It seems a movie about Jeff Buckley is in the process of being made. I was writing an email to a long-distance friend when thoughts of this came bubbling back up after I’d forgotten about it for a while. I’m not exactly looking forward to the day when the thing is finished and released.
Jeff’s mother, Mary Guibert, posted a message on the internet a while back. In it she talks all about how this is going to be done to Jeff’s high standards, with oodles of artistic integrity. She’s found an amazing director who’s working on talking to all the people who knew Jeff, and she’s going to make sure to capture his essence in the script. That’s all well and good, but answer me this: can you really capture who a person was in a two hour film, with an actor attempting to impersonate them? Can you condense almost thirty years of life into a hundred and twenty minutes or so? I don’t think so.
The whole concept of the biopic has always rubbed me the wrong way, and I feel it’s very rarely done well. Often an actor is chosen not because they can embody the character they’re playing, but because of how much they resemble them physically. “He looks like that dead guy he’s playing, so people will automatically accept him in the role!” Hollywood ditch-pigs cry while slapping five with their chafed genitals. And people win Oscars for this bullshit, because we do accept it.
We accept conversations that never actually took place but are dreamed up to pad out the film and make it play like a MOVIE, because it’s not like it’s supposed to be about a person’s LIFE or anything. We get a very selective view of who the subject of the film supposedly was, or rather someone else’s idea of who they were. We get hackneyed explanations for why they became who they were and did what they did.
“Hey, this guy’s brother died when he was young and he couldn’t save his life, so that automatically explains all of the pain and depression he ever felt in the years that followed. Let’s come back to that in an artsy flashback when he’s overdosing on amphetamines later in the movie, for dramatic anvil effect. We’ll have the actor show off his method acting skills by degenerating into a sobbing mess.” There’s an Oscar right there.
“Let’s focus on only one of the women in his life when there were really about seventeen of them, and make her the heroine of the story whose love ultimately redeems and saves him.” There you have the love story of the year, or at least a movie that will be billed as such, and audiences will eat it up. A shoe-in come Oscar time. A heartwarming, audience-pleasing pile of steaming shit is born! Hallelujah!
Why watch actual footage of someone being themselves, talking as themselves, and performing as themselves, when we can watch some pretty Hollywood actor imitating them and lip-syncing to the songs? Why would we want to watch a living, breathing human being when we can instead watch a cloying, sugar-coated, big budget Hollywood (or, alternately, a gritty, artistic, low-budget indie) condensation and approximation of what someone thinks an audience wants to see, maybe capturing a decimal of a percent of who the person really was in life?
The answer, quite simply, is money.
When you’re dead, a movie about your life isn’t really going to do you much good. Maybe wherever you are, whoever is with you, someone will say, “Hey, man…they made a movie about your life back in the land of the living. You wanna see it?” And then you can stand there on a cloud, or float there in the cosmos, horrified by the abysmal mess they made that tries to explain you when no one could ever really know what you thought, felt, believed, or anything that went on inside your mind, because no one can ever completely know another person. And there’s nothing you can do to set the record straight, because…you know…you’re dead.
As cool as it would be to rise from the grave and scare the shit out of people, demanding that they burn the film and all materials used to create it, that just isn’t an option. Hollywood has lied to us about ghosts too. All you can do is hope people will learn about the work you did while you were alive, form their own personal connections with it, and maybe catch a few fleeting glimpses of the real you in the process.
By the same token, why release all the best of the unreleased material Jeff recorded when you can let a little bit of it trickle out one release at a time? Because you make more money that way! People have to keep ponying up, buying every reissue and remaster that comes out for four “freshly unearthed” unreleased tracks, or a bonus DVD with eight minutes of “never before seen in this particular configuration” footage.
Sure, you can make the argument that you’re only releasing the very best of the unheard/unseen material to honour the memory of the deceased. But he’s fucking dead. He can’t tell you what he wanted people to hear. Either shit or get off the pot.
Some of the very best things Jeff did that weren’t released will probably never be made available commercially in any form. Here’s one example — a collaboration with Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins. I read about it but never thought I would get to hear it in my lifetime.
Two of the great voices in popular music working together right there. Now, is it just me, or does that completely slay everything on the posthumous Songs to No One compilation? And do you think Jeff really wanted people to hear early recordings that he thought so little of, he wrote “DISGUSTO GARBAGE” on the tapes? No. But people will keep buying this stuff, because it’s Jeff Buckley music they haven’t heard, and people who aren’t Jeff will make more money than he ever did while he was alive.
It’s like Nick Drake and the Volkswagen commercial all over again. But that’s even worse. “He suffered from crippling depression, in large part because he wasn’t even remotely commercially successful in his lifetime, and that contributed in a very real way to his death, which may or may not have been a suicide. Hey…now that he’s been dead for about thirty years and people are starting to get into his music, let’s put ‘Pink Moon’ in a commercial and make a shitload of money off of him! Who cares if it’s a song about death? BUY OUR CARS!”
In a few years there will probably be a three-CD “special edition” reissue of (Sketches for) My Sweetheart the Drunk, remastered even though it was already mastered as loud as any CD that’s out today when it was first released, with four previously unreleased four-track recordings that have been available on bootlegs for years (but they’ll be “cleaned up” to sound better), a special leather-bound book with selected diary entries, and a special Jeff Buckley guitar pick you can wear around your neck, all for the low price of $129! What a steal!
I love Jeff’s music. I would even be tempted to buy a thing like that regardless of my contempt for the process and execution, because that was the album that got me into Jeff in the first place all those years ago. But this kind of garbage is just disgusting to me. There’s a great bootleg of a show Jeff did at CBGB with just a rhythm section behind him. I think it was one of the only times he ever played “Forget Her” live, and he also played “Corpus Christi Carol”. It sounds fantastic, with good stereo separation. With a little tasteful remastering it could sound as good as any professionally recorded live album released today.
Of course, it’ll never be released commercially, because it probably wouldn’t make as much money as a hyped-up reissue of an album people already own.
I guess I should make sure I entrust my own “musical legacy” to someone I can actually trust. Not that I’ll ever achieve any amount of commercial success or recognition. But let’s say I did, hypothetically, for the sake of this argument. I have about two hundred cassette tapes of songs recorded when I was in the process of developing my lack of musical skill. Over the course of those tapes you can hear me start to figure out what I’m doing while improvising songs and then honing and refining my “musical voice”, or whatever you want to call it. They’re long tapes. Some of them run for two hours, packed with songs. There are literally thousands of original songs there that no one has ever heard. In addition to all of that, there are many CDs I’ve recorded in a more “professional” way that no one has ever heard.
If I were a somewhat successful musical artist, after I died all of these things would be a goldmine for whoever was left in charge of my estate. They could put out all of this early work a piece at a time, remaster and repackage it, have some musical scholar write the liner notes explaining how in “Asses in a World of Testicles” you can hear me developing the twisted sexual bent a lot of my lyrics would take later on and honing my craft, and check out the diminished chords and harmonic movement in the chorus! What a groundbreaking move! It tells you so much about my personality! And you would pay a ridiculous amount of money for music I was making for fun with my dad before I hit puberty, none of which was never intended to be commercially released or heard by anyone.
I’m sure a lot of people have a lot of different thoughts and feelings about this sort of thing. My line of thinking is this: make EVERYTHING available for everyone to hear, for free, or for a fee so nominal it barely even registers. Or just don’t share any of the things the artist didn’t deem worthy of release in their lifetime, and leave it at that, however slim their musical legacy may be. All or nothing.
It’ll never be that way, because money is always behind all of these decisions. But it would be nice if for once it was about the music and what the artist wanted to do with it, and not about people who had nothing to do with its creation getting rich off of someone who’s no longer in a position to do anything about it, who won’t benefit from it in any way.
Now, if they made a movie about Tim Buckley and messed with his legacy, I would break out the NERF blasters and kill everyone involved. Fortunately for me and those with a few of NERF products, Tim will never become a household name or financially viable enough to justify the biopic treatment. He was too restless and did something you should never do as an artist if you want to make money and build/keep a large following — he evolved and experimented throughout his entire career.
I could go on and on, but this is probably a good place to stop. Bitter ranting is fun, man. Sure, you can make the argument that a movie about someone like Jeff will introduce a whole new generation to his music, and that’s great. But would he really want a movie made about him at all? Somehow I don’t think so.
I guess at a certain point (i.e. when you cease to live) it stops being about what the artist would want and becomes more about what will generate revenue for a bunch of suits. I’d sooner buy a few hundred copies of Grace and give them to random people than support a movie that purports to be an exploration of the life and art of someone whose work and essence could never be adequately encapsulated in such a thing. But that’s just me. And what do I know? Maybe the movie will actually be decent, assuming it ever gets made.