5 Things Movies Get Horribly Wrong About Creativity
Creative people love to tell stories about themselves. Just go check out how many recent Best Picture nominees are either about filmmakers (Birdman, Argo, The Artist) or musicians (Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born, La La Land). Of course, none of these are completely true to life -- we all know how movies work. But what's weird is how dedicated they are to getting the creative process wrong. For whatever reason, they're selling a bullshit version designed to be discouraging to anyone who's ever actually tried making something. Over and over, these films imply that ...
"True Talent Creates Gold On The First Try!"
In the Best-Picture-winning Amadeus, composer Antonio Salieri is forced to grapple with his own mediocrity when he crosses paths with the titular vulgar genius. At one point, Salieri peeks at Mozart's drafts for an upcoming work and his jaw drops at what he sees. Mozart's first drafts are finished compositions with no corrections of any kind. Salieri marvels, "He'd simply written down music already finished! In his head!"
This supposedly illustrates the contrast between "true" genius and try-hard mediocrity. The music simply "comes" to Mozart, while suck-ass Salieri over here has to work at it like some non-divinely-inspired hack. In reality, while there are historical accounts of Mozart writing several pieces in short time spans, he was still an extremely diligent worker who went through numerous drafts. In other words, he turned out bullshit that he knew wasn't good enough, so he kept messing with it. That is what creating something great actually looks like, even for an undisputed genius.
For whatever reason, our culture in general hates that idea. You've probably heard some variation of the story that Sylvester Stallone penned the Rocky screenplay in one night after seeing Muhammad Ali fight. Well, it technically took three nights, but even then, it was a 90-page early version of the script, of which only about a third even made it into the film. It went through a totally normal revision process and a bunch of drafts, including one in which Rocky heroically throws the fight at the end.
So often, it's artists themselves who insist on putting this nonsense out there. Jack Kerouac intentionally cultivated a myth that he wrote On The Road in three weeks. In reality, he typed up the final version in three weeks after reworking whole journals' worth of material and at least six earlier drafts over the course of a full decade. But he wanted us to believe he banged out a free-flowing stream-of-consciousness masterpiece in an upper-fueled burst of inspiration that magically transcended conscious thought.
This sucks because in every case it implies that the creator did something that none of us lesser-thans possibly could, as if creation is some act of divine magic instead of a person just sitting down and grinding through it. Which is weird, because if you were buying a house and the builder was like, "Oh yeah, I got high and slapped that together over the weekend" you'd immediately be concerned.
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"Art Should Never Feel Like Work!"
When a work of art isn't portrayed as popping into the creators' head fully formed, movies will still make sure to skip the actual process via the magic of editing.
In the biopic Ray, which is 99 percent not a musical, the song "Hit The Road Jack" gets conceived when Ray Charles' backup singer Margie Hendricks tells him she's pregnant, and they get into an argument that seamlessly segues into him spontaneously singing "Hit The Road Jack" at her, and her singing it back at him. We then cut to a dance hall, where he's performing the fully formed song. That's songwriting, baybee!
Movies like Walk The Line and Jersey Boys have similarly tidy scenes. In Jersey Boys, one character literally just says "big girls don't cry" out loud while watching an old movie, and it smash cuts to them performing the song. And look, I get it. Nobody wants to watch a frustrated, exhausted person agonizing over a fourth word that rhymes with "cry." But it still propagates a myth that if art feels like a grind, you're doing it wrong. It's always shown as:
1) A thrilling "eureka!" moment
3) Adoration of the crowd
In real life, Michelangelo took two years to chisel his David. He probably took three months just to get that dick right. That is what art is usually like -- long, achy, sweaty, unrewarding day after day, polishing that same scrotum.
"Stripped-Down Art Is More Authentic!"
In the 2018 version of A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper coaxes Lady Gaga into singing part of a song she's working on while they're kicking around an empty parking lot. He then flies her to his next concert and spontaneously pulls her up onstage to duet that song with him, even though they've never rehearsed it and it wasn't even finished. (Was she doing vocal warm-ups in the limo?) But it's a seminal performance, and afterward, Cooper's brother is like, "It's been a long time since I heard him play like that."
Later in the film, Gaga's character embarks on a career of her own, and we see her -- gasp -- practicing choreography with some backup dancers. She dismisses the dancers before one performance because it doesn't feel right and her producer flips out, as movie record guys are wont to do. She continues on this solo trajectory until it reaches its tragic conclusion: an SNL performance where she's dressed sexy and performing a radio-ready pop song. The horror.
This plays into another weird misconception. As the not-late great Billy Joel once put it, "use too many effects on your recording and it's considered artifice; do something stripped-down and it's considered 'real.'" We're meant to view these characters' unrehearsed, mostly vocal performances as a truthful expression of their inner souls, but once artifice like "dancers" and "costumes" get added, it starts losing Art Points. Why? Isn't that other stuff also art? It ties right back into the previous point about effort being the death of creativity.
The '90s were obsessed with "unplugged" albums -- Eric Clapton's Unplugged won Album of the Year in 1993, and Tony Bennett's MTV Unplugged won in 1995. (Finally, a Tony Bennett album without all those distracting synths and scorching guitar solos!) Nirvana and Rod Stewart also released acclaimed unplugged albums, and Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond both had artistic resurgences with stripped-down vocal-forward albums produced by Rick Rubin.
There's nothing wrong with that style of music. It's just weird that it's considered more authentic or pure if it sounds like it's coming from someone's sad living room.
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"It's Always One Groundbreaking Genius Against The World!"
Bohemian Rhapsody took more than a few liberties with the truth, but went the extra mile with its portrayal of Mike Myers' character, "Ray Foster," an executive who doesn't believe "Bohemian Rhapsody" should be released as a single. He keeps pushing for "You're My Best Friend" to be the single instead. But the band revolts and storms out of his office and throws a rock through his window. The next time we see Foster, he's watching Queen's raucous Live Aid performance alone in his office, finally getting his comeuppance for ... doing his job?
In real life, Ray Foster never existed. And the EMI executive he's loosely based on, Roy Featherstone, was a huge supporter of the band. But Queen fighting naysayers and stickin' it to the MAN because he's too SQUARE to comprehend their grand, paradigm-shattering vision for a hit single makes for a higher-stakes scene than a wholly supportive executive saying, "It's pretty long, but we'll give it a try," then everyone being right and saying, "Cool, glad that worked."
It's a weird, self-serving mythology that boils down to "The creative talent is always right!" Any input from anyone who isn't the story's central genius (who may also be the one approving the story) is automatically some irritating hurdle to overcome. In real life, "You're My Best Friend" was a huge hit too! Why were we supposed to hate Mike Myers? He was right!
"Any Nobody Can Make It, As Long As They Have Talent!"
Every successful person wants to portray their life as an underdog story. In real life, most successful people get help, and they get it early.
The first way movies skew the truth is purely by their choice of subject. Freddie Mercury defies his father's wishes and discovers his true self, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash are shaken to their cores by tragic family deaths. N.W.A and Eminem channel their violent environments into their viewpoints. These are all captivating (and true!) narratives, but there's a selection bias there. Look around at all of the most famous musicians, and you usually see a different story.
For example, Keith Richards' grandfather was a touring jazz musician who gave him his first guitar and taught him to play at an early age. Prince's father was a successful jazz musician too. So was Paul McCartney's. The Wilson brothers from the Beach Boys were the sons of Murry Wilson, a songwriter who also became their first manager. Elvis Costello's father was a touring musician. Billy Gibbons, of the down-home Texas roots-rock band ZZ Top, had a father who was an orchestra conductor with connections to MGM. I could do this all day -- or go pick any famous musician and read their Wikipedia page.
I'm not saying you have to have those early advantages in order to make it as an artist. I'm just saying that you'll constantly be competing against people who did. Everyone I mentioned above is or was an amazing, hard-working talent. But where two people have equal talent and drive, the advantage goes to the one whose dad is a record executive. But that's not the story we want to hear. The Strokes biopic We Grew Up Rich Then Tried Music And Hey Cool We Did It is gonna have a tough time snagging Oscar buzz.
Hell, even Mozart's father was a composer and music instructor. No wonder that dude could channel God on the first draft.
For more, check out 4 Simple Things Hollywood Thinks Are Difficult - Obsessive Pop Culture Disorder:
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