Billie Eilish has already shown herself to be at least as complicated and idiosyncratic as Zappa was, if less sure of her place in the firmament. But then she’s still a teenager
There is quite a lot dividing Billie Eilish and Frank Zappa. More than six decades between their respective births, gender, a fair amount of facial hair and, of course, the fact that she is very much alive and he is very much not.
Yet a pair of documentaries, coincidentally released within a few days of one another, reveal them both emerging from Los Angeles as true originals.
Eilish has already shown herself to be at least as complicated and idiosyncratic as Zappa was, if less sure of her place in the firmament. But then she’s still a teenager.
This prodigiously talented singer-songwriter with 76 million Instagram followers and a James Bond theme already to her name, doesn’t turn 20 until December.
Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry (the subtitle invokes one of her lyrics, referencing her mental health struggles) offers an intriguing insight into her extraordinary life.
At well over two hours long, the film could have used a proper trim, but then couldn’t we all these days? None of Eilish’s zealous fans will mind being locked down all evening with R.J. Cutler’s documentary for company.
That life of hers is all the more extraordinary for being, in many respects, so conspicuously ordinary.
The film follows her on tour and working on her debut album, but for large chunks of it she’s in the unremarkable family home, where we see her back-chatting to her mother, horsing around with her brother and learning from her father how to wash her car, having just passed her driving test.
There is quite a lot dividing Billie Eilish and Frank Zappa (pictured). More than six decades between their respective births, gender, a fair amount of facial hair and, of course, the fact that she is very much alive and he is very much not
Admittedly, ‘all I want is a matt black Dodge Challenger’ is not a realisable yearning given to many teenagers from middle- class suburbia.
And there’s another telling moment when Eilish’s brother and musical collaborator, Finneas, shows her how many Spotify downloads she’s up to.
‘Is that million? Oh my God! I thought it was thousand. I was, like . . .’ For the record, the figure is 720 million. ‘That’s nuts, dude,’ says Finneas.
Nuts, indeed. But this film’s message is that she’s being properly nurtured and protected by her parents, unlike so many prodigies down the years. And also, that she’s entirely typical of her generation, not atypical.
There’s a sweet sequence when she meets her childhood idol Justin Bieber for the first time, and is overwhelmed.
How does she feel when Bieber lets it be known he’d like to feature on her album? ‘He could ask me to kill my dog and I would.’
None of Eilish’s zealous fans will mind being locked down all evening with R.J. Cutler’s documentary for company. That life of hers is all the more extraordinary for being, in many respects, so conspicuously ordinary
The best music documentaries strike a balance between delighting fans and informing non-fans. They can’t afford to bore either of those contingents. Neither Cutler’s film, nor Alex Winter’s Zappa get that quite right. They are really for devotees.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth watching, or at least dipping into, if you have even a passing interest in their subjects.
I can’t claim ever to have been much of a fan of Frank Zappa and his band The Mothers Of Invention, but Zappa assiduously archived his own life and Winter (less famous as a film-maker than he is for playing opposite Keanu Reeves in the Bill & Ted movies) has been given irresistible access.
Besides, anyone who collaborated with symphony orchestras, John Lennon and Alice Cooper has to be worth serious documentary attention. There are lots of terrific clips, and it’s worth concentrating just so that you don’t miss my favourite malapropism of the year so far.
To some people, says musician Ray White, the truth is ‘like Gaelic to a vampire’. That’s definitely what he says; I re-wound three times to check. There are some advantages to not watching films in cinemas.
Zappa (who died of prostate cancer in 1993) wasn’t one of those vampires recoiling from the Gaelic. If anything, he had a tendency to be too truthful.
Some of his lyrics were inflammatory, he all too cheerfully admitted on-tour dalliances to his wife Gail (extensively interviewed here) and, admirably, he didn’t mind anyone knowing that he disapproved of drugs.
It was a stance lampooned on the TV show Saturday Night Live in 1978. ‘What a mindblower,’ cried John Belushi, that Zappa wasn’t high while working on (his 1966 album) Freak Out!.
Drug abuse loomed large in Asif Kapadia’s brilliant 2019 documentary Diego Maradona.
Happily, the private life of one of the other principal claimants to the unofficial title ‘greatest footballer of all time’ has been less populated by demons.
But a comparatively untroubled existence is not always a gift to film-makers, so Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn do a fine job with Pele, focusing on how the great Brazilian — now 80, and born within a couple of months of Frank Zappa, as it happens — wasn’t merely a symbol of his nation’s coming-of-age in the 1960s, but actually ignited it. Fascinating stuff.
Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry is on Apple TV+ from today. Zappa is available on altitude.film, and Pele is on Netflix.
Just when you thought it safe to go back to the salon
The scheduled re-opening of hairdressing salons in April will give you time to watch The Stylist (★★★✩✩), a gory thriller about a psychotic hairdresser, without worrying too much that your next layered bob might be your last.
Jill Gevargizian’s polished film features a fine lead performance from Najarra Townsend as Claire, who works in a Kansas City salon where her hairstyling skills are second to none, but mask an unhinged personality.
Claire is lonely; her only social interaction is with her clients, who little suspect that the attractive redhead they see in the mirror is plotting to drug and scalp them.
One of Claire’s regulars, Olivia (Brea Grant) is about to get married. This leads to a bond of sorts, a growing obsession on Claire’s part and a creepy denouement to a film that isn’t exactly unblemished (in a city where a series of deaths and disappearances clearly point to a serial killer at work, you’d expect the local cops to be a tad more visible) but is nevertheless stylishly shot and classily acted.
Cut: Najarra Townsend in The Stylist. Claire is lonely; her only social interaction is with her clients, who little suspect that the attractive redhead they see in the mirror is plotting to drug and scalp them
The Owners (★★✩✩✩) is another thriller verging on horror, set in the English countryside. It is very nearly as gory as The Stylist but not remotely as good, despite the presence of young Game Of Thrones star Maisie Williams and a couple of screen veterans it’s always a pleasure to see, in Sylvester McCoy and Rita Tushingham.
They play a retired doctor and his dementia-stricken wife who return to their grand, secluded home one evening to find that it has been broken into by four young scoundrels, bent on robbing them.
The heavy-handed twist, far too predictable for this to count as a spoiler, is that the frail old home-owners gradually gain the upper hand over their assailants, turning out to be not at all what they seem.
The Last Vermeer (★★✩✩✩) is about a series of 17th-century masterpieces that also are not what they seem. The film chronicles the remarkable true story of Dutch artist Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce), one of whose ‘Vermeers’ was bought for a fortune by Hermann Goering, and the work of military investigator Joseph Piller (Claes Bang) in exposing him not as a traitor for selling the nation’s treasures to the Nazis — but as a forger.
Told in detail in the Mail last Saturday, it’s a thrilling tale which, alas, is given somewhat clunky treatment here, not helped by an uncharacteristically wooden, ill-at-ease performance from Bang, usually such a charismatic actor.
All three films are available on digital platforms from Monday.
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