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I Guess White Boys Feel It More: On Music Biopics

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009
The way that the films Notorious, 8 Mile, Walk The Line, and Ray lead up to scenes of performances shows the remarkable and subtle endurance of troubling racial stereotypes and ideals.

I’ve done a bad bad thing
Cut my brother in half

—Little Dewey Cox in Walk Hard

The new millenium has been kind to biopics of musicians. We have, most of us, seen the blockbusters, including Walk the Line, Ray, and Notorious, and these have been accompanied by more minor films like Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, Cadillac Records, and Jenna Maroney’s unforgettable Sing Them Blues, White Girl: The Jackie Jomp-Jomp Story. Some of the recurrent themes of these films, such as drug abuse, became so predictable that they were easily satirized in Walk Hard.

But in thinking about how these films diverge, after finally reaching the (somewhat confused) end of Notorious, I realized that in both the earlier film 8 Mile, the semi-fictional story of Eminem’s life, and in Walk the Line, the white performer comes to a moment of emotional overload that threatens his very ability to get on stage. In Cash’s case, this is because he is re-living his brother’s death; in Eminem’s case, it is because he has to face a hostile, mostly African-American crowd as a white rapper.

By contrast, in their respective films, neither Ray Charles nor Biggie experience this kind of stage fright. Instead, particularly in Notorious, there is an utterly natural transition from the private work of practicing and writing to the public arena of performance. This is even the case despite Ray’s having undergone, like Cash, the death of a brother while very young.
At the heart of this difference are problems of authenticity. For the white performers, the “backstage” moment of emotion re-assures the audience that the art they are making is authentic. Cash feels so darn bad about his brother’s death that it makes perfect sense for him to travel to Folsom Prison, there to perform a song about a man he (didn’t kill) in Reno just to watch him (not) die. Eminem is so tortured and vulnerable without the beat to sustain him that he deserves to do black music so selfishly, and to use it to get himself wealthy.

The point here is not to criticize Cash or Eminem, both of whom have done landmark work. Rather, it is to observe that these strategically placed tantrums obscure the imaginative leap involved in creating universal art. We don’t think Bruce Springsteen actually is Johnny 99, but the character lives and breathes regardless. Eminem is a great artist not because he’s remained the factory worker from Detroit, but because, over the course of several albums, he’s led us through the dizzy territory of being too many people at once, and nobody.

When Biggie steps up to the mic to record “Juicy”, the film presents it as though he is bringing his “street realness” to the silky, Sean Combs approved sample. In fact, if one considers what Biggie’s life was like at the time, most of “Juicy” is an act of pure, indulgent fantasy. He could barely afford to feed his family, which is a long way from sipping champagne when you’re thirsty. Later, when he actually had everything he’d been chasing, the songs were both more ironic (“Mo Money Mo Problems”) and, compared to his blistering first album, a tad anemic.

So, on the one hand, you have white performers who adopt fictions (of being black or of being a murderer) in order to express what would otherwise be an inexpressible storm of “real” emotion, and on the other, you have black performers who simply need an avenue for dishing up their “realness” to the world. But this demand for authenticity is misguided, and so is the reaction against it. TI vs. TIP was a casualty of T.I.‘s guilty conscience about not being real, as was The Life of Chris Gaines. Meanwhile, flights of sheer, baroque fantasy like the Decemberists’ recent album The Hazards of Love suffer from an off-putting hermeticism. The characters talk to each other, but not to us, because they don’t reflect, unlike a successful piece of pop song fiction, who the singer wants to be, regardless of who they are. T.I. got back on track with his latest album because he succumbed to a new fantasy: he now wants to be a preacher.

In Walk the Line, Sam Phillips tells Cash, “If you was hit by a truck, and you was lyin’ in that gutter dyin’, and you had time to sing one song, one song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth, one song that would sum you up…” It’s a powerful statement, but it might mislead us into thinking about the sum of our experiences, when art calls for the sum of our desires. Tyler Durden has it right when he puts a gun to the head of a convenience store clerk named Raymond.

“The question,” he says, “RAYMOND, is WHAT DID YOU WANT TO BE?”

* * *

PS. If you have any doubt that Cash wanted to be the killer in “Folsom Prison Blues”, check out your local karaoke night. Somewhere, right now, a guy is singing that song, and when he gets to the part about shooting a man in Reno, the audience will go nuts.

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