Berlinale 2022 review: In ‘Taurus’, Machine Gun Kelly exorcizes his stardom [Grade B+]
Almost a decade after Memphis (2013) depicted the spiritual journey of musician Willis Earl Beal, filmmaker Tim Sutton returns to the sombre world of music production with his newest, Taurus. This time the scenes are plagued with desolation and doom as the protagonist takes the anti-hero trope to laudable heights, and it is no other than the aptly cast Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly. Baker has been making his acting rounds but embodying the soulful decay of Cole will shine a spotlight on his ability to portray apathy as physical revulsion. The film is a character study but strays away from any empathy, let alone fetishization of the wayward drugged-out rock star. For Sutton, it was important to imbue the real stories of long-lived struggle and media-ized overdose (think Kurt Cobain) with fictional and cinematic value: an ambitious task indeed.
Based on its narrative premise, Taurus can be summarized as simple as this: Cole is struggling to compose one particular song, amidst heaps of drugs, unspoken trauma, mindless interviews and press engagements, and looming over all this is the open wound that is his ex Mae (Megan Fox) and the occasional appearance of his daughter. Cole is painted as a wreck in an ill-fated search, and very early on, the film lets us in on a secret: things are not going to be okay. The opening sequence sees a young boy murdering his parents with a loaded gun he found in the house, and this setting will turn out to carry ominous significance for the musician’s own life. As such, the film dissects the interjection between power/fame and powerlessness/infamy in a well-measured cautionary tale carried entirely by its fickle protagonist.
One impressive feature of this idiosyncratic balance stands out in sequences commenting on the trappings of the music industry, as the allure and the danger go hand in hand. It’s the moving presence and velvety voice of Lena (Naomi Wild) that jump-starts the process of song writing for Cole, and her episodic appearance carries both the intensity and unease of any newcomer. Sitting with her back against Cole, she records the delicious vocals based on Blue Foundation’s “Eyes on Fire” (which many of us associate with the Twilight soundtrack) which will then become the centrepiece for Cole’s requiem. On a few occasions, the concept of caretaking on behalf of producers and sponsors is distorted to abuse and empty promises, with the exception of Cole’s assistant Ilana, played by Maddie Hasson with an excellent mix of rage and genuine love. As a result, the star-PA relationship is portrayed as an inescapable bond of co-dependency, touching even in its most revolting iterations.
The close alignment of fiction and life is key for Taurus and by casting Machine Gun Kelly, Sutton hoped to offer him a way to externalize his own demons by exploring the darker sides of a tortured musician’s psyche. The film, however, flips this visibility in a beguiling way and invites a meta–cinema-tic reading about stardom and its symbiotic relationship with the visual and music arts. Two sequences stand out. In the first, Cole almost sabotages an interview but when it finally goes ahead, the insights shared are the rawest he ever is in the whole film. For this, Sutton had Baker sit down with Anne Litt of KCRW and improvise an interview on the spot, and the mentioning of a certain sacrificial aspect of being a star, coupled with the routinized ‘divine’ comparison, humanizes the protagonist to a large extend, without redeeming him.
No salvation is shown also in the other exquisitely self-aware sequence when we see Mae for the first time as she’s appeared in the recording studio unannounced. The camera retreats behind the soundproof window and anchors in one place to witness their turbulent reunion but we hear nothing of it. The scene unfolds in long minutes but the only thing we are granted is the voiceover of a mundane conversation about dating played over a dramatically personal moment which is both secured from and hijacked by the onlooker’s eyes. The metatextual implication and emotional punch here has, of course, to do with Baker and Fox being a couple with a private life on public display.
Taurus is an admirably cinematic film – DP John Brawley proposes a slick version of what limbo can look like, and his rhythmically timed camera movements interact with the lower angles or over-the-shoulder shots to follow a flawed protagonist on his journey to artistic annihilation. The images are always of stark contrast and the return to saturated, sharp whites contributes to an overwhelming feeling of exposure. Without any narrativized didactics, the film projects its caution through image and sound, for which Machine Gun Kelly is responsible, naturally. For fans and audience members who come in cold alike, the sonic experience will be equally mesmerising without overdoing it. Despite the darkness in its heart, Taurus is maybe a film too polished to be perfect: the rawness of the subject matter and Baker’s harsh intensity seem to be absorbed into layers of cinematic proficiency all too easily.
This review is from the Panorama section of the 2022 Berlinale Film Festival.