If cinema is the seventh art, music is surely one of those first six. (In case you were wondering, music clocks in at #2 in Zhou Dynasty Chinese education, and it's #4 of Hegel's “Lectures on Aesthetics”—thanks Google!)
Music is frequently one of the most memorable parts of a film, but what about when the film is about music? Better yet, what about when the film is about that character we know all too well in life: the mopey, misunderstood, fatalistic, tortured sad-sack musician? The one blindly convinced that the cosmos is purposefully conspiring to keep his melodies obscured from the masses? The one feverishly spamming your Facebook with gig announcements at puke-stained Irish pubs in obscure, transit-resistant neighborhoods? These toiling troubadours now have a new patron saint—a cinematic icon to represent their struggle to the wider world. His name is Llewyn Davis, a character worthy of both sympathy and scorn, played by Oscar Isaac in the Coen brothers' fantastic new film “Inside Llewyn Davis” (read our review here).
'ILD,' derived from trace elements in the life of '60s folk revival hero Dave Van Ronk, is a symphony of the sad sack. The Coens set Davis on a sloshy journey in wet shoes to face rejection and hardship, much of which he can only blame on his bad attitude and poor business sense. Oh, if only he'd bend a little, oh, if only he were nicer, oh, if only he stopped for a minute before he signed away the royalty agreement on the silly pop tune. Why must so many who try to lift us through song be so steeped in misery, themselves? To give poor, doomed Llewyn Davis company, here are a dozen of the great musical sad sacks from film history. We've arranged them alphabetically, because surely they would all take issue with where they landed in an ascending or descending list.
In Vienna, the city of composers, there is an Italian restaurant called Salieri's. I can't imagine anyone in their right mind ever going there. “Honey, what I can really go for tonight is some sub-par, run-of-the-mill, uninspired grub. A real mediocre meal.” To throw further salt in the maligned Maestro's eyes, Salieri's is visible the moment you walk out of the Haus der Musik, a marvelous modern museum dedicated to Vienna's unparalleled place in the history of Western Classical canon. And you can believe there's an enormous section devoted to the one “Loved by God,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Milos Forman's “Amadeus,” adapted from Peter Shaffer's play, is no biopic of Mozart, it is a study of Salieri's envy. F. Murray Abraham's tormented Antonio Salieri, a decent man who only wants to bring beauty into the world (and receive a modicum praise, wealth and prurient affection in return, let's be honest) has his world destroyed upon meeting Mozart—impudent, ungrateful and, in Salieri's eyes, unworthy of the talents which come so naturally to him. A masterpiece on every level (and so quotable), Forman's film splits your sympathies between the epicurean Mozart and the dour, rage-filled Salieri. In the end, of course, both are miserable, but Salieri, whose name has become synonymous with mediocrity, is the one with the wing in heaven for everyone who lacks the chops to jam with Hendrix and Trane.
My personal introduction to Joy Division came via an older kid in school in a trenchcoat who said, and I swear I'm not making this up, “you think The Cure are depressing? Listen to this!” Anton Corbijn's biopic of Joy Division's Ian Curtis is a surprisingly effective portrait of the group's short career. Curtis, ever the ur-emo, drew his sadness from a real place and the film's black-and-white cinematography go a long way to evoke the bleak Manchester, U.K. setting. Each of Curtis' seizures, stage-sweats and sobs are, lets face it, fetishized to the point that even his embarrassing dance moves take on dramatic heft. The film ends with Curtis hanging himself, though not while standing on a block of ice that slowly melted—that's an urban myth that, when you think about it, is absolutely preposterous.
“The Devil and Daniel Johnston” (2005)
We're gonna go easy on the docs or else we'll be here all day. But Jeff Feuerzeig's account of Austin, Texas' Patron Saint of Strange is an emotional workout that, in addition to many other things, is about a sad sack musician. Daniel Johnston, like Ian Curtis before him, has real mental problems that we don't mean to treat flippantly. What's tragic about him, however, is how he's devoted so much of his life's work pining away for an unrequited love who spent decades unaware that these (considered by many) masterpieces even existed. There is much debate as to whether Johnston's popularity is due to audiences making fun or taking advantage (or maybe just staring at a traffic accident), but the film goes to great lengths to show this outsider artist's innate songwriting ability. And while Johnston does have a sizable group of fans, the film's summation, focused on his worried, aging parents, is absolutely heartbreaking.