New Day Rising?

Will film (and video) be a useful tool in breaking musical acts?

May 6, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Can film (including, defining the term broadly, Internet videos) save popular music from its commercial destruction? Three recent and vastly disparate examples — Anvil, Susan Boyle and Leonard Cohen — give hope.

If you haven’t heard of Anvil yet, it’s because the hit documentary about this middle-aged Canadian Metal band — Anvil! The Story of Anvil — is just reaching Cincinnati (it opens Friday at the Esquire Theatre). It’s the story of a marginally successful (at best) Rock act that has been trying to make it big for some 30 years. (The band, supported by VH1-Classics in the wake of the film’s strong reception elsewhere, will perform and answer questions after a midnight Saturday screening at the Esquire).

The movie, directed by Sacha Gervasi, is being received as an inspirational, non-satiric riff on This Is Spinal Tap. Michael Moore has called it “the best documentary I’ve seen in years.”

Anvil’s two principal members, high-school friends Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner, began playing together in Toronto back in 1973. The band always had its fans — just not enough of them. Metallica’s Lars Ulrich and Guns N’ Roses’ Slash are in the movie providing testimonials. But as the documentary has picked up steam, it has revived Anvil’s career in the process.

This is just what the Pop-music industry needs now. A collection of hundreds of niche interests that too rarely overlap, it has had trouble breaking new acts that can become big enough to support the cost of making them successful.

The two primary problems are that consumers prefer downloading individual songs rather than buying full CDs — the real moneymaker for record companies — and the big commercial radio stations fear risk, so their play lists are suffocatingly narrow and reactionary.

The best chance for beating those odds is to have an act that’s young and beautiful. Really young, like Miley Cyrus and Jonas Brothers young, so that their core audi ence will be too financially immature to care about spending (their parents’) $15-plus on a new CD. And these acts nimbly use TV, Internet and movies to market themselves.

Now, some of the older (and comparatively less beautiful) acts are learning to use the same tools of the trade. They might not ever rival the Teen Pop acts in degree of superstardom, but they’re finding a way to break through the logjam of older acts with nowhere to go.

Anvil’s story bears a slight similarity with that of fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen. Although he has long had international success as a revered singersongwriter and poet, his influence has always outweighed his sales and airplay. But a 2006 documentary about him, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, built up his profile to the point the 74-year-old Cohen is currently touring to ecstatic audiences at such venues as New York’s Beacon Theatre, California’s Coachella Music Festival and Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre. In fact, he and Paul McCartney were Coachella’s elder statesmen this year.

Susan Boyle, of course, is a far different case. Her voice, with its stunningly powerful range and clarity, is more Celine Dion-like than Rock & Roll-ish. But in some ways her still-developing success story is much the same. She has been the recipient of the Internet’s capability to show film and TV clips on demand, thus making an end run around the tyrannies of youth-culture control of cable channels and radio stations.

At age 48, the Scottish woman has never really had any job, much less a career in Pop music. She’s mostly devoted herself to caring for her aged mother, who died in 2007. And there are plenty of reasons to suggest she wouldn’t be on the verge of superstardom as a singer, as she now is, had she pursued such a career through traditional means. With her dowdy (to be polite) looks, she’s not easy to market in a bathing suit or magazine spread.

She wasn’t even a likely successful candidate for Britain’s Got Talent, the reality show featuring sharptongued Simon Cowell as a judge and producer. Although older than Boyle (he’s 49), Cowell’s obsession with physical appearance as the be-all of celebrityhood made it seem Boyle was being set up for his ridicule. He likes to do that every once in awhile on American Idol, to juice up ratings.

If that was supposed to be game plan, her singing of Les Miserables’ “I Dreamed a Dream” on April 11 transcended it. Boyle’s performance made a point — beauty in music is aural, not visual, and a beautiful voice makes the singer beautiful just for possessing it. Visible Measures, which surveys Internet use, reports that 170 million people worldwide have viewed the online video of her Britain’s Got Talent performance as of April 27.

Before this year is over, maybe Anvil, Boyle and Cohen could share a triple-bill somewhere. If there’s a stadium large enough, that is.