The Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad once said that he refused to sell the film rights to his book Come as You Are because he “didn’t want to turn on the TV someday and see a Brat Packer running around with a blond wig on.” The short and spotty history of the rock biopic does spill over with bad drag, in the bloated pomp of Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), the chaste nostalgia of Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical film à clef Almost Famous (2000), and any number of wigged-out made-for-TV ordeals. The icon and his fans forge a symbiotic interface of fever dream intimacy and unclinchable distance; a bad cover version can both poison the fantasy and rewrite the source text, which might be why so many of the best rockstar movies employ distancing devices from their ritual-objects of desire. Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, for one, is a nature doc shot through a thick, disorienting cloud of heroin and musique concrète. The meticulously Cobain-like Blake, beautiful and apparently kind, is almost completely inaccessible. He’s an Elemental Man whose nonmusical means of expression runs to a mumbling mentalese, a survivalist (he sleeps shelterless in the woods and bathes in a waterfall), a hunter-gatherer (he prowls the grounds of his decaying mansion with a rifle and prepares Cocoa Krispies).
Van Sant’s film finds a vantage point on the occluded final week before Cobain’s suicide; as an exercise in what-if, Last Days shares affinities with Christopher Münch’s The Hours and Times (1991), a wistful, romantically fraught speculation on the holiday to Spain that John Lennon and Brian Epstein took together during the first stirrings of Beatlemania, and Todd Haynes’s transparently veiled Velvet Goldmine (1998), an implicit account of, among other things, David Bowie’s mutation from galvanizing glam freak to bland Serious Moonlighter. It was Haynes—like Van Sant and Münch, a New Queer Cinema star—who directed what remains the definitive music biopic, the all-dolls Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), a semiotician’s wrenching elegy for the soft-rock chanteuse as broken Barbie figurine. Starved and immobilized into plastic perfection, Haynes’s Karen is as fragile and sympathetic—and as tragically willful toward self-negation—as Last Days‘ Blake.
Haynes cast Mattel toys in Superstar (and many actors rotating in the role of Bob Dylan for his forthcoming I’m Not There); Nicolas Roeg made perhaps a less radical substitution, casting Bowie and Mick Jagger in films that transfigured their public personas into subject matter—one might think of these as the meta-biopics. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) typecasts Bowie as an image-fixated alien light-years ahead of his time (Velvet Goldmine would later lift Roeg’s baton by proposing Oscar Wilde as both extraterrestrial and proto-glam rocker). He acquires a small parasitic entourage, enjoys nihilist fun with handguns, ingests too many mind-altering substances, and is prone to housebound agoraphobia—traits he shares with both Blake in Last Days and with Jagger in Performance (1970), Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Dionysiac behavioral study of rock stardom’s shape-shifting mojo. As a fading icon who’s “lost his demon,” Jagger enacts a brainwarp metathesis with gangster-gone-underground James Fox, disposing of one body to reanimate their imps of the perverse in another. From the hallucinogenic violence of transformation in Performance to the instant-legend onstage assassination in Velvet Goldmine, the rockstar movie—aptly for a milieu that’s produced more than its share of exquisite corpses—again and again exudes a death wish for the afterlife, glimpsed in Last Days when Blake finally climbs a literal stairway to heaven.