Author: Poling, Chuck

Lights, Camera, Fiction

Bluegrass music fans are abuzz with the word coming out of Hollywood that a movie based on the life of Bill Monroe is in works and will appear in theaters in 2013. Following the success of other biopics of famous musicians, like Ray, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Walk the Line, it looks like bluegrass will get the star treatment.

The good news is that the movie, appropriately titled Blue Moon of Kentucky, draws primarily from Richard D. Smith’s excellent biography of Monroe, Can’t You Hear Me Calling. The book, published in 2001, is an exhaustively researched warts-and-all recounting of Monroe’s life and music. He’s presented as a complex man who hid his insecurities behind a gruff exterior, who held grudges for decades against those who he felt slighted him or his music, and who drove his band members past the point of exhaustion in his pursuit of creativity and fame.

Like any biographer, Smith sometimes acts as an armchair psychologist, delving into Monroe’s childhood experiences as a cross-eyed, lonely boy who was frequently bullied by his older brothers. Was Monroe’s drive for musical perfection driven by feelings of inferiority? Was his penchant for extra-marital affairs an addiction fueled by a need for intimacy that could never be satisfied?

But Smith doesn’t go too far out on a limb. He makes a distinction between well-documented evidence and speculation. He attempts and, in my opinion, succeeds in providing a balanced account of an important American musical figure. He obviously respects Monroe and loves bluegrass music, but he doesn’t let his admiration get in the way of telling the whole story.

I’ve enjoyed the other biopics mentioned above, but they have their faults. Movies, naturally, have to condense stories, enhance some characters at the expense of others, and wrap up the whole deal in about two hours. Shortcuts are required. When I see a movie or TV show filmed in San Francisco, I’m always amused by the ability of characters to find a parking spot for their cars, wherever and whenever they need one. That’s not San Francisco, that’s Hollywood.

Both Ray and Walk the Line seemed a little formulaic as both subjects, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, are haunted by the death of a brother when young. Both hit bottom because of drug use but are redeemed through their music and a good woman’s love.

There’s also a certain amount of revisionist history that can be caused by personal grudges, contractual disputes, and other conflicts. The Wilburn Brothers gave Loretta Lynn a big career boost by featuring her on their popular TV program, but a rift later developed over publishing rights to Loretta’s songs. Because of this conflict, there is absolutely no mention of the Wilburns in Coal Miner’s Daughter, an omission that makes it seem like her career just leapfrogged from two-bit beer joints to the Grand Ole Opry. This would be like skipping over Bill Monroe’s contentious but creatively successful relationship with his brother Charlie in the Monroe Brothers.

I’m hoping the producer and director of Blue Moon of Kentucky stick pretty close to the main points of Smith’s book. The life of Bill Monroe is an amazing story. He created an entire style of music based on traditional and contemporary sources that continues to thrive and attract new fans and practitioners, and has found popularity around the globe.
I can’t think of any genre or subgenre music that can point to one figure as the guy-who-started-it-all.

Of course, the moviemakers are hoping to attract a larger, more general audience that extends beyond hardcore bluegrass fans who know the serial number of Bill’s mandolin. But I think that anyone with even the most casual interest in folk or country music could appreciate the story of a man whose vision, drive, and talent produced such beautiful music and has influenced so many musicians over several generations.

Bill’s relationship with Bessie Lee Mauldin is a central theme of the movie, and anyone who knows the backstory would agree that the tempestuous, on-and-off affair provides more than enough drama to satisfy the movie-going public.

Who knows, Blue Moon of Kentucky could provide another jumpstart to bluegrass music, much as Deliverance and O Brother Where Art Thou did with their soundtracks. The difference here is that Blue Moon isn’t a movie that features Bill Monroe’s music – it’s a movie about Monroe and his music. This presents a great opportunity to not only expose a new audience to bluegrass music, but also to educate them about its characteristics and origins. Cross your fingers and hope Hollywood gets it right.
Posted:  6/25/2012

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