What Makes A Music Biopic?
Some songs are so legendary and recognizable that we forget that they were painstakingly constructed. They didn’t randomly appear in the world. Someone had to create them, someone who we will potentially never meet. When we come across a moving song, we make it our own and associate it with our lives rather than the artist’s life.
Biopics have the unique ability to reintroduce songs to us by showing how they were born. These films ask us to reconsider the lens through which we listen to the song, and our associations with it. By highlighting how the artist found the subject and composed it, these movies focus on how music came together, rather than just focusing on its final iteration.
As such, biopics are not just a biography about the artist, they are also a biography on individual songs. In fact, many biopic films base their narratives on the artist’s most recognizable songs. They read the artist’s life through their music, essentially comparing the subject in the song with the musician in the film.
Walk the Line is a popular example of this, as it charts Johnny Cash’s life through his songs. His songs organize the narrative, they compose the film’s structure. As a result, the film connects Cash’s lyrical development with personal development, a dynamic which slowly becomes more toxic and dangerous as the film progresses.
A good demonstration of this dynamic arrives early in the film, just as Cash tries to make his big break at a recording studio. His performance of “Folsom Prison Blues” marks the beginning of his career, as well as a personal awakening.
The scene begins with Cash and his band playing a popular gospel tune. When the executive interrupts the band, Cash asks “Was it the gospel or the way I sing it”, and the executive responds, “Both”. Neither the gospel subject nor Cash’s performance were believable. Cash has to believe in his product in order to sell his sound. He can’t do that if he cannot believe in himself or his performance. It is sort of like hearing a smile; you can tell just by a person’s voice if they are honest or happy. It is why telemarketers are told to smile on the phone. The listener knows.
Following this, the executive gives a remarkable speech which essentially motivates the rest of the film and Cash’s journey. It is especially noteworthy because the executive character never reappears in the film. Perhaps that is a bit ironic, considering he lectures Cash about making an a difference when you only have one song (or scene).
He asks Cash if he were about to die, would this be the song he would sing. Would it be the “One song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth. One song that would sum you up”, or would you play something else? In other words: why are you singing someone else’s life when you could be singing about your own?
We get to see Cash compose the song on a whim, slowly building it and his confidence. This buildup similarly happens through camera work. Each shot accentuates the tension in the scene, Cash’s emotional state, and eventually culminating when Cash find his voice.
The scene begins outside of the record room, looking in at Cash and his band. We pan left, almost lazy-like, as though neither the song nor the people are of much interest. When we do move inside, we get a few seconds of the band before cutting to the executive. The cut happens just as the executive decides he has heard enough. This initial framing demonstrates that nothing special is happening, the music and people are all mundane.
The executive’s statement, “You guys got something else”, initially seems like a compliment. It is the opposite, as the band is barely playing gospel, and they are not playing it well. After a few shot reverse shots, the camera work changes as the executive starts giving honest feedback. From there, we start getting closer to Cash, as the camera begins to cut off the band members. Just as Cash is the only person receiving feedback, so too is he the only one on camera.
As the executive talks about having “one song”, we get a focused close-up on Cash. This again signals that he is the subject of the executive’s speech, but also that the executive has Cash’s full attention, and the band has fallen out of focus.
When Cash begins to perform “Folsom Jail Blues”, we see the other band members piece by piece. First their arms, then their shoulders, and finally the entire band. It is as though Cash’s world was closing in, just like the increasingly closer shots, but now that he is more confident, both his world and the frame are opening.
Just as Cash mentions Folsom prison in the song, we cut back to the executive. He is still shot from chest up, which indicates that he is interested and involved with the piece. This positioning contrasts the beginning of the scene, as the camera is more focused on specific figures and instruments and is no longer outside the room.
The executive’s eye twitches, just a little, at the word ‘Folsom’. Cash has seemingly made Folsom into a place, not just a word. His description is so real and believable that it elicits an involuntary response.
In the last shot of the scene, we see the record executive begin to smile while the sound of thunder rumbles in the background. This juxtaposition symbolizes Cash’s impending success, but also his victory in the scene. Cash found his statement to God in the face of death, just as the executive asked him to think about a song he would sing as a train rolled through him.
This thunder also illustrates that the executive’s harsh feedback was a type of train collision, a loud and thunderous train. We watched his criticism get closer and more personal to Cash, just as the camera drew in closer to him. At the moment of impact, when Cash is given another chance to sing, he does exactly what the executive asked him to. He tells God what life is like, except here, God is just a record executive.
The thunder at the end of this scene additionally symbolizes an incoming dark storm, perhaps the same darkness associated with Cash’s persona and subject matter. Prior to this, the industry in the film was dominated with bright and uplifting gospel. That is no longer the case now that Cash has made his thunderous entrance.