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'England Is Mine' and the Airbrushed Rock Star Biopic

Why it's frustrating to see male rock stars presented as romanticized versions of themselves on film.

by Tim Hakki
Aug 17 2017, 4:15pm

Photo via Entertainment One UK

In the second term of my second year at university, The Smiths were all I listened to. This wasn't by choice—I'm not that type of stan. It began after an IT failure of epic proportions, where, following a total system crash, I took my laptop to a cheap repairman who outfitted it with a new hard drive. With my music library gone AWOL I had to rebuild everything from scratch and the only thing to hand was The Smiths' Complete CD set. So, for three months I walked through the red brick residential streets of the old industrial north, enrolled on a literature course (of course) and lost in teary-eyed contemplation to the kitchen sink reveries of Steven Patrick Morrissey.

It's thus been hard for me to understand the antipathy I felt when the trailer for England Is Mine came on before a recent screening of Dunkirk. Let me be clear, I may be one of the only people on earth who think Morrissey's List Of The Lost is a great novel that was treated unfairly (@ me if you like, we'll take this to my inbox). I also think his last solo album is one of his best—hook for hook he's at his most melodic. Assessing his output alone, he has plenty of vitality left, but why glorify him without accounting for his messiness too? And once you start to peer behind the curtain on Morrissey, couldn't we ask the same of, say, John Lennon or Joe Meek? All have been subjected to the biopic treatment, but each of their actual life stories comprise narratives that are sometimes harder to tell. Biopics can often skirt around the oft-unpalatable textures of narcissism, or instances of violence or abuse. We instead coat some of these artists in layers of candy-colored celluloid fluff, which says a lot about the ways our culture is willing to view masculinity in general.

In the interests of space I won't list everything stupid Morrissey has ever said to the press. Just tack on "Morrissey" before the terms "Chinese," "Auschwitz," "black people," or "Brexit" in Google and you'll see that the lyricist so esteemed for his eloquence can be a graceless thinker. While he's been a passionate advocate for animal rights and veganism ever since 1985's Meat Is Murder, he's often found it difficult to express his views without resorting to extremes, calling Chinese people a "subspecies" for their consumption of dog meat and likening eating meat to Auschwitz and paedophilia. His views on ethnicity are troubling, too. He told Q Magazine in 1992 that he doesn't "really think, for instance, black people and white people will ever really get on or like each other." It's particularly hard to digest how his well-documented adoration of the great James Baldwin, a queer black American intellectual who devoted his life to writing and lecturing in predominantly straight white spaces, could have led to some distasteful (and since pulled) merch this year.

He's not the only one. John Lennon was at times a terrible husband and father who mocked people living with disabilities, and Joe Meek murdered his long-suffering landlady Violet Shenton before killing himself. Despite these facts, the rockpic has been kicked back into high gear in Britain since the 2006 release of Walk The Line—a film that's had its historical accuracy challenged by Cash's own daughter. Kathy Cash took issue with how she felt the film glamourised her father's descent into addiction and the strain it placed on their family, while questioning the portrayal of her mother, June Carter, as a "shrew." Since then, Control, Telstar, Nowhere Boy and England Is Mine have each reduced the complexity and polarity of their subjects' lives to a palatable bildungsroman meant to inspire their audiences. Even if that means brushing over the truth.

It's hard to deny how much this seems to come down to gender. We've still not seen fictional treatments of the lives of historically influential figures like Kate Bush, Siouxsie Sioux, Sade, and Dusty Springfield (although three years ago rumours surfaced that Adele may have been cast as Dusty). The closest we've come to paying British female performers their dues on screen was with BBC Two's Shirley, which was never destined for cinemas and was slated after its 2011 release for failing to accurately tell Shirley Bassey's story. You could hardly say the filmmakers would have had a lack of material to work with, based on Bassey's incredible and dynamic personality alone.

But, just as so many of the past rock gods tend to be men, so too women in music are hemmed in by expectations of what makes their stories valid. In documentaries, that's led to pieces like Asif Kapadia's Amy—a heartbreaking story of her vulnerabilities, but one that bluntly pulled apart Amy Winehouse's darker struggles. When writer Molly Beauchemin observed the pointed differences in contemporary reportage between the deaths of Joplin and Hendrix, and Billie Holiday and Keith Moon, she highlighted that the female stars' shortcomings throughout their lives were immediately exhumed and scrutinized, but the men's blemishes were airbrushed out of the picture.

Comparing Amy and the Kurt Cobain doc Montage Of Heck, she wrote: "If Amy proves anything about the life and times of Winehouse, it's that newscasters, tabloids, and even respected media outlets reported on her shortcomings with enough thinly-veiled aggression to weaken what little resolve the drugs hadn't already sapped. Cobain's struggle with drugs, meanwhile, was all but an open secret while he was alive, whispered about or written around in order to maintain good graces and access to the superstar." The double standard applies similarly with biopics, from what we've seen.

All things considered, these male rockpics never intend to show the truth anyway. They're flights of fancy, portraits of the artists as young men. When Paul McCartney reportedly told Nowhere Boy director Sam Taylor-Wood that John never punched him, he was met with the response "yeah but Paul, it's just a film." With Morrissey, England Is Mine hasn't been tasked with examining the star's fall from the graces amongst just about anyone besides Smiths die-hards.

At best, these films are breezy bits of entertainment with good music. At worst they epitomize everything that's backwards about how we lionize male rock stars, airbrushing the edges of their ugliness and in the process corroding the truth. If a biopic were made about each of us, we wouldn't expect to be painted as perfect. I'm not suggesting that all male rock stars are horrors who should only be seen through the prism of their worst offenses, but failing to even mention those moments does fans and filmgoers a disservice by not showing the story's subject in their truly varied and often contradictory form. Nobody is wholly good or great. But using a medium as expressive as film to "sex up" dark stories almost beyond recognition isn't great either.

You can find Tim on Twitter.

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Music
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england is mine