Rock biopics are the “Next year in Jerusalem” of movie genres. They get talked about forever and, too often, never come to pass. This week, though, there was genuine news on the Kurt Cobain front: It was announced that Oren Moverman, the gifted screenwriter-turned-director who is suddenly hot after his homefront Iraq-war drama The Messenger got three Oscar nominations, has now attached himself to the Cobain project that has been kicking around Hollywood since 2006. Moverman would be an inspired choice to bring the life of the tormented, sensitive, suicidally disaffected shaggy-slack grunge rocker to the big screen. The filmmaker has rock & roll in his blood (he co-wrote Todd Haynes’ marvelous Dylan fantasia I’m Not There), and as The Messenger proved, he has the talent to stage scenes that are present tense and alive — an essential skill when you’re trying to rediscover a subject as layered in James-Dean-in-flannel generational mythology as Kurt Cobain.
The moment I read the news, I flashed onto the handful of rock biopics that have been kicking around forever, and also the ones that I personally always dream about seeing get made. Remember when Renée Zellweger was going to play Janis Joplin? I never thought that was a very good idea (they’re both from Texas — and that’s about where the similarity ends), but with the right star a Joplin film could be electrifying; Pink was once chattered about to play her, and she could probably bring it off. Then again, it seems as if a lot of these quintessential ’60s boomer-rock-star ideas may finally be reaching their expiration date. At this point, do we really want to see some up-and-coming young actor mime the apocalyptic slither of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar mastery? A part of me would like to — and another part of me cringes at the thought. In truth, I’d much rather see a biopic of Queen’s Freddie Mercury, with his snaggle-toothed glam bravura — another movie that’s been talked about in recent years, though there are thorny music-rights issues involved. (With rock biopics, it’s always something.)
That said, maybe it’s time that we got past dreaming of film biographies of rock stars who are already so iconic that there’s no way an actor could fully compete with the real thing. Maybe we should take a cue from the movie that, to me, remains the greatest rock & roll drama ever made: Sid & Nancy (1986), the story of Sid Vicious and his doomed junkie love affair with Nancy Spungen — a film that is also, in effect, a riveting biopic of the Sex Pistols. I bring it up not only because it’s one of my all-time Top 10 desert island movies, but because part of the power of Sid & Nancy, at least when it first came out, is that the Sex Pistols and their totally messed-up, screw-loose, freak-anarchist bass player Sid — the unlikeliest hero of a rock film ever, and therefore the ultimate trash-punk anti-hero — were not so overexposed that we couldn’t still discover them in the movie. (Gary Oldman, in what remains his greatest performance, didn’t just play Sid; he became Sid.) After all these years, the punk/new-wave world is like that — it’s still a little hidden in the shadows. And that’s why the rock biopic I’d most like to see would be another one from the wrong side of the East Village gutter: the story of the Velvet Underground.
That’s them, in the photo at the top of this column, and you still have to look for half a moment to nail down who’s who, because they were true anti-stars. Except that Lou Reed, if 45 years of legend have any validity, enjoyed the distinction of being an alienated anti-rock star who was also a bigger prima donna than most of the mainstream rock artists he despised. As drama, the Velvet Underground story has it all: ego, sex, drugs, passion, mental illness, Andy Warhol, psychedelic light shows — and, of course, the gorgeous, haunted forging of “alternative” pop music.
When you hear those albums now, it still sounds, on every track, like the music is being invented as it’s played. Songs like “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs” were once thought of as doomy and subversive — tone poems from the studded-black-leather dark side. But what every true Velvet Underground fan knows is that their music was really extraordinarily grand. Songs like “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” with its somnambulant chant of excess, or the defiant tease of “Femme Fatale,” or the religiously ecstatic “What Goes On” were celebrations of a life lived so intensely that it was poised on the edge of destruction. (Those songs were made for the movies; in a sense, they already were movies.) The Velvets lived that way themselves — Reed pushed every boundary of behavior he could, and their fights were legendary — yet as much as any rock band, they found a beauty where there was none. A movie about them could do the same.
So is there any musician or band you’d love to see a biopic about?