THE ICARUS LINE MUST DIE: Bizarre Yet Beautiful Musical Biopic
Hard to comprehend, The Icarus Line Must Die has a strange dream-like atmosphere that seemingly evades definition.
Whilst most musical biopics exist only to glorify and romanticise a band and its legacy, The Icarus Line Must Die is honest and inauspicious in its exploration of L.A.’s music scene.
The film follows Joe Cardomone as he explores strands of his professional life (The Icarus Line frontman and the owner of a recording studio) and personal life (a husband and friend to many other artists in the scene). As Cardomone receives multiple death threats, his paranoia blurs the line between real and imaginary.
Beyond this, the film abandons all pretense of narrative thrust and lingers, as Cardomone does, in its L.A. backyards and sweaty music venues. Instead of dragging the film, this Lebowski-esque lack of pace dictates the tone and atmosphere – the feeling of going nowhere perfectly echoes the frontman’s career and melancholy state of affairs.
Whilst many might be put off by the absolute lack of direction in the narrative, the abandonment of so many cinematic conventions is where the film shines. It’s a compelling mood piece that thrives on the city, the people and their music, without glorifying or downplaying the troubles of any of them.
Crossing the Icarus Line
The heart of the film, the thing that elevates it from a meandering drama into an impressive – albeit sometimes confusing – work of art, is in how it balances the precipitous line between fiction and non-fiction. This balancing act is as much a feat as the film itself.
Cardomone really is the frontman of The Icarus Line, a real band from L.A. that never really made it big. His wife, his colleagues, his friends, the other bands – they are all the real people; there are no actors in The Icarus Line Must Die, and none of the cast are playing anyone other than themselves. Yet at the same time, elements are clearly scripted or constructed just for the film, keeping the film’s anti-narrative driving.
This line between real and fake can be playful and fickle as the story needs – whilst some scenes are clearly fabricated, such as two rich kids who try to use Cardomone’s recording studio, other scenes work purely because they’re so ineffable – an audition by Ariel Pink to join the band works because no one, seemingly not even the other members of the band, know if it is for real or just for the film.
Some of the best scenes, that contribute most to the thematic narrative, work because they’re clearly unscripted. A conversation between Cardomone and Annie Hardy staggers between reptilian overlords, his desire to record her newest song, and his need to buy a gun – the idiosyncratic way the conversation flows could clearly never be written in a script, and attests both to the realistic nature of the film and Cardomone’s relationships to the people around him.
The heart and soul of the film stem from the fact that these people are clearly not putting on airs – the troubles and woes they face as part of their musical careers are real troubles and woes for people that have lifestyles like Cardomone, as they struggle to stay afloat in an underground scene.
It’s Not An Act
An unfortunate side effect to the realism of the film is that some people shown on screen are clearly uncomfortable in front of a camera. Of course none of the cast are trained actors, but many scenes have people who seem more like rabbits caught in headlights than natural friends of Cardomone.
Whilst some conversations are idiosyncratic, like the aforementioned Annie Hardy dialogue, others seem like people are trying to remember lines or topics they’re supposed to discuss. Conversations early in the film seem to take on a reality-show-style, where participants dive between over-acting and constant hedging in a way that destroys the façade of realism.
The cast are best when they ignore the cameras – Cardomone’s wife Charlotte Cardomone seems to revel in the few scenes she’s in, and the members of The Icarus Line all seem charming and natural. Of course the star is Cardomone himself – whether he’s talking to a friend or sitting alone, he never pays the camera any mind. Whilst this successfully highlights the tones and themes of the scenes he’s in, it does show up the bad scenes by contrast.
Stars of the Show
For a film about a singer, his band and the music scene, it’s important that the music chosen is illuminative and reflective. Thankfully the music for the film, curated by Cardomone with select instrumental tracks written by him for the film, celebrate the musical scene without becoming self-congratulatory or overbearing for the most part.
Several bands play whole songs live in the film, including Pink Mountaintops and together PANGEA. Whilst many of these songs are fitting to the tone of the film when they play, and are edited seamlessly into the flow of their scenes, at several points the bands overact or overperform. When a band is supposed to be recording in a studio, it looks bizarre for them to be jumping around as though they’re performing live, and it only seems as though they’re showing off for the camera.
At other points an original score for the film plays, written by Cardomone, which truly attests to his musical ability. The score encompasses a variety of instruments that seem a far cry from the rock-heavy diegetic music, yet the pieces always feel appropriate and nuanced to suit the mood.
The film may dive into the L.A. music scene, but not only is knowledge of music not imperative for understanding the film, it avoids condescension by implicity pointing out who people are – an audience can deduce importance through interactions and dialogue.
The Icarus Line Must Die: Conclusion
The Icarus Line Must Die is a hard film to comprehend. The grey line between real and fake, coupled with particular direction choices such as the constant black-and-white or the absence of establishing shots, creates a strange dream-like atmosphere that seemingly evades definition. The film points no fingers at particular themes or ideas, and the lack of narrative seems designed to evade questions of arcs or progression. In this respect, the film is a better representation of real life than even most documentaries manage to be.
Despite being written by Cardomone, the film is brazen in its depictions of his shortcomings, his worries and fears, and the troubles he has with other people. It doesn’t glorify him or the bands of the music scene, instead depicting the troubled humans behind the veneer of music at their highest and lowest.
He ties the film together, and the highs and lows he faces on a daily basis are portrayed fantastically through his performance – if performance is the right word for what seems like his typical demeanour. His actions and reactions are understated yet communicate effectively the ideas motivations that drove him to participate so fully in this film.
At its best The Icarus Line Must Die is a charismatic and nuanced exploration of frontman Joe Cardomone’s personal and professional life, and at its worst it plays out like a TV reality show – yet the weak elements never manage to kill the film. This documentary-cum-drama shines a fascinating light on the L.A. music scene , and through the way its style seems designed to defy Hollywood-esque tendencies, opting for an almost French New Wave style of filmmaking, it illuminates its topic in the artistic yet honest way its subject deserves.
Should a biopic glorify its topic, or is it more honest to show a band at their lowest?
The Icarus Line Must Die was released June 22 in North America.
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