Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The Janelle Monáe thriller Antebellum was supposed to hit theaters. In its absence, we’re looking back at films starring musicians.
For anyone who came of age during the alternative rock onslaught of the early ’90s, it was hard to picture Courtney Love as a movie star. True, the lead singer and guitarist of grunge-turned-glitzy-pop-rock band Hole had a few film credits to her name, thanks to brief appearances in punk auteur Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy and Straight To Hell. But those performances were as rough and proudly unvarnished as the films themselves. With a very public history of heroin use and an outspoken, unapologetically disheveled demeanor, the notion that the artist could sublimate her own rambunctious impulses long enough to commit to an entire film performance seemed as plausible as Hootie And The Blowfish headlining the Warped Tour.
But after husband Kurt Cobain’s death, Love began an overhaul of her image. She transformed herself for the big screen with small but well-performed roles in arthouse hit Basquiat and studio romance Feeling Minnesota. Then she was cast as the third lead, opposite Woody Harrelson and Ed Norton, in Milos Forman’s The People Vs. Larry Flynt, and suddenly the idea of Love as a movie star didn’t seem so strange. The film is a breezy delight, and so is her performance, which earned the rocker a Golden Globe nomination and heaps of critical praise.
Fusing Forman’s commercially minded sensibility he brought to his American films with an almost Altman-esque strategy of cutting from sequence to sequence over roughly 15 years of history, the film follows the life of Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt (Harrelson). After a brief snippet of his childhood, we watch Flynt as he meets the love of his life, Althea Leasure (Love), founds the magazine, becomes a millionaire, and winds up an unlikely poster child for free-speech activism—a crusade at once righteous, lucrative, and self-promoting. All the while, of course, the porn impresario and his wife enjoy a never-ending party of devoutly polyamorous sex and drugs—a hedonistic lifestyle that ended in tragedy for Althea.
While the film’s ostensible focus is Flynt’s idiosyncratic legal battles over the First Amendment, Forman—like the man whose life he was dramatizing—was captivated by Althea. And it’s not hard to see why: Love brings the wily and unpredictable energy of her public image to the role. Even during morning brainstorming sessions inside the Hustler offices, there’s a mischievous glint in Althea’s eyes, an almost dangerous sense that she was capable of anything. An early scene establishes that, despite the melancholy ending (Leasure would drown in a bathtub, after years of AIDS-related illness, in 1987), this isn’t going to be a pity party for Althea, another tale of a woman whose man turns on her after success spoils him. On Althea’s birthday, while the two are sitting in the run-down offices where Hustler was born, Harrelson’s Flynt fires some misdirected ire in Althea’s direction, telling her the special day doesn’t give her permission to “act like a bitch” and even slapping her. Althea erupts: “Don’t you ever fuckin’ hit me!” she yells, threatening to walk out the door for good. Flynt is instantly cowed, realizing that his behavior will have to change if he wants to keep this woman in his life. It plays like someone flipped a switch inside the usually ambling and easygoing woman—Love, all volcanic intensity, makes it clear that for all the character’s loose comic energy, that ferocity is always just below the surface.
The movie suffers a bit from the usual biopic choppiness, but Forman leans into it, keeping a lively sense of pacing despite the two-plus hour running time. And the film never asks you to pick Flynt’s side, merely the side of constitutionally protected free speech. “I’m not trying to convince you that you should like what Larry Flynt does—I don’t like what Larry Flynt does,” Norton’s crusading lawyer tells a courtroom. The publisher remains a figure of distant fascination, a complex fusion of open-hearted generosity and odious, megalomaniacal sexism. But Love is the mesmerizing center of the tale, whether portraying the early years or the drug-addled final months of Leasure’s life. It’s unfortunate that her big-screen career didn’t really take off from here—she’s been close to this compelling only once since, in another Forman biopic, Man On The Moon. (Though she has kept busy with guest roles in TV shows like Empire and Sons Of Anarchy this past decade.) But it’s no coincidence that after a rousing Supreme Court climax, Forman’s film ends with Flynt alone, in his bedroom, watching home movies of Althea. The best part of his story (and his biopic) was her.