Young Man With A Horn(1950); Michael Curtiz, director.

Now THAT’S a picture!

Kirk Douglas blows arpeggios, kisses dames and ruins his health on the sauce in this loose adaptation of Bix Biederbecke’s life. (Fact: Bix Beiderbecke drank himself to death at the age of 28 on the same block in Queens that my friend Jason is now raising his two kids. There’s a plaque and everything.)

The codes of 1950 cleaned this movie up a bit, but this is still the first big Hollywood production to tell the story of a “jazz man.” Pianist and composer Hoagy Carmichael (who knew Beiderbecke) plays a supporting role and Harry James took all of Kirk Douglas’ solos. What the film does well is explain how the early pioneers of jazz used improvisation to create a new artform. Listen to Bix Biederbecke change our culture at the 1:03 minute mark in this clip here. (That ZZZZZZZIP! At 1:31 is a spiritual cousin to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.)

Here’s the whole film.

Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993); Francois Girard, director.

Glenn Gould was a classical pianist who achieved rock star status in the 1950s. (He wasn’t the only one – If he was the Beatles, Van Cliburn was the Rolling Stones!)

Gould was an eccentric (and a Canadian!) and his most famous recording was of Bach’s Goldenberg Variations, which breaks out into thrity-two short bursts. This film is a barrage of short moments, some comic, some merely impressionistic, some mixing in animation or documentary, that tries to represent the essence of this creative titan.

The title of this film also represents one of the most obscure jokes ever on The Simpsons. It’s also on YouTube in full.

Control (2006); Anton Corbijn, director.

When Control came out I refused to see it. I generally find biopics to be a bore, and Walk The Line and Ray, both fine, were testing my patience. Add to this the fact that the life and suicide of Ian Curtis was already covered in the very entertaining Steeve Coogan vehicle 24 Hour Party People. (On top of that, I always found the band that came after Ian Curtis’ death, New Order, to be more interesting!)

So I missed it. And it ended up on all my friends’ top 10 lists.

The thing is this: it may not have been a necessary film at the time, but it is really a remarkable portrait of depression within a unique context, and it is absolutely gorgeous to look at. I almost think it works better if you think of Joy Division as a fictitious band.

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988); Todd Haynes, director.

AND

Masked and Anonymous (2003), Larry Charles, director.

We’re closing with two because these are obscure films that I think are worth seeing. . .even if I don’t actually consider them “good.”

Superstar you may know about – it is the biopic about Karen Carpenter done up with Barbie dolls. It was never released because the Carpenter family blocked it, but thank God for the Internet. It kick-started Todd Haynes’ career and, for that alone, you should check it out.

Something else you may not know is that Bob Dylan has made quite a few movies – and I mean other than the D.A. Pennebaker doc Don’t Look Back. Masked and Anonymous, a reaction of sorts to the Iraq War, is a giant mess (as is evident in the trailer) but has a number of really fun scenes. Who knows, Dylan was always years ahead of everyone else – maybe in a decade we’ll realize that it is brilliant? It also has some terrific performance moments, like this one-take version of “Cold Irons Bound.”

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