Saturday, April 17, 2010

Music Movies with Abe: When You’re Strange & Who Do You Love

When You’re Strange: Directed by Tom DiCillo
Who Do You Love: Directed by Jerry Zaks
Released April 9, 2010

These two films have so much in common, but they couldn’t be more different. Both take their titles from the name of a song and are just as much about a style of music as a specific musician or band. Both feature the story of an executive who took a chance on something or someone no one else believed in and emerged on the other side smiling, and both narratives lead up to an untimely death which cut short what might otherwise have been an endless tale. Both movies base themselves on recent historical figures in the music world, though “When You’re Strange” is a documentary and “Who Do You Love” is a dramatic reimagining of real-life personalities.

Where the two films start to diverge relates to what they’re trying to accomplish. “When You’re Strange” is subtitled “A Film About the Doors,” chronicling the meteoric rise of the rock band. “Who Do You Love” was originally titled “Chess,” saving its focus for the man who helped spread the reach of the blues to the rest of the country rather than the musicians who played it. In this case, it’s a definitive disadvantage for the latter film, because Chess as a character isn’t anywhere near as interesting as the musicians he represented, and featuring so many different artists for such brief periods of time when they interacted with Chess doesn’t do any of them justice. “When You’re Strange” devotes an immense amount of screen time to lead singer Jim Morrison, but it also makes sense since he was the true star of the band, and the movie does an appropriate job of filling in the biographies of the other members as well.

Taken from a standpoint of providing worthwhile education about the musicians in question, “When You’re Strange” is a marvelous success while “Who Do You Love” doesn’t quite get it right. “When You’re Strange” dives in with the members of the Doors before they were famous and sticks with them through their rise in popularity right up until Morrison’s shocking death at a young age. “Who Do You Love” simply plucks characters out of oblivion for minutes and scenes at a time and then tosses them right back into the ether, choosing instead to closely follow Chess and his own downward spiral. Compared with “Cadillac Records,” the 2008 film featuring the same story and characters, “Who Do You Love” is hardly an improvement. The earlier film, however flawed, provides a far more complex and informative history of the music industry and the performers involved. Alessandro Nivola tones down Adrien Brody’s overenthusiastic turn to the extreme, interpreting Chess as an inconsolably grumpy and gruff unsympathetic soul. David Oyelowo delivers the only memorable performance in the newer film as Muddy Waters, and like Jeffrey Wright in the first film, the writing is nowhere near on the same level as his talent.

Comparing a feature narrative film with a documentary isn’t exactly fair, but there is a stark difference in the effectiveness of the two movies that goes beyond their formats. The sharp editing employed in “When You’re Strange” helps to reveal the downturn of the volatile Morrison and the rollercoaster ride experienced by the Doors. “Who Do You Love” spends more time blending dramatic music with contemplative facial expressions to drive home the same point without achieving the same desired effect. “When You’re Strange” feels like an opportunity to get to know the Doors personally, while “Who Do You Love” is more of an unfriendly meeting with the talent’s manager. Seeing the band up close and in action is far more fulfilling.

When You’re Strange: B+
Who Do You Love: C-

1 comment:

G1000 said...

I hate the Doors, so "When You're Strange" has no interest to me. If you're looking for an excellent music film, try Martin Scorcese's Rolling Stones concert flick "Shine a Light".

Also, "Kick-Ass" was good. Not great, but pretty good.