to disadvantaged children as a day job, and in between stops he waxes rather hopefully about his undying rock and roll dreams. An inherent humanity and generosity of spirit shines through Kudlow’s foul-mouthed and simplistic monologues about what he has accomplished and what he still hopes to do. Reiner is revealed to be a less verbal and perhaps slightly more jaded brother in arms to Kudlow’s sometimes manic personality. But one eventually leaves the film having no doubt that “brother” is the appropriate term for both men.

Throughout the entire first half of this earnest and lovingly-crafted documentary, one’s gut instinct is to laugh at all the calamities and misfortunes that constantly saddle these aging rockers. Or, if a viewer is slightly more mean-spirited, to hurl adjectives such as “lame” and “pathetic” at the men. We witness the latest incarnation of the band, with its Spinal Tap-like turnstile of members (hardly the only nod towards the classic “mockumentary” This is Spinal Tap directed by Rob – one “b” – Reiner to appear here), survive a disastrous tour of Europe in the hands of an inept manager. We wonder how long these full-grown men with spouses and children (in Kudlow’s case) can, or should, continue to fool themselves.

I said earlier that it helps to have an appreciation of metal music, but it is far from necessary for Anvil to rock your heart. The reason for this is simple, and perceiving it is the filmmakers’ triumph. The more you witness the degrading circumstances these men battle against, and observe the way they respond to them, the more you understand that Anvil – the film, and maybe even the band itself – is not really about heavy metal music at all. At each setback they encounter, we see Kudlow physically slump as though he has taken a pounding. But his attitude towards his failures is far from a defeated one. He expresses gratitude for those who helped him try, and renews his dedication to keep going – every time.

One realizes that, all along, Kudlow has never asked for much. All he wants is an opportunity to seize the happiness he has been yearning for his entire life, and he understands that the only way he can do that is to build something worthwhile with the tools he’s been given. He’s not looking for a handout. By the time we reach the end of the film, where Anvil takes one more crack at this elusive hope in an unexpected venue, we find ourselves caring for these men in a way we never would have believed possible. You may tear up before this film is over – no kidding.

After viewing Anvil: The Story of Anvil, one inevitably recalls the fact that all of us have been given certain gifts by a generous Creator. Are we as grateful for our own as “Lips” Kudlow is for his?

Or, I could summarize all of the preceding thoughts in another way. Here is a documentary that makes just about everyone who sees it aspire to be a little more like the lead singer of Anvil, an 80s metal bastion that flamed out long ago in a blaze of obscurity. If that doesn’t say something about the accomplishment of this film, I don’t know if I have other words that can.

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