Though rock isn’t the medium that Gus Van Sant and Michael Winterbottom are best known for, the musical credentials of the two filmmakers shouldn’t be up for debate, or so you’d think: The British-born Winterbottom convincingly captured the feeling of two generations’ worth of the Manchester scene in 2002’s 24 Hour Party People; Portland, Oregon’s Van Sant was a college classmate of David Byrne and has made pitch-perfect use of obscure pop singles in films such as Drugstore Cowboy. So how is it that these directors could be responsible for 9 Songs and Last Days — two of the least substantial movies ever made about rock music?
The nine songs referenced in the title of Winterbottom’s new drama — Franz Ferdinand’s “Jacqueline,” the Von Bondies’ “C’Mon C’Mon,” and others — are the soundtrack that accompanies the swift courtship of lovers Lisa and Matt (newcomers Margo Stilley and Kieran O’Brien), but they’re also a device meant to distract from the thinness of the scenes they help stitch together. After meeting at a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club gig, the paramours go home to screw and screw and screw their brains out, taking strategic breaks to attend more indie-rock concerts and occasionally do lines of cocaine. It’s not clear what the film’s carefully cultivated playlist has to do with its explicit sex scenes — more graphic than anything depicted in the closing minutes of The Brown Bunny –though Winterbottom has said his movie isn’t pornography. But if 9 Songs isn’t porn, why did he cast unknowns as his leads? And why is it so uncomfortable to watch in the presence of others?
9 Songs, which caused a mild stir at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, may be little more than 69 minutes of standard guy-on-girl action, but Van Sant’s notorious Cannes entry Last Days is outright necrophilia: The lust object in this case is the late Kurt Cobain, barely fictionalized as a rock star named Blake (played by The Dreamers‘ Michael Pitt), who wanders around his Pacific Northwest estate, ignoring his friends, smoking cigarettes, and muttering sublingual phrases, before he finally, inexplicably dies. If the fearful symmetry between the factual and fictional musicians wasn’t already abundantly clear, Van Sant outfits his copycat Kurt with shaggy bleached-blond hair and an uncomfortably familiar striped sweater, and even arranges the corpse to match the post suicide pose in which Cobain’s body was discovered.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with using Cobain’s mythologized demise for narrative fodder, but after an hour and a half of Blake’s aimless wanderings (filmed in the same haphazard style of Van Sant’s far more effective quasi-Columbine reenactment, Elephant), it’s obvious that the director has no meaningful thoughts on the subject. Having spun an entire novel, Pink, out of his mourning for his My Own Private Idaho star River Phoenix, Van Sant is now fetishizing another dead youth icon — one whom he met in person only once and never worked with. While it may or may not be sacrilegious, it’s surely creepy.
If either of these movies dealt with the subject of, say, clog dancing or zydeco, they’d be curious failures, but by using the language of rock to obscure that they ultimately have nothing to say to the audience they are trying to court, they are treading on territory that’s knowingly deceptive and ever-so-slightly sinister. But don’t feel bad for Winterbottom, because the stakes of his gamble aren’t especially high — 9 Songs may have a hit soundtrack lurking within it, but its hardcore content will likely keep the movie from expanding beyond the art-house circuit. It’s Van Sant who really deserves your sympathy: No matter how many or how few theaters it plays in, Last Days is going to be seen by Courtney Love at some point, and she will almost certainly have a thing or two to say about it. Who wants to be on the receiving end of that phone call?