Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The recent Jersey Boys and Get On Up have us thinking back on better biopics about musicians.
Last Days (2005)
Musician biopics tend to fit snugly into a formula straightjacket; to defy the rise-fall-legacy conventions, Gus Van Sant made a biopic that technically isn’t one at all. Last Days, the final film in his unofficial “young death” trilogy, is not literally about the final 36 hours or so in the life of Kurt Cobain. Instead, it casts Michael Pitt as Blake, a Cobain-like musician in the Pacific Northwest. Pitt’s face doesn’t look much like Cobain’s, but with the right sweater, scruffy blonde hair, and sunglasses, he makes an eerie approximation. So without using the proper names, the movie is nonetheless Van Sant’s sometimes unnerving speculation about the moments before Cobain took his own life in 1994.
Pitt’s Blake spends that time isolating himself in and around his remote, dilapidated house, seemingly strung out (though Van Sant is cagey about actually showing drug abuse). The film opens with him stumbling through the woods, and its first hint of music comes about five minutes in, as Blake mumble-hums to himself by a campfire, then breaks into a louder rendition of “Home On The Range” before Van Sant cuts away. The rest of the movie takes a similarly spare approach to music. There are no Nirvana songs, of course, but the Boyz II Men tune “On Bended Knee” plays almost in full, including a fixed 90-second shot staring at the video as it airs on TV. The phrase “on bended knee” turns up again in the drone of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs,” and Blake contributes some drone of his own when he fiddles with his guitar and a drum set. Pitt also delivers a heartbreakingly delicate acoustic performance. It’s music depicted the way it often interacts with real life: wafting in and out of the background, making unexpected connections.
Van Sant and the late cinematographer Harris Savides also eschew rock-star mythologizing by shooting Last Days in the square-ish 1.33 aspect ratio and using long, fixed takes to imprison Blake in the frame. The way he fails to interact meaningfully with most of the various enablers, hangers-on, and other visitors passing through his home gives the movie a ghostly quality. It may or may not reflect Cobain’s actual experience; in a way, the speculation makes it more powerful. Like the rock movies by Todd Haynes (I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine), Last Days frees itself from both facts and the Hollywood scrubbing of them—and transcends its nominal genre in the process.
Availability: Last Days is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store.