High Concept

The top ten grossing films of 2012 included two novel adaptations, three comic book interpretations and four direct sequels. In an industry that puts so much faith in projects that come with a ready-made fanbase, it is hard to understand why the album adaptation has been so prolifically overlooked. The casual observer would struggle to count the amount of big screen outings of successful albums on one hand. This is something of a shame, the rich tapestry of music history is packed with exciting, innovative and interesting narratives tucked away in the lyrics of acclaimed and respected songwriters.

The most famous of the existing films in this genre seem to be exclusive to the giants of British rock history. The Beatles tried many times to bring their music to theatres, sometimes successfully (A Hard Day’s Night, whilst not strictly a concept album, the film represents an early instance of taking LP tracks and twisting a narrative) and sometimes unsuccessfully (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a camp and ridiculous mess starring Peter Frampton and the Brothers Gibb as the eponymous Lonely Hearts). Prog rock legends Pink Floyd enlisted Alan Parker to direct a vision of their 1979 epic The Wall, whilst The Who created probably the two most successful concept album-cum-pictures in cult classics Tommy – directed by the late, great Ken Russell and featuring an eclectic cast to end all eclectic casts in Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner and Oliver Reed – and Quadrophenia (1979), the celebrated story of a young mod played by Phil Daniels.

The concept album is, admittedly, something of a hard medium to begin to adapt. The logistics of interpreting lyrics and relentless metaphor is unsurprisingly tricky and as with many of history’s un-filmable novels, the concept album often reaches too high into the clouds for the restraints of cinema technology, specifically in the formative years of progressive rock. Over the next eight examples I will attempt to suggest some interesting options for adaptation, some with a hint of social relevance and some just because, well, I want to see them.

David Comes to Life, by Fucked Up! (2011)

David Comes to Life, a sprawling punk-opera, tells the story of David, a Thatcher-era factory worker who falls in love with activist Veronica. Together in an act of protest – apparently against light bulbs – they plan to blow up the factory. However, they prove unsuccessful and Veronica dies in the blast. The rest of the album explores the aftermath and David’s struggle with his guilt and the realisation that in fact he is a puppet in the narrator’s story, in a tussle similar to that seen in Will Ferrell’s Stranger Than Fiction.

Why do we need the film?

Current events have thrown Thatcher’s Britain back into the spotlight and have pushed us into re-evaluating the late Baroness’ legacy. A new wave of eighties period dramas may be on the horizon, as filmmakers explore the lasting impact of a vital piece in the British puzzle. David, an insular yet fantastical story, could be the sort of project to bring this important time in our history to a new, younger audience.

Who should be involved?

Surrealism is the key word here, so immediately Terry Gilliam springs to mind; this would be an ideal gig for a man with first-hand experience of the cultural themes behind the story. Any young English actor would fit into the David role, possibly somebody like Craig Roberts of Submarine fame, who could juggle the drama and humour in a balanced and believable way. As for Veronica, Game of Thrones star and Skins alumni Hannah Murray hits the right note of kooky and unhinged for the beautiful but corruptive activist.

In the Aeroplane over the Sea, by Neutral Milk Hotel (1998)

Okay, so this one is something of a cheat. This is not strictly a concept album, as Jeff Mangum, the reclusive genius behind the nineties cult folk band, has never openly confirmed that the album follows a specific narrative thread relating to World War II icon Anne Frank. He has however noted his obsession with The Diary of a Young Girl leading up to the production of the album and anybody with ears will be able to see the influence in the track Holland, 1945. Whilst the album is notoriously difficult to interpret, the title track hints at the relationship between two lovers and the brevity of the moment.

“And one day we will die
And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young
Let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see
Love to be
In the arms of all I'm keeping here with me”

This could suggest a direction for a narrative, in the bond between Frank and Peter van Pels, a Dutch national living with Frank and her family during their hideout in Amsterdam.

Why do we need the film?

World War II is well-trodden ground in cinema and many small productions of The Diary of a Young Girl have been released on television and in theatres over the years. However, a real landmark Western release has yet to be put together. For one of modern history’s most enduring tales, proper big screen treatment could provide audiences with a new poignant and in some way beautiful perspective of such a dark, ugly and painful time.

Who should be involved?

Even the most distinguished of psychologists would struggle to picture exactly what goes on inside Mangum’s head. As an example of the type of imagery we’re discussing here, the cover to the record depicts a young boy, enjoying a trip to the sea with an older woman whose head has been replaced with a small drum. As such any director of creative merit would have to take their own control of the tone, as any attempt to recreate the unique feeling of the album would be a monumental uphill task. Steven Spielberg has proven his credentials as a creator of heartfelt, sensitive war dramas, if perhaps lacking the more off-beat touch of a Harmony Korine. Whilst Chloë Grace Moretz struck the right tone in Spielberg’s Hugo to suggest that she would play a believable Anne Frank.

Operation: Mindcrime, by Queensrÿche (1988)

Nikki is a heroin addict, brainwashed by the menacing Dr. X into committing a series of politically motivated murders. Our drug addled hero befriends a former prostitute-turned-nun Sister Mary, with whom he plots to escape the controlling arms of the Doctor. A socially corrupt and bleak World is created within the confines of an ambitious, heavy rock opera. Whilst one assumes the story is set in the present day – as it was 1988 – weighty themes and moral greyness evoke memories of cinema’s famous dystopian futures: Blade Runner, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Children of Men

Why do we need the film?

Simply put, the concept is exciting. Dystopian epics when put together successfully are one of cinema’s great wonders. Nikki’s tale is one of great pain, frustration and darkness that if lovingly constructed could live long in the memory. Stylistically influence can be taken from Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and controversial Cannes Festival selection Only God Forgives, using tacky neon lights and ultra-violence to create a bleak but somehow gorgeous vision of an eighties soaked future. Infused with a dash of heavy metal over indulgence, Mindcrime offers filmmakers a wealth of toys to play with.

Who should be involved?

Refn has spoken of his desire to move away from the aforementioned style with which he has become synonymous, as well as having never dealt with such high concepts. Moon director and Bowie Jr. Duncan Jones has shown a flair for the sci-fi epic as well as a touch for the human factor, a combination that could serve Mindcrime well, giving Jones an ideal platform to experiment with his visual style. As for protagonist Nikki, Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul has proven his acting chops as a sympathetic but unrelenting junkie and has yet to really find his feet in theatres.

American Idiot, by Green Day (2004)

Yet more tales of alienation and political revolution, this time in the form of pop-punk supremos Green Day. To date their most successful album, launching the three-piece from genre poster boys to household chart toppers, it tells the story of the Jesus of Suburbia who, bored and irritated by the mundane tedium of his neighbourhood, leaves for the bright lights of the city. Along the way he meets various characters, representing punk revolution and the angst of teenage love.

Why do we need the film?

The themes are Universal. From the attack on the establishment of the title track to the ballad of war and love in ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’, we can all find relevance in Idiot, making the story perfectly translatable to the big screen. Politically, the commentary against modern government becomes more pertinent every day, as officials become corrupted and old wars rattle on. It may be a decade since Idiot hit shelves, but its impact on mainstream music is enduring and a cinema release could represent the event movie that launches the concept album back into the public consciousness.

Who should be involved?

Jesus is young, he’s full of anger and he’s a slacker without any of the Apatow shtick. Former Misfits star Robert Sheehan has the unkempt, rugged charm that we would expect of our anti-hero, whilst having the natural on-screen charisma to carry such a high profile release. An unknown director, possibly out of the music video school, could match the anti-establishment tone of the acclaimed album.

Haunted, by Poe (2000)

Little remembered singer-songwriter Anne Decatur Danielewski, stage name: Poe, after the legendary horror novelist and poet, put out Haunted in 2000, failing to make any significant waves with the promotional single ‘Hey Pretty’. The album, an interesting, sometimes forgettable mix of pop and alternative rock, is considered a companion piece to a novel written by her brother in the same year. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a brilliant, original, terrifying piece of horror literature. Written in two parts, one first person rambling, the other in the style of an academic journal, it explores the contents and impact of the fictional “Navidson Record,” a documentary detailing supernatural events within a Seattle home.

Why do we need the film?

The insular, cheap haunted house is in vogue. The Paranormal Activity series leads the march of the found footage craze, releasing a sequel a year to coincide with the Halloween crowds. These movies are in danger of going stale, as each instalment scrambles for a selling point (the rotating camera of Paranormal Activity 2). Haunted, or more accurately House of Leaves, takes the next step of the haunted house picture. Exploring the human impact of a supernatural occurrence, Leaves takes the drama out of the doorway and into the mind.

Who should be involved?

Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick, the brains behind found footage forefather The Blair Witch Project, have yet to collaborate on a truly successful movie since the 1999 horror classic. Leaves represents an excellent chance for the pair to come together and re-write the horror handbook, just as they did in those cold, Maryland woods. A cast of unknowns would be an absolute must to remain faithful to the source material.

War of the Worlds, by Jeff Wayne (1978)

Now, bear with me here. I am fully aware that H. G. Wells’ alien invasion novel The War of the Worlds has two big screen adaptations to its name, in the 1953 Oscar-winner and the bumpy Tom Cruise vehicle of 2005. What I suggest is a cinema edition of Jeff Wayne’s musical interpretation. The opera tours the country still, most recently starring one Liam Neeson, delighting audiences with its sheer scale. The musical album and proceeding shows keep the Victorian setting of the original book, narrated in its first form by Richard Burton and scored by a series of excellent, infectious songs, most famously in ballad ‘Forever Autumn’.

Why do we need the film?

Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables has pushed musicals back into the spotlight. Always popular with Hollywood, from The Wizard of Oz through to Chicago, the musical has long been seen as a camp, feminine art form. Where last year’s Rock of Ages failed, War of the Worlds could succeed, in bringing the musical to a more male dominated audience. That is not say that men are short of genres aimed in their direction, but what Wayne’s vision could do is help encourage both sci-fi and musicals to move away from their stereotypical viewer. The music is excellent, the story is timeless and the original Victorian background has been untouched. It would work.

Who should be involved?

Recent successful musicals have proven that fantastic singers are not a prerequisite of a quality picture (Pierce Brosnan anyone?), with this in mind Liam Neeson would be a good choice to move his role onto the big screen. His role in the touring opera is not a singing one, however one would assume that it would be worth finding out if he is semi-competent. The challenge would be to find a way of incorporating the music in a traditional musical fashion, a task that a very top director would have to be chosen for. A role for a Tom Hooper as opposed to a Baz Luhrmann.

Illinois, by Sufjan Stevens (2005)

When folk genius Sufjan Stevens decided to write a sequence of albums, one for each of the fifty states of America, few thought he would succeed. They were right of course, that many – good - albums was impossible and he has since given up. However, the two completed works in this series, Michigan and Illinois, stand up as two of the most enduring records of the new century. The latter consists of twenty-two tracks, adding up to a rich tapestry of themes, stories and styles, exploring the exciting and heart breaking history of one of the country’s most famous States. From Superman, to a UFO sighting in the town of Highland, to the disturbing account of John Wayne Gacy, Jr. one of modern history’s most sadistic serial killers, these tales are fascinating and often hilarious.

Why do we need the film?

There is so much story to play with here. The patchwork of styles is a magnificent representation of the diversity that makes modern day America the country it is, a land of great imagination and pride in its culture. For British audiences it could provide an image of Americana that is removed from the gun-wielding, obese redneck population that we are so often subjected to.

Who should be involved?

Illinois would be an ensemble piece. A film of numerous narratives, many of the plots completely disconnected from others. It could be fun to try and put together a cast of Illinois natives, Harrison Ford and Bill Murray being two of The Prairie State’s most famous sons. A director used to working under ensemble conditions would be necessary to captain the good ship Illinois, somebody such as a Steven Soderbergh who showed a flair on 2011’s Contagion.

The Hazards of Love, by The Decemberists (2009)

Colin Meloy the brains behind folk outfit The Decemberists is something of a 21st century nerd. The Portland band’s discography features a song about the Spanish civil war (‘Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect’) and an album devoted entirely to a Japanese parable (The Crane Wife). The Hazards of Love is Meloy’s most pure narrative record. A fairy tale about William, a high born boy who falls in love with – and then impregnates – the beautiful Margaret. Their love is complicated by William’s jealous mother, the Queen, who conspires to murder his son’s new squeeze. A story of love, ghosts and death, The Hazards of Love is not The Decemberists’ most accomplished musical achievement, but the tale is a classic, unpretentious fairy tale.

Why do we need the film?

The Hazards of Love is universal. A simple tale of love, jealously and fear, fantasy fans will find plenty to enjoy in a World that has ample scope for imaginative license. A genre that has been relatively untouched over the last few decades, Love could rank amongst Cinderella and The Princess Bride as a classic, pure fairy tale picture. Also interestingly the tale serves as a modern parable, discussing the impossibility of negotiating the various hazards of love.

Who should be involved?

Since Guillermo Del Toro pulled out of The Hobbit the world has been aching to see what a Del Toro fantasy looks like. Pan’s Labyrinth, of course, has these elements, but not in such a clean fashion, having to fit around the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Whilst Labyrinth is a masterpiece, a real Del Toro fantasy would be an intriguing prospect, if it can’t be The Hobbit, why not The Hazards of Love?

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