Elliott Murphy: Broken Poet (OST)

There is a difficult history of renowned musicians attempting an acting career. Although acting and music both require performance of some sort, they are both different disciplines and being an accomplished musician does not mean the person will be a great actor.

In his memoir “Just A Story From America”, musician Elliott Murphy recalls being hired for a week’s work on Federico Fellini’s 1972 film Roma; Murphy says many of his best scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, but he can still be seen with his brother in a crowd scene, which was “almost a riot”. Murphy has also appeared in films Downtown 81 (2000) and La Ligne Blanche (2011), both times playing a rock star.

As well, in terms of his music career, Murphy has a number of promotional videos to his name and concert videos/DVDs, and in 2015 a compelling documentary about his career, the Second Act of Elliott Murphy (directed by Jorge Arenillas), was released. Murphy’s songs also often heavily references cinema – Hollywood, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Steve McQueen quickly come to mind.

Broken Poet came out in May 2020 – the time of Covid 19 – and as a result did not hit the big screen, and instead went straight to online streaming on iTunes/Apple TV. It is Murphy’s first lead acting role, playing Eric (or more likely Jake) Lion. Directed by Emilio J Ruiz and also starring Joana Preiss, Michael O’Keefe, Marisa Berenson and Françoise Viallon, the film is loosely based on Murphy’s 1985 short story “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.

The plot is focused on a search by a journalist (played by Joana Preiss) for 70’s rock star, Jake Lion, who is thought to have killed himself in Paris in 1974. As a concept, this is almost a fictional equivalent of factual hit music movie Searching for Sugarman, a documentary about tracking down American musician Rodriguez.

Broken Poet is not necessarily a “French film”, but there is a heavy French influence. Murphy lives in Paris and so the film is perhaps naturally European in nature; there is a plot, but it is relatively limited, and the film is more concerned with ideas rather than US Hollywood style action. Although this is not an “art” film, it has a wandering narrative to reflect a search for facts. The film’s central notion is that we can measure success by freedom, an idea rooted in the idealism of the 1960s.

Murphy puts in a charismatic performance as the rock star’s brother, with some marvellous cinematography of Murphy in and around Paris. The film cleverly incorporates ideas from book and musical “The Phantom of the Opera”, including sharing a character’s name – Murphy’s wife, Françoise Viallon, plays Christine, and at one point in the film Murphy, or Lion, is seen busking at the Opéra metro; these references help build up a sense of mystery in the film. The script bears some familiar Murphy hallmarks (there’s at least one F. Scott Fitzgerald quote), and therefore with Murphy as the lead the dialogue seems completely natural.

The film also incorporates some interesting archive material of Elliott Murphy in the ‘70s which makes the film more realistic. Guest appearances by Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa also build authenticity. The issue of identity takes on an added Shakespearian dimension when Gaspard Murphy, Elliott Murphy’s son and also a musician and producer, appears in a blonde wig and white suit so that in effect we have a rock star’s son playing a younger version of the character his father is playing, which character is based on his father. Capiche?

There is of course an impressive soundtrack with songs by Elliott Murphy and a score by Gaspard Murphy. The soundtrack is available on streaming services and features both the “incidental” music or film score and the songs from the film.

The film score has titles like “Meg’s Dream”, “Busker Flamingo”, When the Phantom Sleeps” “Sunken Poet” and “Cool Absurd Rock”, and will intrigue fans; the tracks are essentially sketches or atmospheric pieces as background music, sometimes with spoken word excerpts from the film. “Lion Found” has some particularly striking piano work.

The songs featured in the film are a good balance between Murphy “classics” from throughout his career (“Party Girls and Broken Poets”, “On Elvis Presley’s Birthday”) and tracks from more recent albums and EPs, particularly Soul Surfing, Coming Home Again, Prodigal Son and Intime. These later songs work particularly well against the backdrop of Paris due to their more orchestrated, European nature.

Of particular note is the impressive use of cartoon graphics for an interlude featuring “The Fall of Saigon”, and a new and energetic band recording of “Lost Generation” originally from Murphy’s album of the same name. There is also a new song, “Theme for a Broken Poet”’ which has two outings on the soundtrack, as both a full version and as a fast paced demo. The idea of a “Broken Poet” in the film’s title and this song go back to Murphy’s 1984 track “Party Girls and Broken Poets”, and emphasises that Murphy (and by extension Jake Lion) are “literary” songwriters.

“Theme for a Broken Poet” was specifically written for the film and reflects the search for establishing what is real and illusory. Murphy invokes a classic film, On the Waterfront, by citing Marlon Brando’s famous line -“I could have been a contender”. With its’ dramatic piano part, possibly reminding the listener of the elusive Phantom of the Opera, this song is an impressive addition to the Murphy catalogue.

Read our interview with Elliott Murphy about Broken Poet here

Watch Broken Poet here