‘Creation Stories’ Offers A Stylish Take On The Familiar Rock Biopic Formula [Tribeca Review]

When attempting a biopic about a rock ‘n roll icon, there’s an inherent conflict of style and substance. Biopics are traditionally dramatic, yet glossy affairs that bring an air of prestige to every story, whether it’s the tale of a stuttering king, a cagey criminal, or the man who made McDonald’s an international chain. When it comes to encapsulating the decadence of the music industry, such pompous pretensions can hit all wrong. Shoving mold-breakers into the stodgy outlines of a biopic can result in losing the rebellious edge that made them such dazzling stars. (Looking at you, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”) Thankfully, the team behind “Creation Stories” aims to upend the conventional, delivering a bold biopic that’s frenetic energy captures the spirit of its hero, Scottish music producer Alan McGee.

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“Trainspotting” author Irvine Welsh and screenwriter Dean Cavanagh team up to funnel decades of the British music scene into one thrilling and fun feature film. McGee’s story began in Glasgow, where he was a glam rock-loving boy who had big ambitions and an abusive working-class dad. By 16, McGee split to London to chase his dreams of making music and money. Realizing his talents were not as a musician, he became a manager: finding talent, making records, and selling them to local shops. Over the course of his career, the oddball derided as a “ginger goblin” would prove good, discovering bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine, and—most famously—Oasis. Success was long-coming, but hit like a sledgehammer, throwing McGee into increasingly reckless substance abuse, panic attacks, and a mental breakdown by his early-30s. “Creation Stories” touches on all of the above, but chucks aside the standard linear structure and rejects melodrama, favoring smirking comedy.

Whether or not you’re familiar with McGee, anyone who has seen a musician biopic, a rock doc, or “Behind The Music” knows the score: rough beginnings, a scrappy quest to success, fame, fortune, and then the spiral into tragedy. For the lucky, a happy ending—or at least a bittersweet resolution—will follow. Welsh and Cavanagh bring fresh verve to this familiar narrative by treating its plotting like a chaotic dance number, sliding back and forth, making leaps from times and locations, all to an energetic pace.

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“Creation Stories” begins in a ‘90s-era moment of self-reflection, before sling-shotting back to Alan’s David Bowie-idolizing youth. A series of interviews with a doll-faced journalist (Suki Waterhouse) creates a framework for this reflective back-and-forth. Alan is shaped not just by his present, but by how he remembers his past. Yet even within the anecdotes, these stories scrimmage. When explaining how he left for London, three separate scenes hectically collide: One of Alan and a friend bustling their bags into a departing train. Another, set in a graveyard, where he informs his snarling girlfriend that he’s skipping town. The last of his cruel father delivering a scorching monologue about how the boy is sure to fail. Pitching them all together manages to make these cliched scenes click, expressing not just what happened—with a bit of “yeah yeah yeah” cheekiness–but also the chaotic freedom McGee felt setting out to parts unknown.

Adding frenzied context, director Nick Moran includes various montages of news coverage, TV shows, magazine covers, and stock footage as a swift encapsulation of a given time. If you don’t know these bands or these touchstones—be they the end of punk rock, the rise of New Labor, or the heinous secrets of English disc-jockey Jimmy Savile—“Creation Stories” won’t slow down for you. The assumption is you’re revisiting these times with McGee. So, what’s offered is a shorthand of buzzwords, headlines, and some evocative visuals. But if you can’t keep up, it won’t much matter. The actors tasked with telling McGee’s story carry the emotional weight well enough to pull us through.

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Leo Flanagan plays young Alan with the gawky-limbed freedom of naïve youth and the wide-eyed wonder of a dreamer loose in the big city. When he first spies a couple casually shooting heroin in his squat, he throws a suitcase up to hide his panicked face with a comedic urgency but also a smarting innocence. In one moment, we might chuckle even as we witness his naivete shattered like a needle underfoot.

Stepping in earlier than you might expect, “Trainspotting’s” Ewen Bremner plays Alan from his 20s onward, through brawls with a scowling wife, business meetings with smug record execs, and a barrage of pill-popping, coke-snorting mayhem with a degenerate dandy by a mustachioed and gleaming Jason Isaacs. Bremner has often played a screw-up or a clown, but here he confidently swaggers and delivers blistering bon mots. But there’s still room for capering as Bremner hurls himself into erratic explorations of mind-altering drugs.

Throwing audiences into the under-the-influence headspace of its hero, “Creation Stories” employs violently neon lights, vivid washes of color, and a hallucination of 19th-century magician Aleister Crowley, painted silver and intoning life advice. There’s nothing as jaw-dropping or imaginative as “Trainspotting’s” ceiling-scaling baby or toilet plunge. Still, the trippiness swiftly illustrates the wild highs and crash lows of McGee’s drug use.

All this is knitted together with persistent voiceover from Bremner, who jokes from the start things must turn out okay if a movie was made about all this. The narration is where Welsh’s voice feels most concentrated, crackling with cutting condemnations like, “Corporate disguised itself as hipster, and indie just disappeared.” Lines like this, along with irreverent illustrations of corporate reaming and Thatcher being an unexpected friend to London rockers, make for a chaotically charming and solidly funny romp in the face of tragedies, personal, professional, political, and pop-cultural.

However, within all these stylish eccentricities, “Creation Stories” falls into the trap of glossing over the trickier bits. An unwanted child is introduced in one scene, then never mentioned again, even as the third act grapples with Alan’s quest to reconnect with his father. McGee’s decision to sell out to Sony is played as a noble sacrifice made for his bands, ignoring his own financial needs. Meanwhile, McGee’s time in politics is charged with idealism, then exited with a self-righteous flourish, refusing to acknowledge what fallout may have come for making Tony Blair look cool. The pacing becomes unmoored as the plot meanders. Finally, the third act goes from clunky to calamitous when it awkwardly clatters into a feel-good family moment that feels forced and is pure fiction. Not even a juicy final thought monologue can tie up that mess.

Though “Creation Stories” starts off promising, it derails roundabouts the low point, falling into a familiar pattern of polishing up the rough edges of a person, and delivering some cheerful takeaway, when life is rarely so simple. Though entertaining, the funky flourishes offered in plotting, visuals, and voiceover ultimately become a superficial rebellion, draped over a disappointingly stale form. Basically, it’s like sticking safety pins on a t-shirt pre-torn at The Gap.  [C+]