Here in Wisconsin (and I suspect elsewhere in the United States) cover music, especially live cover music, has a suspect reputation. Our local markets are flooded with bands whose primary talent is presenting other, more famous bands’ original recordings, with pristine fidelity. The idea is, if you’ve never had a chance to see the Rolling Stones or the Beatles, here’s the next best thing. This gets the house a-rockin’, but artistically it leaves something to be desired. It’s simply an amped-up version of what you’d hear on the radio.
But cover music has its charms when there’s interpretation going on. It can be a tightrope act, particularly if the original band or song belongs to the canon of the beloved. If you’re going to take on the Stones or Beatles, you have to bring something new to the mix. No one will do what they did as well as they did it. But approached in the spirit of creativity, a cover version can give us two songs for the price of one. Or in the case of Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You,” three songs — versions by Dylan, George Harrison and Olivia Newton-John that are as unique as the artists themselves.
It’s easier when the acts carry distinctly different backgrounds — musically, culturally or even geographically. Consider Erma Franklin’s brassy, bluesy “Piece of My Heart.” Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Janis Joplin brought her own blues chops to the song, but her guttural screeching and the band’s wailing guitars steer the song into heavy metal territory. Listen to English bands like the Moody Blues taking on Bessie Banks’ “Go Now” or the Stones doing Irma Thomas’ “Time is on My Side,” and you’ll hear subdued, somewhat refined vocals where their predecessors unleashed full-throated, bruising pipes.
Sometimes nationality isn’t the distinction. The Who found Marvin Gaye’s bouncy “Baby Don’t You Do it” a perfect fit for their manic energy, while Gaye’s fellow North Americans The Band re-imagined the song in their trademark rootsy groove. It’s so interesting to hear the different ways people hear the same music.
And it’s not just music. Cinema has a similar tradition, and while I’m not as studied in film as music, most of the remakes I’ve seen — “Sabrina” comes to mind — stick to the script (pun intended). To be sure, you’ll see cosmetic changes, for instance to update clothing, gender roles and other cultural references from one era to another, but there’s no substantive structural alteration. The essential creative direction and message of the film remain intact.
But this winter, I had the opportunity, on back-to-back frosty December nights, to check out the Norwegian psychological thriller “Insomnia,” along with Christopher Nolan’s American remake. Told either way, it’s a taut whodunit involving a hotshot detective dispatched to the near-Arctic to solve a grisly murder, only to come unglued by insomnia in land of the midnight sun (in the American version, Alaska).
Again, I noticed some cosmetic variations that I’d attribute to the remake being a Hollywood product. The cold-blooded killing of a dog and suggestions of sex involving teenage schoolgirls are scrubbed from the American film. It makes sense. The intended audience is more multiplex than art house.
What’s most striking is the Europeans’ grasp of subtlety, and it begins with the detective. His background, motives, abilities, even his memories become wrapped in layers of ambiguity as sleeplessness peels away at his reality. His American counterpart, played by Al Pacino, is more clearly defined. He carries his own baggage from the Lower 48, but that backstory comes into focus as the plot moves toward resolution, rendering the confusion of insomnia a secondary concern. Equally palpable is the arch-villain Robin Williams, whose actions and intentions, while twisted, make sense. The film’s most effective display of subtlety lies in the blurring, through a shared guilty past, of the evil and good that Williams and Pacino are meant to represent. In that way it’s an existential film, in which two men struggle to preserve their identities amid the moral fog of endless arctic daylight. Insomnia doesn’t cause the confusion, it merely brings it to the fore.
The Norwegian original, meanwhile, pays less attention to the protagonist-antagonist relationship in favor of the detective’s internal struggle for sanity. Solving the crime becomes less important as day after sleepless day wear down the veneer of certainty. Stellan Skarsgard plays the role with a characteristic nordic coolness that vacillates between intriguingly mysterious and frustratingly passionless. It’d be interesting to see how the hot-headed and expressive Pacino would’ve approached the role in the Norwegian production.
And then there’s the ending. (Spoiler alert: Stop here if you plan to watch either film.) That Pacino’s detective finds redemption through death is a common American — especially Hollywood — cinematic resolution. That is to say, neat and tidy. Death settles all scores. It acknowledges the detective’s flawed character, finally free of the dark secrets that threatened to consume him, redeemed through heroically bringing Williams — also dead and perhaps free of his demons as well — to justice. No such luck with Skarsgard, whose transgressions are uncovered but ultimately overlooked by the local authorities, leaving him to return home to his day job, and the audience to return home with more questions than answers. How typically European.
So which film works better? Which approach, which cinematic tradition wins out? That’s obviously not the point. It’s the interpretations that matter and the differences that interest me. They help us understand not only where the filmmakers are coming from — both literally and artistically — but how they perceive their audiences. Without those differences, they’re just copying an original, like a flawless, soulless Rembrandt reproduction. Or in musical terms, a cheesy cover band.