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Rocking in a hard place 

How 2007 became the year cinema got the music right

(Note: Includes updated links to reviews of Honeydripper and Once.)

Trivia quiz: Which director said the following ...

"I think cinema is what you aim for, whether it's a documentary or it's a fictional film. I'm interested in cinema as an art form, and I don't have any distinction, really, as long as I make it in those terms. Cinema implies adventure, it implies not working in a kind of bureaucratic, TV kind of context. When you make a documentary, you're telling your version of someone's life. It's a fiction, anyway."

Was it ...

A) Todd Haynes, I'm Not There

B) Anton Corbijn, Control

C) A.J. Schnack, Kurt Cobain: About a Son

D) Julien Temple, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

E) Julie Taymor, Across the Universe

The literal answer is at the end of the article, but the actual answer is it could have been any one of these filmmakers, who already have made 2007 (or even just this fall) the time when rock 'n' roll movies consistently became a thing of audacity, beauty, originality and passion. Critically speaking, each one has more than one flaw, and a cynic could argue that none is a masterpiece.

But this may be the year that showed making movies about rock 'n' roll – particularly some of its most iconic figures – need not be overburdened by formula, deification or condescension. It searches for greater truths, however elusive, however elliptical, and never settles for easy answers.

Simply put, this is the year cinema rocked the hardest, and the best.

Most of them have been either documentary or narrative-feature biographies – the biopic, if you will, though I wonder if any of the filmmakers like the term – chronicling the lives of the great icons of the past four decades. There is Control, photographer-turned-director Anton Corbijn's fictionalized account of the late Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis; Julien Temple's Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, about the late, great Clash frontman; Kurt Cobain: About a Son, A.J. Schnack's documentary about the late Nirvana leader; and Haynes' I'm Not There, capturing the many lives of Bob Dylan.

It's tempting to throw in Across the Universe, Julie Taymor's musical based on the music of the Beatles; even if it's not a biography per se. The film is an aural and visual feast swimming (and almost drowning) in a sea of Rent-meets-Up With People musical optimism that connects the group to its generation.

And the year's not even over yet; we still have yet to see Jim Brown's documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song or John Sayles' latest, Honeydripper, a fable about a juke joint in 1950s Alabama. (Glastonbury, Julien Temple's chronicle of the famed music festival, was released on DVD in June. Once, John Carney's commercially overlooked but enthralling Irish folk-rock musical, will be released on DVD Dec. 18.)

Together, these movies just may have changed the way we look at rock musicians, at their music, and how the two are related. Not two years removed from the likes of Walk the Line and Ray, rock movies may have found a glorious new rhythm.

They've done it with nonlinear storytelling, with stunning set pieces, brilliant acting and bold, even risky decisions – from Haynes' multiple characters and Temple's interviews by campfire to Schnack's focus away from Cobain's image and music and Corbijn's photographer passion for the cinema verite grains of black-and-white.

Perhaps the greatest strength of all of these movies is their ability on various levels to tap into the nature of persona and how important it is to the rock musician. Todd Haynes' approach is by far the boldest and riskiest in trying to convey how much Bob Dylan sought to continually shed his skin.

This desire to keep moving forward – call it maturation or evolution, call it escape – runs through practically every other film. Temple captures Joe Strummer's restlessness throughout his life and career, partly by revisiting his Dylanesque transformation from busker to rocker and from career pinnacle to wilderness years. Schnack seemed just as interested in Kurt Cobain's early fascination with arena rock and the Beatles as he was Cobain's eventual, counterintuitive but genius cramming of big rock through a punk-rock prism.

And while the obvious temptation is to search out Cobain's persona through careful studies of his face, interviewing the people who knew and loved him, and rifling through Nirvana's musical catalogue, Schnack made a pivotal artistic decision that had many critics scratching their heads. He matched the simplicity of Cobain's words – culled from 25 hours of interview tape courtesy of Come As You Are author/Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad – with seemingly countless sweeps, pans and other shots of the cities of Cobain's Pacific Northwest world. Where other directors might have settled the gaze of their lens on the rehearsal rooms, studios and nightclubs where Cobain and his bandmates perfected their craft, Schnack settled for contemporary images of an alternately industrial and natural region complete with belching smokestacks and soaring birds. Cobain may be revealing on audiotape but remains a cipher on film, reduced to occasional black-and-white photographs (mostly seen from behind, on stage).

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