The biopic starts when she’s smiling as a baby, her outdated eighties toddler clothing mixing daisies and plaid, her baby pictures an odd juxtaposition with the fact that we (in the dark room in the velvety seats in front of the screen) all know that she died of a coke overdose at twenty-nine. We’re waiting for the film to mention that. They interview her parents. Stoic mom with feathered hair, leather-skinned dad with a choked-up voice. Stories conflict a tiny bit. Divorce. Different colors of wallpaper fill two backgrounds.
They establish her prowess, her genius, by showing a few shots of her, rust-red Gibson in hands, plucking away at notes in her late teens. She looks so much younger. Her cheeks are rounder. Her navy athletic shorts fit horribly. From my perspective in my dark velvety seat, I like that.
They make a sudden cut to her fame, magazine covers spinning out of thin air with her picture on the cover. Video clips with her skin tinged purple from the spotlights on a massive stage. I want to step back, to see her sitting on that brown couch again, plucking out notes, to see the way a thread of thought becomes a note and a song. I want to watch her scratching on a notepad with a dull yellow pencil, and bringing her ideas to someone and recording a rough first take filled with voice cracks. I want to paw through her notebooks and listen to her slowly explain her process in her speaking tone. Instead I get a read-aloud part of a Rolling Stone interview. I don’t know who’s reading. They’re not shown onscreen.
I can’t look away from the way that the man who loved her looks at her. The narrator says they fought when they were drunk but I think to myself that I fight everyone when I’m dead sober. I wonder if he would stop in the doorway and listen as she practiced in their home, not announcing his presence, just leaning against the doorframe. Or if he was the type who didn’t like all that sound in his house. I wonder if he complimented her songs, or if he knew which ones were about him, if any.
Do drugs really facilitate art for some people? Does art facilitate drugs? Nagging thoughts facilitate art for me, the kind that won’t leave me alone until I put them to rest by writing them down. These are the thoughts that her songs had always echoed and answered for me, her honeyed chords that drifted through my bulky headphones.
The biopic focuses in on the drugs themselves, leaving their links to anything in her life, art or anxiety or interpersonal relationships, nebulous. I watch her become thinner and hate myself for considering it beautiful, then watch her become emaciated and feel a wave of grief. Her tattoos sag.
I leave the theater once the biopic has ended. It ended on a positive note, though I don’t remember how they did it. Shaking the hand of a celebrity I admire is often, in fact, seeing them bored, a tired artist waiting for going back to the van for some food or a nap or waiting for the opportunity to wash their hands after all the shakes.
Watching the biopic of a celebrity I admire is less of a process of finding answers than a finding of the holes in a story. I’ve read the interviews in the Rolling Stone, but I don’t get to study the full range of expressions possible in her face, the types of things she says during dinner from her seat at the kitchen counter, the actual joys and frustrations behind the watered-down snippets of dialogue we encounter on the glossy page of a magazine, one I’m sure she regarded with the same disdain as myself when hearing my own voice in a recording, or saying something hollow, a fast “I love you” or “It’s okay,” to avoid having to express things more complex that could easily be misunderstood. Instead, I want to walk astride her, sun setting beyond the concrete, hands in our pockets. In silence.