Pop goes to the movies
Pop goes to the movies -- Noteworthy biopics on the glamour and tragedy of pop-music stardom, from ''The Buddy Holly Story'' to ''Great Balls of Fire!''
Coal Miner's Daughter
Curiosity about pop stars never seems to wane. Even adults who no longer listen to old records still hunger for the life stories of the idols of their youth. Documentaries celebrating musicians from Elvis (see feature story on Presley) to Charlie Parker are widely available on tape. Such stars (especially those from rock’s formative years) are also frequently the subjects of dramatized biographies. Here are the most noteworthy biopics on tape that feed our fascination with the glamour and tragedy of pop stardom.
Sweet Dreams (1985)
Patsy Cline, who died in 1963, was part country, part rock & roll, and all woman. Cline’s tumultuous marriage to Charlie Dick is the central issue in Sweet Dreams, a film as lusty, rough, and spirited as the great singer herself. Director Karel Reisz downplays the particulars of Cline’s success in favor of incisive character development, letting the original recordings stand for themselves rather than serve as career signposts. As Cline, Jessica Lange is radiant; Ed Harris manages to make Charlie both lovable and despicable. A-
The Buddy Holly Story (1978)
At first glance, The Buddy Holly Story has everything a great rock & roll movie should have. Oscar-nominee Gary Busey vanishes into the character of Holly, credibly investing him with personality and charm. He also does an utterly convincing job of singing and playing the guitar. The film keeps the cliches to a minimum, neatly balancing Holly’s private and professional lives. Just one thing is missing from this serious, intelligent film: the truth. Not only are names and events altered, but producer-manager Norman Petty — a pivotal figure in Holly’s recording career — is omitted entirely from the story. That aside, this prototype for quality and musical depth gets purty, purty, purty, purty close to the real Buddy Holly. B+
Great Balls of Fire (1989)
Once a serious contender for Elvis’ throne, piano-pounder Jerry Lee Lewis has lived a more eventful, tragic life than most fictional characters. Great Balls of Fire!, a lighthearted romp directed by Jim McBride (The Big Easy), glosses over Lewis’ orneriness for a fanciful blend of inaccurate, sanitized biography and Bye Bye Birdie-style musical comedy. It covers the years 1956 to 1959, the period when Lewis first found stardom and then lost it in the wake of public outrage over his possibly bigamous third marriage, to Myra Gale Brown, a 13-year-old cousin. Winona Ryder is wonderful as the naive child bride. Dennis Quaid, as Lewis, mugs and struts in a colorfully unreal caricature, miming to new Jerry Lee renditions of classic tunes. The film’s inclusion of venerable black artists to show the roots of Lewis’s style is one of its merits, as is a fine supporting cast that includes Michael St. Gerard as an embittered Elvis. B-
La Bamba (1987)
Great music, shame about the movie. Little is widely known about the brief life of Ritchie Valens (né Valenzuela), the talented teenager who died in the 1959 plane crash that also killed Holly. This fond but stupid portrait doesn’t add much. Los Lobos’ recreation of the music is killed, but the corny script fills this simplistic teen romance-cum-family drama with inanities. As the amiable Mexican-American who realized his wildest dreams, Lou Diamond Phillips tries hard but is upstaged by Esai Morales, who plays Ritchie’s half-brother. C+
Coal Miner’s Daughter
Loretta Lynn’s autobiography is the basis for this slow-moving account of her marriage and rise from poverty in rural Kentucky to the top of the country music world. With little concern for dates and details, the film makes much of Lynn’s hard life prior to her singing career. (Levon Helm shines as her coalmining father.) Once Lynn becomes a superstar, the hits zoom by — until the pressures of touring lead to a collapse. Not to worry. After some rest and relaxation on the farm, it’s time for a comeback and happy ending. Sissy Spacek, who won an Oscar for the role, does all her own singing; Tommy Lee Jones is convincing as the macho jerk who grows into a supportive husband. Beverly D’Angelo also does her own singing, but she makes a second-string Patsy Cline. An A for effort, but a D for lack of depth. This is a superficial, uncritical moving poster for faithful fans. C+
Coal Miner's Daughter