Movies Make Pop Music Seem So. . . Polished. Now Meet David Crosby.
In yet another attempt to coax a Netflix world back into movie theaters, the film industry has taken to wrapping beloved vintage music in feel-good stories.
Then, perhaps in the interest of balance, the same film industry has also provided an antidote.
After “classic hits” fans have seen Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, Blinded by the Light and Yesterday, they should find a theater that’s showing David Crosby: Remember My Name.
Remember My Name is essentially Crosby talking about his life, which wasn’t quite as smooth and sweet as the harmonies for which his best-known band, Crosby, Stills Nash and sometimes Young, remains best known.
Where those other films mix-and-match the truth with dramatic enhancements, Crosby seems to be recounting what really happened, or what he remembers or wants to remember of it. If he’s making stuff up, at least he’s the one doing it and not a movie producer.
If you want the unpolished version of life in those fondly remembered musical years from one of the screwed-up artists who made that music, Crosby adds perspective behind the rosy glow.
That is not to say the other four flicks are all rainbows, unicorns and stinging guitar solos.
Anti-immigrant thugs make life brutal for a young Bruce Springsteen fan in Blinded by the Light. Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury dies of AIDS in Bohemian Rhapsody. Elton John lurches through reckless personal and professional times in Rocketman, and the fellow who sings all those Beatles songs in Yesterday has to deal with the fact he’s a fraud.
In the end, however, you feel like all four movies come on stage, grab the microphone and holler, “The music won! No matter what else happened, it’s great! It will always be great! Music conquers all!”
I’d never dispute the power or the endurance of music. I wouldn’t call all of the music in these movies timeless, but the best of it — “Thunder Road,” “The Promised Land,” “In My Life,” the Abbey Road medley — will be stirring people long after I’m not around to listen any more.
That’s great. That’s also reassuring, and while history has traditionally discarded way too much musical culture, the digital age keeps more of it available for the future to make its own determinations.
In any case, there’s nothing wrong with a filmmaker celebrating popular music by embedding it in a story.
Thing is, the untweaked stories behind these artists or characters and this music are not only more honest than the dramatically enhanced versions , but often more interesting. The dramatized versions aren’t the enemy. We just shouldn’t forget the more unruly real story is also out there.
The writers or producers of Blinded by the Light clearly felt it would be a better story if it tacked a girlfriend onto the Pakistani boy who comes to life when he hears Springsteen.
The writers or producers of Bohemian Rhapsody thought it would intensify Queen’s performance at Live Aid if Mercury told the band just before they went on-stage that he was HIV-positive — even though, in real life, it would be another 18 months before he got that diagnosis.
Yesterday, with few pretensions and considerable charm, is different because it’s not reworking something that actually happened. Neither is it saying anything actual Beatles records haven’t said for half a century: that the good ones, which are most of them, can stop you in your tracks.
In any case, what none of the dramatized stories capture is the extent to which musicians’ lives, like their songs, almost never have hospital corners. They’re ragged, implausible and non-linear, and that’s part of what makes the music as good, or as singular, as it is.
Enter David Crosby.
Driven almost entirely by Crosby’s reflections on his life, supplemented by vintage clips and sound bites from colleagues, family and friends, Remember My Name bulges with broken connections and loose threads.
Crosby laments that his bad behavior, primarily in his youth yet continuing in vestigial form almost to the present, has shattered his personal relationships with those who co-created his most memorable music: Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Neil Young. Roger McGuinn from the Byrds.
Perhaps the most depressing and uncomfortable moment of the film shows Crosby, Stills and Nash singing “Silent Night” at the 2015 White House Christmas tree lighting.
They’re awful, just awful. Flat, off-key. Then-President Barack Obama, in the audience, looks stunned. Crosby matter of factly acknowledges they were terrible and shakes his head at the probability that it was the last song they will ever sing together.
That said, Remember My Name isn’t a bleak walk into darkness. Crosby has spent his life making music. He’s still making it today, despite several heart attacks, eight stents, diabetes and the aftereffects of lengthy heroin and cocaine addictions.
Along the way he’s had appropriately high adventures, living out the fantasy of every dorky kid who felt the whole school was laughing at him. He dated Joni Mitchell, whom he calls the finest of the singer-songwriters.
He also lost the one girl he says he really loved, Christine Hinton, who was killed in a car crash at the age of 21. Nash once said that Crosby was never the same after he came back from identifying Christine’s body and in the film, Crosby says he’s right.
Talk about a loose end.
That’s hardly the only one, and lest anyone miss the point, Crosby ends the film by asking what if everything he’s said hasn’t been soul-baring truth, bur a brilliant disguise.
We do believe him when he says the only real currency is time, and the only thing he really wants is more of it. He turned 78 last week and in his physical condition he’s not optimistic — though the smart money had him dead 20 years ago, so who knows?
Remember My Name shares one critical punchline with these other films. The music is what I have to offer, Crosby says, several times. My music is what I think has the best shot at living on.
He also reminds us, without having to spell it out, that the path to music often winds through trails of trouble and roads of battle.