A Star Is Torn

A legendary, tragic love story set in the rock-n-roll milieu for a change? Or a cool rock-n-roll epos that incorporates elements of a tragic love story? Daisy Jones & The Six, the bestselling novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid, works on both levels, infusing everything with a nice shot of 70s nostalgia while perpetuating the eternal trope that great art is born mainly from pain and suffering. Although the film version of the glamorous rock star fiction as an Amazon Prime series makes a few dramaturgical modifications, it is a more than congenial reincarnation of the original book – and it gives the world the music album of a group that doesn’t even exist.

The 70s are over: Daisy Jones & The Six have made it – they are globally celebrated rock stars. But at the very height of their career, the band breaks up. Fans are stunned. How could it have come to this? Many years later, the estranged band members and some of their confidantes are interviewed separately for a documentary. All the little comments, anecdotes and sometimes contradictory reckonings morph into abundant flashbacks – the rise and fall of a brilliant band unfolds, including the true reasons behind the break-up. Only at the end does it become clear who is conducting the enlightening interviews. It’s a heart-warming revelation with a surprising twist.

From romantic fiction to hit series to chart success

For decades, feature films were the ‘non plus ultra’ when it came to telling stories for the big screen and on screens of all kinds. But contrary to all assertions about our fast-paced times and continually shrinking attentions spans, the opulent series format has been gaining ground for some time now. It offers the chance of letting a story unfold believably and in several narrative threads, of giving characters depth, and of exploring all the positive and negative dynamics between the protagonists. It seems hard to believe, but fans stay engaged, even for six to ten episodes and even for several seasons – if a series is done well. This is also true of pop biopics and -stories. In spite of their entertainment value, several 90- to 120-minute movies have already suffered from the fact that the script had to be limited to a few central topics, and that a band just seen playing rather amateurishly in a run-down provincial club is next seen being celebrated by a large festival audience, only to show its ultimate demise soon after.

The makers of the Amazon Prime series Daisy Jones & The Six have not only benefited from the strengths of the series format, but have also thoroughly exploited the marketing potential of the original, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s successful book by the same name. A clever dramatization, captivating cast and polished performance have allowed them to create a gripping series that you can immerse yourself in for almost ten hours. And instead of a conventional soundtrack album with different artists contributing the songs, they have actually brought the fictional Daisy-Jones-&-The-Six album Aurora to life. As a result, the fictional group and their songs are in the international charts, like a real rock performance.

Fleetwood Mac (and others) send their regards

Two narrative threads initially emerge from the flashbacks. There are the Dunne Brothers, a band led by the sometimes authoritarian frontman Billy Dunne, who are trying to gain a foothold somewhere in Pennsylvania, mostly with cover versions. And then there’s Daisy Jones in Los Angeles, an unconventional young woman surviving through odd jobs, but who is secretly dreaming of a career as a singer-songwriter. The story gains traction when Daisy comes to the attention of the renowned but no longer quite so successful music producer Teddy Price, who takes her under his wing. Meanwhile, the Dunne Brothers undergo several transformations and finally welcome keyboardist Karen Sirko as a new member. The band renames themselves The Six, write more and more original songs and eventually move to L.A. to take the next step in their career. It is more by coincidence that the quirky group, which is increasingly getting its act together, meets Teddy Price. And that’s not all: The Six also manage to convince the influential studio wizard of the merits of their songs. But the producer feels there is something lacking – maybe some lyrical input, plus a strong female voice. And because Daisy Jones is also lacking something, namely a band capable of channeling her lyrical and musical ideas in even more artistically fruitful directions, Teddy Price immediately connects the two groups. And tells them to write new songs together. An inspired move that triggers an unprecedented success story – but also hopeless emotional chaos.

Anyone familiar with the dynamics in rock bands will have one or two moments of déjà vu – there are plenty of well-observed details and band anecdotes to make you smile. Anyone who knows what the music business was like then and now will probably shake their head about powerful and smug corporate record bosses in suits, as well as about shrewd producer and shrill manager types. Anyone who lived through the 70s will definitely be overcome by nostalgia, because the fashions and lifestyle are so aptly captured – even if you don’t have to have experienced every sex and drug escapade yourself. Anyone who likes Fleetwood Mac and their music during the Rumours era will be agog, because the sound, appearance and one or two biographical details of Daisy Jones & The Six were inspired by the legendary British-American band. And even if you just like larger-than-life love stories with euphoric ups and tragic downs, you will enjoy this.

Billy Dunne and Daisy Jones are two extraordinary, not entirely lovable characters – damaged souls who put each other, but also everyone around them, through a lot. The two of them often fight, but hardly anyone fails to notice that they are also powerfully attracted to one another. Billy has a young daughter with his wife Camila. She sees the band as a close-knit family and acts like an uber-motherly arbitrator where needed. But she too must come to terms with the fact that Billy sometimes succumbs to the destructive rock-n-roll lifestyle, becomes addicted to alcohol, and takes a long time to grow into his role as a father after rehab. She certainly doesn’t like the vibes she feels later, when she sees her husband and Daisy Jones performing together. And she too messes up. In addition, there are peaceful moments of happiness and intoxicating highs, a long-secret affair within the band, fellow musicians who suffer from a lack of appreciation, frustrations and crises, including Daisy taking a temporary break in Greece. And then there is also – cue Almost Famous – the journalist from an influential rock magazine who accompanies the rapidly rising stars on tour to score a big story. The gossip and secrets he gleans from the torn band members, independently of each other, just add fuel to the fire. Only the drummer – whose naïve insouciance is reminiscent of the notoriously underrated Beatle Ringo Starr – remains completely unscathed. He actually meets an attractive Hollywood actress, starts a family with her and, one may assume, lives happily ever after. What a wonderful pop cliché – a character who provides regular ‘comic relief’ and enriches the dramatic narrative with a dash of self-irony.

The female perspective

Where rock dramas written by men like to focus on the rock-n-roll lifestyle and highlight their protagonists as torn but ultimately brilliant lonesome-hero-types, Daisy Jones & The Six deliberately focuses on other aspects: For example, the problematic effects that this rock-n-roll lifestyle and the struggle between two alpha males has on the protagonists and everyone around them. The main characters are subtly drawn, with great strengths but glaring weaknesses, too. Daisy, Camila and keyboardist Karen are three self-confident women. On the one hand they are asserting themselves in the male-dominated rock world. However, the societal conditions and attitudes of the time also have a uniquely negative impact on them. For example, it is the women who have to deal with the problem of an unwanted pregnancy and the possible consequences for their careers. It is painful but good that we also see how the previously ‘cool’ frontman Billy Dunne initially can’t hold his little daughter and commit to being a father. Although Daisy Jones shows him a totally new side of himself, he always remains lovingly connected to his wife Camila. It’s complicated. And this is where the female author’s perspective clearly shines through – as well as that of producer Reese Witherspoon, already known for her strong female role as June Carter in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line.

Brilliant cast

Just as strong is the impression that Kiley Reough leaves when depicting Daisy Jones. Elvis Presley’s granddaughter galvanizes the audience with her powerful facial expressions, gestures and body language. After various appearances in movies and series, this energy-laden role should help her make her final breakthrough. Her presence alone makes it worth streaming. But the rest of the cast is also impressive, above all The Hunger Games beau Sam Claflin as the often in demand and overwhelmed frontman Billy Dunne. Of the stars playing the band, Suki Waterhouse stands out as the determined, uncompromising keyboardist Karen Sirko. In addition, Tom Wright dazzles as the clever, sensitive producer Teddy Price and Timothy Olyphant (who once played the somewhat rigid sheriff in the famous Western series Deadwood or the bald killer Hitman) shines as the crazy but ultimately professional, suitably empathetic tour manager Rod Reyes.

The casting of the two main characters also proves to be a stroke of luck when it comes to the music. Both stars can actually sing, with Sam Claflin having a slightly more subtle voice that occasionally sounds like Tom Petty, and Riley Keough’s performance seemingly effortlessly invoking Fleetwood Mac diva Stevie Nicks, Kate Pierson from the B 52s and one or two other country music icons. It sounds surprisingly strong and full when Claflin and Keough sing in harmony and bring the songs from the fictional album Aurora to life. In the book, author Taylor Jenkins Reid had written a few of her own lyrics to the band’s songs. However, she admits frankly that they didn’t count for much, but were intended more to describe the characters. With Reid’s consent, the series producers then brought in real songwriting luminaries, including Phoebe Bridgers, Marcus Mumford and even superstar Jackson Browne. The experts were given a fairly free hand and provided the music, including new lyrics, for the songs sung by Claflin and Keough.

The new song versions are very clearly designed to convey emotional intensity and, above all, to get to the heart of the characters’ internal conflicts and interpersonal disputes. Summarization, dramatization and modernization – similar effects are also achieved through dramaturgical modifications to the original book: For example, Camila and Billy have several children in the book, but only one daughter in the series. Camila doesn’t have an affair in the book, but she does in the series. And while Daisy is only called Daisy in the book, in the series she is allowed to tell Billy that her real name is Margaret – a moment that creates a special intimacy between the two characters for the first time. Showrunner Scott Neustadter says that keyboardist Karen is no longer American in the series, but British, as an explicit homage to the recently deceased Fleetwood Mac keyboardist Christine McVie. On the other hand, Daisy’s friend Simone, a soul singer and aspiring disco star, is depicted in the series as having a happy lesbian relationship after various ups and downs, in homage to the queer movement. And unlike in the book, when Daisy overdoses she is saved by Billy – who else!

Ingenious pastiche or: Art is born from empathy

Almost more than in the book, the series adaptation suggests that great art comes primarily from friction, pain and suffering. Some of the best moments in the series are the scenes where Daisy and Billy compose music and write lyrics together. They bicker at each other, repeatedly criticize the other one’s lyrics and force each other to navel-gaze. In the process, these seemingly fundamentally different characters realize that they have more in common in their pain and unfulfilled longings than they would like. And they are already writing bittersweet lyrics like: “If you’re gonna let me down, let me down easy”, “I’m an echo in your shadow / I’m in too deep” or “We can make a good thing bad”. “A lot of suffering, more excellent songs” – that’s the principle, and of course it has already been roughly mapped out in things like Fleetwood Mac’s band history. The group was famous for tricky relationships and complicated interpersonal dynamics which are said to have been the driving force behind some of their best songs.

The trope of “great art from great pain” is still often advanced today and routinely underpinned by references to Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, Joseph Beuys and Hermann Nitsch. This includes ideas such as: Positive feelings only need to be enjoyed, negative feelings need to be processed – which is why the latter provide additional and more interesting material for creating art. All of this may apply to some creatives and their work, but can’t be generalized. It also would be somewhat unfair towards songs like Happy, Walking On Sunshine, Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Don’t Worry – Be Happy and other evergreens of bliss. They don’t seem to be born out of great pain, not in the slightest, and yet they have undeniable artistic merit, at least for the author of these lines. Last but not least, the Daisy Jones novel itself and – even more so – the series adaptation can be cited as evidence of further sources of inspiration for great art. Author Taylor Jenkins Reid is simply incredibly talented, as she has proven in her previous books. Then she had her next idea, but first she had to do a lot of research – on music and songwriting, on the biographies of famous bands and on the 70s in general. Her love of writing and perfecting, but also a lot of patience, ultimately led to a captivating story about the power of love and the power of music. The creators of the series and the fictional album Aurora, which has in turn become music, took an even more meta approach as part of a large-scale ensemble production. They shaped and supplemented the literary original with a great deal of brainpower and skill, set a professional film production machine in motion and simultaneously commissioned suitable songs. The result is an ingenious pastiche about a couple of 70s rock stars who create great art from great suffering. Not very likely that the series’ creators and their service providers have themselves suffered congenially.

English translation: Ursula Schoenberg