Most popular music biographies, whether in print or on film, have the same lacuna. They deal well with the pre-fame years. This period is often covered in great detail, particularly in musicians’ autobiographies, which may say something about the arrested development that fame forces upon its recipients. Music biographies also deal reasonably well with the years of the fame, albeit that this period frequently turns out to be more dull than the pre-fame years.
What is missing or what tends to be obfuscated is how this fame is achieved. There is usually a quick leap between obscurity and mass adulation. This can be frustrating, particularly for those who want to have similar success. The aspirant musician is left with no clue as to how it is achieved.
There are various possible reasons why the attainment of success is glossed over. One is that artists and their employers would like it to be mystified. The work that goes into making it is either more prosaic or more undignified than they would want to be made known. Another reason is that the success might not be as ‘popular’ as it has commonly appeared. The cash nexus between the artist and fan might be superseded by various behind-the-scenes deals.
Or perhaps the attainment of success genuinely is peculiar. Artists may well have made it without knowing quite what has happened. One of the filmic conventions for demonstrating rapid success is to show a montage sequence of escalating hysteria, accompanied by swirling media headlines documenting the artist’s rise. I used to be frustrated with these, but have come to think that this maybe is how success feels. Take-off can be so sudden that it feels as though it has taken place in jump cuts. Meanwhile, the newspaper headlines neatly summarise the role of the media in both covering and amplifying success.
The second episode of ‘Cilla’ was on British television last night. This three-part drama documentary is charting the career of the singer Cilla Black. The first episode was concerned with her pre-fame years. Last night’s episode documented the arrival of fame. Unusually, it was more interesting than the early years. It also made a better stab than most at communicating how the attainment of success feels. It helped that the great Sheridan Smith was playing the lead role. It also helped that the true Cilla story contains elements that are both dramatic and sudden. She moved quickly from being on the fringes of the Beatles’ scene (famously being the cloakroom attendant at the Cavern Club) to being a signed recording artist.
That said, the programme glossed over a great deal and included much dramatic licence. Although Cilla was shown in the recording studio, there was no indication that she promoted her releases. Instead, she was shown back in Liverpool, waiting for news from the distant metropolis. She received this news via a public call box. While there might have been an element of truth in this, surely she could have listened to the chart run-down on a radio. Nevertheless, I found myself sharing her elation when she heard that she had made it to number one. I found myself thinking, yes, that is what it must feel like. This is because it showed Cilla on the cusp and in-between. It was her who had made the hit record, but its ascension was happening apart from her, while she remained in her old world. The phone box was a portal to new places and to different time-frames, just as it is in Dr Who. Maybe I just want the mystification to remain.