Zadie Smith summed up musical biopics quite succinctly in her short review of Walk the Line in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays: “musical biopics are always the right story: the struggle toward self-actualization. […] The bad guy in every musician’s biopic is the musician himself” (189-90). But then, Smith is talking about a very real, very pervasive Western success trope of roads to fame besieged by drugs and ego and that very dark night of the soul before redemption. Musicians are biblical figures for Smith, perennial prodigal sons who deal with consequences of fame by wrestling personal demons on a very lonely plain of one: our American heroes have always walked the line alone.
The sociological notion of the individual versus the collective isn’t a very far-fetched schema to apply to Go Go 70s, a Korean musical biopic released in 2008 about real-life band the Devils, who play soul music to an unappreciative American army base before rocketing to fame by citizens enthralled with their gutsy sound (with plenty of American covers – one choice scene involves a brilliant rendition of “Land of 1000 Dances”) and wild image (even these boys don’t eventually skirt a lock-chopping by power drunk police officers). The time of South Korea’s military dictatorship in the early 70s provides a wonderful historical backdrop for the harmony of rock and rebellion without evoking nostalgia fables that render the tale quaint.
The drama of the movie falls very little on what turns out to be the requisite fame-hungry lead singer Sang-Gyu’s shoulders, who pools together two bands to form a quasi-super group in order to fulfill his ambition. Though this successful portrayal of group dynamics can, however, fail to provide emotional reactions to penultimate scenes – a member’s death falls on slightly cold hearts when focusing not on individual personalities, but on the group – it resists becoming Sang-Gyu’s story in order to illustrate larger parallels between The Group, The Band, and The Man. Draft-dodging and violation of midnight curfews may not provoke the same soul-searching tension as drug addiction, daddy-issues or an obsession with a cherubic Carter sister, but it illustrates the boundless loyalties each member has to the band – “I’m with you guys until the end!” Sang-Gyu shouts while burning his draft notice on stage.
Even Mimi, a lackadaisical love interest, moves from worshiping Sang-Gyu (“I thought of you always, and singing [after] records while others were slacking off. So…so you are… You are ‘soul’ to me”) to finding her inner diva, perhaps the film’s most blatant symbolic representation of discovering one’s own rhythm. Her transformation from band maid to band mascot seems a bit damning at first in its depiction of females finding “freedom” through mini-skirts and make-up, but the confidence and control with which Mimi eventually works the audience shows neither sexual pandering nor demented irony; Mimi finds expression through movement, vocals, and female solidarity, abandoning Sang-Gyu’s flippant affection and embarking on a much more reliable love affair with music.
As news reels depict the Devils’ youth culture as undignified (“thoughtless dance maniacs must be punished”) and officials begin enforcing the strict code of short hair and modest attire, the band itself undergoes its own turmoil as in-fighting and arrest for subversive ideology threatens the band’s fundamental dedication to soul. Indeed, the villain in this story isn’t the band members’ issues with control, obsession, fame, greed, or a number of other personal struggles that could potentially affect the band, but The Man (a collective acting as a single entity) who threatens The Group (single entities acting as a collective) by making them weak at pivotal moments by choosing individual desires over the good of the band. Where Go Go 70s falls into the Western biopic trap again suddenly seems a blessing: The Group is restored and the power of music triumphs. Smith again: “It is a very hard-hearted atheist indeed who does not believe that Music Saves” (189).