Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Behind the sneer: James Hetfield and the family Metallica

Rummaging through the crammed music shelves at Barnes and Noble in late December with my friends the Rock Critics, I learned that every agent's dream--though not every rock critic's, apparently--is to contract for a biography. There's gold in them thar lives, if you can transmute popular taste before it turns to dust. For instance, with Yield juicing up critics' polls but leaving buyers cold, Five Against One: The Pearl Jam Story didn't do as well as was hoped. Marilyn Manson, however, scared enough parents and authority figures to pave the best-selling Long Hard Road Out of Hell with $20 bills. And everyone who added to our collective store of knowledge about 'N Sync or Leonardo DiCaprio no doubt made out like bandits.

Which is to say that from top to bottom, our culture is saturated with biography. The Web may be our pre-eminent source, with everyone from newborn babies to tenured professors equally entitled to claim bandwidth for her life's story. Not to be outdone, the book world has kept pace. Whether you're unraveling the complexities of artist Joseph Cornell's boxes or thrilling to Backstreet Boy Nick Carter's offstage travails (as told by his mother), there's guaranteed to be a life-and-times tale for your demographic. Poppy or serious, quick-and-dirty or mined from the archives, pathological or hagiographical, your niche is represented by a whole aisle of the local superstore.

VH1's Behind the Music claims two generations' worth of nostalgia for its niche, and the series is probably as good as this genre gets. Mixing TV's immediacy and shallowness with more literary senses of narrative and history, it creates a unique hybrid: utter trivia that manages to be utterly absorbing.

Consumed one after another, VH1's profiles become addictive without any guilty lows: While I wouldn't put "David Cassidy: Behind the Music" up against Ron Chernow's Titan, I didn't feel bad about watching it, either--an impressive achievement for the music channels, which always seem to make you regret the time you've wasted on them before you turn on the set. With successes like this, VH1 completes its evolution from rock Geritol to adult MTV-alternative. This baby-boom historiography is much sharper, more thought-provoking, and far more consistently watchable than its teen-coveting sibling.

What's the secret? Amazingly enough, it's a complete lack of irony. The rise and fall of, say, Culture Club, could well be of only anthropological interest--yet another interlude in the ever-transient British music scene. But these lives don't work out that way. Milling the simplest of pop epiphanies through the most elemental of narratives--early memories/success/problems/final accounting--Behind the Music is at its best spinning footnotes into whole books. Enhanced by the full Ken Burns treatment--old photos and memorabilia; performance footage and videos; studio interviews with band members, interested bystanders, and what pass for experts (on Madonna, Anne Rice and Rosie O'Donnell; on Bette Midler, Barry Manilow and Jann Wenner)--even the most seemingly banal tales turn out more complicated than you might think.

You may, for example, remember Lionel Richie as a maker of astoundingly lightweight (even for the '80s, which is saying something) dance-pop or perhaps as perpetrator of the immortal couplet "I had a dream/I had an awesome dream." Any way you sliced him, he came up cheese.

But watch VH1's take and you can't help contemplating Richie as a historic figure. A prototypical account of black middle-class uplift, from an early emphasis on hard work through assimilation both musical and marital, his story is undergirded by sincere belief in God, an unwavering sense of family responsibility--when his father became ill, Richie camped at his bedside for two years--and a fundamental decency toward others. (Even when discussing battery charges against his soon-to-be ex-wife, Richie refuses to lay blame.) By the time we make it to a bestubbled, wiser man gamboling with new wife and son on the beach, it's hard not to think of the hour as a poignant vignette about crossover success in America. "Character," he tells us, "can only be achieved when it's tested." And who better to offer us that lesson than someone who previously seemed so untroubled and insubstantial?

The series itself never makes such grandiose claims, of course, and not every profile can bear that weight. While the Def Leppard bio was surprisingly engrossing, nothing about the band's escape from Sheffield, England, mustered the historicity of such boomtown-in-decline stories as The Full Monty or Roger and Me. And though Shania Twain "crawled on broken glass to get where she is," I still don't feel her pain. But even in these cases, the sociology is effortless--and instructive. Former millionaire MC Hammer, his plush estate now on the market, seems a textbook case of hubris...or is he a casualty of racism?

Either way, we're urged to sympathize rather than mock, and it takes a heart harder than mine to withstand that invitation. By resisting the easy sneer, Behind the Music finds a gut-level sincerity--a connection that doesn't seem to have been cooked up by a record promoter. And by conveying grimy details about the famous, it less pulls them down than lifts us up: The rich, it turns out, aren't very different from you and me. (Although they are, it seems, a bit richer.)

Consider the Metallica bio, which makes intelligible what I'd always dismissed as a thuddingly humorless techie band. Their fans' clannish loyalty makes perfect sense, however, when explored from the inside: They demanded Metallica's existence just as the band members needed each other, molding living community from a worldwide assortment of weirdo subcultures. Danish drummer Lars Ulrich's dad is a freaky-haired hippie more out-there than his offspring; singer/guitarist James Hetfield, by reputation a loudmouth redneck, turns funny and reflective about his Christian Science upbringing in Southern California; and the father of deceased original bassist Cliff Burton, despite the upright carriage and no-bullshit demeanor of a retired military man, reminisces fondly about his son's chronic head-banging injuries. You even understand why the quartet has clung so desperately to near-classical compositions--music that represents everything worth saying about why they joined a metal band in the first place.

The acknowledged peak of Behind the Music is, of course, the Milli Vanilli hour. Tragedy or farce--both, really--the show traces the incredible (but true!) career trajectory of these well-built Belgian mannequins who found themselves megastars in 1989 and international laughingstocks two years later. (So complete was their humiliation that one could return the band's CDs for a refund, as if the music contained on them had somehow become less entertaining.) Interviewed for the documentary, they seem befuddled even now by what exactly happened.

Yet both members exude a dignity and even a rueful humor about their precipitous decline--qualities that make it difficult not to take their side against exploitative producers who made them something they never meant to be, and mean-spirited critics who carped about authenticity from an act that had made no pretenses to same. As is often the case, the punishment far exceeded the crime. And then Rob Pilatus turned up dead in a Frankfurt hotel room, victim of a perhaps intentional overdose--occasioning a VH1 special on his life alone that adds yet another wrinkle to a story already twisted far beyond belief.

At once completely unimportant and emotionally ravishing, this modern morality tale allows us to inscribe it with whatever significance we need. Is it a fable of racial exploitation? A warning on the wages of sin? A glimpse of the transience of fame? Proof that no one goes broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public?

In the end, the Milli Vanilli story, like almost every peek behind the music, is neither heartwarming nor heartbreaking but something better: human. Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, they speak for you?


Behind the Music's Teen Idol Week airs next week; check listings.

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