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The difficulties of making a musical biopic now.

The difficulties of making a musical biopic now. (photo)

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It’s not unusual for things from the underground (whatever that is anymore) to percolate up to the mainstream without their creators getting the mainstream recognition they deserve: Brakhage and Derek Jarman become music videos, XTC becomes Franz Ferdinand and so on. But what happens if you keep the cycle insular?

Right now, we’re awash in musical biopics about bands and musicians whose fame, in their day, was hardly overhwhelming. “The Runaways” focuses on a band whose first two albums actually peaked at #194 and #172 on the Billboard charts. The best-selling album of 1979 was Billy Joel’s “52nd Street,” but you may hold your breath in vain for a Joel biopic. Joy Division’s “Closer” didn’t even come close that year, which is presumably why we’ve been treated to two fictional depictions of Ian Curtis in the last decade (supporting player in “24 Hour Party People,” lead player in “Control”).

Documentaries are a whole other mess. If people look back at the ’60s and ’70s through documentaries and concert films like “Monterey Pop” (Simon & Garfunkel! The Who! Hendrix!) or “Gimme Shelter” (The Rolling Stones), the recent fragmentation of the pop culture experience into ever smaller and more insular segments — especially when it comes to music — makes it well-nigh impossible to imagine someone setting out to make a music doc (be it a profile film or straight up concert film).

In the ’80s, Jonathan Demme made “Stop Making Sense” and captured Talking Heads at their personal best; in the aughts, he’s filmed Neil Young not once but twice, which is as conservative as you can get. Reaching into the past is all you can do if you want to make a movie about a widely beloved musical figure. Contemporary musical docs focus on beloved acts with strong cults: there’s no theatrical movie about Nickelback (30 million records sold worldwide and counting), but there’s one about Danielson.

03232010_young.jpgBands now look to commercial licensing and movies to make money off their music more than album sales (duh); this is why one day you look up and the opening for “Step Brothers” is set to a Vampire Weekend song to stay ahead of the curve, amidst the usual ’80s rawk the Apatow kids love. Broken Social Scene can be the fulcrum of a movie; the Old 97’s can cameo in “The Break Up.” So it’s trickled down to the mainstream. But all the old-school lions of popular music either already had their biopic or probably never will.

Maybe that’s because the big-selling stuff doesn’t have the same cultural pull or urgency anymore — generations don’t unite around the new equivalent of “Thriller” or whatever. And if you’re in the mainstream, you don’t worry too much about the cultural legacies of what you like (unless you’re one of those people who clogs up Twitter on behalf of Justin Bieber, who trends every single day). But there’s still a pull of urgency to championing acts, even these many years on, you think are undervalued/-known. You can’t really make them fit the “Behind The Music” arc (it rarely gets that extreme with the financial stakes that much lower), but people will keep trying. If music is fragmented, the world of music films — fictional or documentary — is much the same.

[Photos: “The Runaways,” Apparition, 2010; “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” Paramount Vantage, 2006]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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