Why Movies About Music Transcend Their Tropes And Also Totally Rule

Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley) at the Ryman. Courtesy of NEON.

Our hero approaches the microphone tentatively, almost timidly, gazing out over the audience. In that crowd sits everyone our hero has ever known. The music begins quietly and our hero sings a song containing all of their hardships, pain, and hope for a better tomorrow.

And it is fucking awesome.

I love movies about struggling musicians. Some of them, like The Blues Brothers, are really funny and full of disastrous gigs and car chases and their soundtracks kick ass. Others, like Hustle and Flow, are gritty and full of life’s grim realities and sorrow. And their soundtracks kick ass. A lot of those movies are about real musicians who are famous — Ray, La Bamba, Walk The Line — and those movies are different because they have the added ingredients of a rise to fame and a fall from grace and a redemption, plus the existing cultural presence of their protagonists. And their soundtracks kick major ass.

But my favorite subset of these movies don’t really have those ingredients, because there is no height to fall from. My favorite kind of music movie is about women who dream of singing. There’s a bunch of these and I’m going to talk about three.

  1. Málmhaus (Metalhead) (2013)

If you’re looking for landscapes that evoke the harshness, the isolation, and the epic scope of heavy metal, you could do worse than the Icelandic countryside, which is where Metalhead takes place. The main character is a girl named Hera who, at the beginning of the movie, watches helplessly as her older brother is killed in a gruesome farming accident.

That doesn’t really quite convey the horror of it. Basically, he’s pulling a plow behind his tractor, and he hits a hole in the field, gets thrown from his seat and it’s implied (with like a lot of blood) that he is then scalped when his long hair gets caught in the drive shaft. It is gnarly.

Soon after, as a way of mourning and coping with the trauma, Hera begins to assume her brother’s identity as a metalhead, hanging his posters in her room, listening to his records, playing his (seriously choice) Gibson Les Paul, and wearing his (also totally sick) leather jacket. She also copes with her trauma by becoming a raging drunk and doing things like stealing her neighbors’ farming equipment and driving them into things in the middle of the night. At one point she tries to seduce a priest. If the story wasn’t soaked through with pain and sorrow, all that stuff would probably read as pretty awesome.

Meanwhile, Hera’s parents (who she still lives with) tend to their cows and bottle up their feelings so tight you can sense that they might explode at any minute. The ’90s roll around and the scourge of black metal, with its murders and church burnings, hit the nightly news, and Hera is immediately hooked. She starts wearing corpse paint and writing songs, and that leads us to one of the best things about any movie about struggling musicians, and that’s THE MONTAGE.

First of all, this song rips, and secondly I would kill to have a barn to record demos in.

So often in these movies, music is seen as the way out, an avenue by which the protagonist might escape their confining home life. That’s not really true in Metalhead. Hera does mail out tapes of her demo, but the extreme isolation of her farming village feels inescapable. Time and again, we see her sitting at a bus stop that would take her to Reykjavik, only to let the bus pass her by. At one point she does run away… but across a brutal icy landscape to a remote shack where she nearly freezes to death (totally kvlt). Leaving never really feels like an option.

One feature that Metalhead shares with other movies of its ilk is that WOW do her parents just hate the shit out of her music. The trope of the Disapproving Parent (which hit something of a peak with Armin Mueller-Stahl’s controlling father in 1996’s Shine) runs through many of these films, but given that Metalhead is about, well, metal, it is particularly pronounced here. What makes Metalhead unique though is the family’s shared pain. They all lost an enormous part of themselves when Hera’s brother was killed. Hera is acting out and being extremely antisocial and self-destructive, but her mom and dad’s stoicism is shown as almost equally deleterious. They stuff their feelings down so hard that they can barely speak to each other.

I would give a spoiler alert here, but the movies I’m talking about are what they are, and so like OF COURSE they end with our hero approaching a microphone tentatively and singing a song containing all of their hardships and pain in a climactic number which OF COURSE whips ass. And Metalhead delivers exactly that.

Shout out to the filmmakers for the extremely accurate use of MXR and Boss pedals.

And so through their daughter’s, erm, unorthodox talent show a family is brought back together by accepting that pain is something that must be faced honestly — not bottled up or reveled in — but acknowledged openly and dealt with if it is to be assuaged. Hail Satan.

2. Teen Spirit (2019)

My god pop music is awesome, right? Elle Fanning’s singing vehicle Teen Spirit harnesses the innate rags-to-riches narrative of American Idol and that whole genre of TV singing competitions and drops it in a grimy village on the Isle of Wight.

I watched this movie on a plane and if you can be slightly drunk at 30,000 feet when you watch this, I’d recommend it.

The trailer tells you just about everything you need to know — shy immigrant’s kid with a golden voice (and Elle Fanning’s perfect elfin features, natch) has one shot to not miss her chance to blow this opportunity which comes once in a lifetime, woah. The Disapproving Parent is there in her single mother, and we get another great trope of these films, the Eccentric Teacher. Here, Elle Fanning’s Eccentric Teacher is a washed up, alcoholic former opera star played by Croatian actor Zlatko Buric. It is not always the case, though it is always better when it is, that the Eccentric Teacher is also seeking redemption and just might find it through their energetic and hopeful young protege. In this case, Buric’s Vlad is estranged from his daughter or something…divorced… I dunno, the guy’s got problems, which we see represented by his hair.

The plot of Teen Spirit is more or less a device to get us from one song to the next, like an album with super-long skits. There’s some stuff about a budding romance with another of the competition’s stars, and the dangling carrot of a record contract being at odds with her loyalty to the human stack of rumpled jackets that is her Eccentric Teacher. You know, normal stuff. But if you’re a fan of slightly flinty-voiced house-inflected Top 40 (and I am) that’s honestly enough. The soundtrack features songs by Ellie Goulding, Robyn, Tegan and Sara, and Annie Lennox, among others and kind of slaps on its own. To be completely open with you, I was sold on this movie from the moment I learned that the soundtrack included Fanning singing an unreleased Carly Rae Jepsen song (and if you don’t know how I feel about Jepsen, have I got an essay for you) and was determined to like it and indeed I did, slightly drunk on that airplane. It was fun. And it also delivers on the climactic musical number expressing all of Elle Fanning’s perfectly elfin angst, fear, and budding confidence.

Shout out to Teen Spirit’s audio engineers and Delta’s flight attendants.

3. Wild Rose (2018)

Black metal has the rebelliousness and pop music has the charisma and glamour, but if you want to tell a hard-scrabble story about making it against the odds, you need hip hop. And if you can’t pull that off, then you need country.

Hands down the best delivery of the epithet “ballbag” in recent memory.

Jessie Buckley’s Rose-Lynn Harlan just served a year in prison after getting pinched for attempt to distribute heroin (choose life, kids). And with her freshly-affixed ankle monitor, she somewhat reluctantly reenters her life as a single mother while whole-heartedly reentering her dream of making it as a country singer in Nashville.

In addition to the Disapproving Parent, Wild Rose introduces something that neither of the other movies I’ve talked about here have truly had: stakes.

Rose is raising two kids she had before she’d turned 18, and they’ve grown to depend on their grandmother while Rose was in prison. Every single move she makes either toward or away from her dreams affects her kids — whether she’s dropping them off with a different ill-suited neighbor to watch them while she runs off to band practice, or whether she’s using her nightly house arrest to read over their homework and learn who these people are who she had to abandon when she was incarcerated. The tenuous balancing act between following your dreams in hopes of bettering your situation and providing a stable home feels very real here. All three of these movies contrast the drudgery of everyday life with the transcendence of making music, but Wild Rose takes the Neglected Children of, say, Walk The Line, and actually gives them something to do aside from clutching some caretaker’s apron strings. They give the story emotional heft, so that when Rose-Lynn tentatively approaches the microphone in front of the crowd full of everyone she’s ever known, she can belt out that there’s “no place like home,” and have that worn old sentiment actually mean something.

And that’s what is so fulfilling about these movies and their predictable tropes and formulaic plot-lines, right? The tragedy and the aftermath, the recording montage into the would-be big break… they’re like chord changes. We get the resolve of moving from the first to the third and back to one, into the bridge of the third act complication, first verse, second verse, and finally the climax. These movies mimic the structure and — when they work — the emotional payoff of a good song. In Wild Rose, our hero sings her song of pain and hope for a better tomorrow and even though songs are just noises and movies are just pictures, they feel real because of what they tell us about ourselves. We all have to live in a world of half-measures, of being between working towards a dream and working toward stability. But if we can get it together just long enough to nail the last chorus and make it to the coda, then for a moment we may get to have both.

An Atlanta-based writer, musician, and podcast producer. mykejohns.com