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How women in music dominated at this year's Toronto International Film Festival

Melody Lau

Hollywood has told many great real and fictitious stories of musicians over the years, from biopics on Ray Charles (Ray), Johnny Cash (Walk the Line) and Bob Dylan (I'm Not There), to the Spinal Taps and Stillwaters of the film world that audiences have latched on to as if they were the real deal.

A quick scroll through the best music films ever made, though, and one will notice an emphasis on the male artist as the star of such films, brought to fruition a lot of times by male directors and screenwriters who have helped uphold the idea of a patriarchal music canon.

Of course, there have been films focused on women (Selena, Dreamgirls, The Runaways) but lately it appears that stories of women in music are on the rise — and that trend was most apparent at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. It's a great step forward for female narratives onscreen but, as the films discussed will reveal, there is still work to be done before that aforementioned canon can be totally overhauled.

Five films stood out at TIFF that all told stories about women who dream of making it big in the music world: A Star is Born, Her Smell, Vox Lux, Wild Rose and Teen Spirit. While the structures are all similar — a talented woman strives for fame and ends up going to various lengths to achieve or maintain success — each film on this roster couldn’t be any more different from one another.

A Star is Born is arguably the biggest film of the bunch, a marquee event at TIFF that stars first-time director and actor Bradley Cooper opposite real-life pop star Lady Gaga. This marks the third remake of A Star is Born, which originally came out in 1937 featuring the Oscar-nominated Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and is a classic Hollywood tale that follows a worn-out star (Cooper’s Jackson Maine) who discovers a struggling up-and-comer (Gaga’s Ally) and falls in love in the process. (Older versions use different character names, and the 1937 film is about becoming an actor as opposed to a singer.) As in the previous iterations, alcoholism and addiction fuel the downfall of Cooper’s character, and this rubs up against the rise of Ally’s career as a Britney-esque pop star.

The four other titles aren’t carbon copies of this decades-old model, though. Each of them offer up new and different perspectives, looking into the same world as Cooper’s film but through another lens.

Her Smell places the theme of self-destruction — and the effects substance abuse has on relationships — on its female rock star protagonist, Becky Something, played by the wonderfully unhinged Elisabeth Moss. Wild Rose views its heroine, Scottish ex-convict Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley), from the vantage point of her family, which she continually neglects in order to pursue her dream career in Nashville. Teen Spirit is the sole film that focuses on approaching the industry as a young, impressionable wannabe pop star, played by Elle Fanning, who joins a singing competition in order to escape her small-town existence in the U.K. And while Vox Lux starts off looking at teenage singer Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) as she launches into superstardom off of the back of a violent tragedy, it leap frogs into the future to focus on how that success has swallowed her whole as an adult (later played by Natalie Portman), and hangs its premise on the parallels between pop music and terrorism.

At a time when festivals such as TIFF have pledged to improve on gender disparity in their programming, it is refreshing to see so many complex roles that explore what it means to be a woman in music dealing with the pressures and demands of becoming a star, and generally building empathetic portraits of the oftentimes two-dimensional personas who grace magazine covers. Especially when mental health and addiction have been a consistent headline in music — Demi Lovato’s return to rehab, and the death of rapper Mac Miller, just to name two recent examples — these films can help pull the curtain back on a perceived glamorous lifestyle. To see these women broaden their roles outside of being primarily a public figure — an addict, a mother, a daughter, an ex-convict, a survivor — is to help audiences relate.

Seemingly, one of the only threads tying these films together is the people behind the camera — and this highlights a key area for improvement. All the films mentioned were directed by men, and all but one were written by men. (Wild Rose’s original screenplay was written by Nicole Taylor.) As mentioned, these films portray complicated women who grapple with fame in different ways, in relation to different aspects of their lives. And while each film’s star actors are collaborative with their directors to varying degrees — for instance, Gaga and Buckley helped co-write songs for their respective movies and Portman is an executive producer of Vox Lux — full autonomy is never in the hands of the women. This is not to say men can’t direct films about women, but to simply point out the fact that women deserve an equal chance to tell these stories by helming scripts and sitting behind the camera with complete control.

It’s great to see the effort put into understanding how the gears work behind the music industry in these specific films. But, in order for that to work, the people working on the films portraying these characters should ideally reflect some diversity as well. Let’s hope next year’s films build on this momentum and learn to fine-tune these tales.


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