Doomed divas: cinema’s obsession with short-lived songbirds

Mike McCahill

With the recent crop of documentaries such as Amy, Janice: Little Girl Blue and, most recently, Whitney: Can I Be Me, Mike McCahill ponders our culture’s morbid fascination with divas who lived fast and died young.   

They wither before our gaze. If this week’s new documentary Whitney: “Can I Be Me?” is anything to go by, the cinema’s obsession with the lives—and, more significantly, the premature deaths—of doomed singers remains very much intact.

Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s uncompromising account of the tragic demise of Whitney Houston (1963-2012) follows close on the heels of a pair of 2015 releases detailing the downfalls of other short-lived songbirds: Amy, commemorating Amy Winehouse (1983-2011), and Janis: Little Girl Blue, on Janis Joplin (1943-1970). We might ask: why this enduring fascination? Where does it come from? And isn’t it, on the whole, a little morbid?

Historians could tell us the cinema has never lacked for female martyrs: the lineage runs from 1928’s silent The Passion of Joan of Arc through Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie to the heroines of Thelma & Louise.

It took just forty years for the movies to arrive at A Star is Born, and with it (and each subsequent remake) the idea that the entertainment industry might provide an especially prominent arena for such woes: within these circles, the women suffer not in the shadows, but the spotlight, obliged to slap a smile over their pain and grief to ensure that the show goes on. The star of 1954’s Star, Judy Garland (1922-1969), knew this routine better than most.


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Many familiar tropes were established in this first wave of showbiz stories. These were women at the mercy of male executive power, controlling lovers, and a press slavering to eat them alive. Yet they’ve re-entered circulation with the recent wave of music documentaries, reminding us how popular fictions are often rooted in stark fact.


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There are technical explanations for this wave—the growth of “event cinema” and Dolby sound systems capable of reproducing the live experience, BBC4’s Friday night scheduling—but it boils down to audience and filmmaker curiosity: we want to know why these women were consumed, in the hope the answer might bring us closer to them—or spare the lives of others.

 

 

"A documentary became part of a process that allowed its audience to grieve while reminding us how lucky we were to have witnessed such a singular talent" 

 

 

And so there was Amy, the breakout hit that launched a mini-genre, much as director Asif Kapadia’s previous Senna fuelled several movies about men speeding towards their grave. Amy was elevated by the acute sensitivity it displayed around its subject: Kapadia acknowledged Winehouse’s dependency issues, and recognised that this volatile mix of bad choices and impulses was partly responsible for the art that came out of this brief and troubled life.

He framed that art, however, as though in the context of a memorial concert or vigil. A documentary thus became part of a process that allowed its audience to grieve while reminding us how lucky we were to have witnessed such a singular talent.

Whitney, by contrast, fades down its subject’s ebullient music to sound out some dark behind-the-scenes struggles. Broomfield, the investigator behind 1998’s Kurt & Courtney and 2002’s Biggie and Tupac, spends these 90-odd minutes uncovering copious evidence of Houston’s low self-esteem, a personality flaw compounded by claims of nepotism and musical inauthenticity, and the philandering of hubby Bobby Brown.

That it is a far tougher watch than Amy can be attributed to its unblinking study of Houston’s more questionable choices: there’s a grim irony in hearing that the star of The Bodyguard fired her own minder after he raised concerns the singer had fallen in with the wrong crowd.

Of course, there have been exceptions to this rule: no-one would pick up a guitar or enter a recording booth otherwise. 2013’s stirring The Punk Singer detailed how indie queen Kathleen Hanna negotiated both constitutional and institutional challenges to raise a whole new generation of riot grrls aloft on her shoulders; 2015’s Mavis!, a homage to soul survivor Mavis Staples, was jubilatory enough to merit that exclamation mark.

That we have an upcoming portrait of Grace Jones to look forward to similarly underlines that it's still possible for female creatives to pass through the showbiz machine with artistic credibility and lifeforce intact—though they may have to be hard as nails with it.


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What these films have in common, ultimately, is emotion—perennial raw material of great cinema. These women channelled it more nakedly and candidly than others, perhaps: they wore their hearts defiantly on their sleeves, even as it left them open to bruising and worse.

It’s a solitary Amy in the studio, tentatively laying down “Back to Black” in the wake of another break-up with Blake; it’s Whitney retreating to her dressing room and zoning out before the mirror. For all their success, such moments reveal these icons as vulnerable indeed, as alone with their thoughts and feelings as we are sitting in the Odeon. We, however, have the luxury of the dark, where no-one can see our tears.

 

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