Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Five movies about musicians who died young

I hope you don't mind; I gotta talk about Chris Cornell for a minute. When I think of Soundgarden, I think of John, who first introduced me to them (though I do remember hearing them on the radio in the early 90s). He's always two or three steps ahead of me musically. He was the one who first told me "Smells Like Teen Spirit" wasn't some Weird Al-like novelty song. John believed SG was the real deal. I figured he was probably right.

The first SG album I bought was Badmotorfinger, on cassette. I had initially thought the "grunge" sound was something akin to metal. Indeed, SG used to get played on MTV's Headbangers Ball. I'm still not sure what exactly defines grunge musically other than being from Seattle. Ultimately the labels don't matter. As far as SG was concerned, I was hooked right away.

Superunknown came out in 1994. Hearing the apocalyptic "Black Hole Sun" puts me in mind of the sleepaway camp I worked at in the blissful, glorious summer of '95: A-frames, canoeing in the river, hot chocolate on those cold nights in the Adirondack mountains of Massachusetts. I remember organizing a "band" of 10-year-old campers to lip-sync to "Outshined" (a cut from Badmotorfinger) on talent night. I wore a wig of fake dreadlocks as I "sang" lead.

Audioslave was a better fusion between Chris and Rage Against the Machine than I could've imagined. As for his solo stuff, it wasn't as intense, but I liked most of it, the highlights including the James Bond song "You Know My Name" from Casino Royale, and a dirge-like cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" that's almost as good as the original.

When I was much younger, the whole rock-star-dying-young concept had more... I don't wanna use the word "glamour," but it's true, in a way. Yeah, it sucks that they're dead and all, I had thought, but that made them larger than life. It added to their legend and made their music immortal. I don't think that way anymore. Chris' death was a suicide, just like his Northwest contemporary Kurt Cobain, just like way too many rock superstars over the years.

Maybe rock has lost its standing in American pop culture. Maybe it's only for old fogeys like me. God knows I hardly ever hear it anywhere near as much on the radio anymore. All I know is another of my favorite singers is dead before his time, by his own hand, and it doesn't feel cool or glamorous.

The movies have given us a number of biographies of musicians who died young. Not all of the deaths in the following examples were by suicide, but they were as shocking at the time. These films are how we remember them.

- La Bamba. The day the music died, it took Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper along with Latino guitarist Ritchie Valens in that fateful 1959 plane crash. He was a mere babe at 17! I was in eighth grade when this movie came out. The Los Lobos soundtrack was all the rage, and even if I didn't understand the words to the title track, it still rocked. Lou Diamond Phillips personified Valens perfectly, and that ending... Omigod, that ending.

- Lady Sings the Blues. Cirrhosis of the liver took the life of jazz legend Billie Holiday at 44, a life defined as much by drugs and drink as by her distinctive voice. In 1972, Diana Ross gave an Oscar-nominated performance as Lady Day in this biopic. If IMDB is to be believed, co-star Richard Pryor coached her in how to act like a drug user. I guess she couldn't have asked for a better teacher...

- Beyond the Sea. Multiple-genre crooner (and Oscar-winning actor!) Bobby Darin died of a heart condition at 37. He was portrayed by Kevin Spacey in this recent biopic. I didn't see it, but Pam did. In fact, she's a really big fan...

- Sid and Nancy. One hesitates to put the Sex Pistols' bassist in the category of "musician," but there's no doubt he contributed to the punk movement of the 70s before his death of a drug overdose at the age of 21. Truly, one of Gary Oldman's finest moments in film was as Sid in a biopic that was equal parts tragic, comedic, and just plain surreal.

- Amy. The latest member of the infamous "27 club," contemporary jazz/blues singer Amy Winehouse, was the subject of this recent Oscar-winning documentary. I've discovered more of her music through Pandora. She could've easily been one more pop diva, but she followed another path, one which gave her a much more individual sound. Like Holiday, however, Winehouse battled with inner demons before drinking herself to death, in 2011.

I've probably depressed you big time. Sorry. Here, listen to some Puffy AmiYumi. You'll feel a million times better, I guarantee it.

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

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