Georgia ★★★★½

1995 Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)

I must admit that all but the best concerts and concert films are faintly dull to me. There's always the hope that a live performance will reveal an energy or immediacy untapped by the recording, but too often I feel at a remove from the performers, wishing I had something else to look at. Movies about musicians get around this by treating performances as an extension of character. It doesn’t really matter how skilled they are as artists—in fact, the less talented, the more resistant to the familiar genius narrative—as long as we can understand the role of music in their lives.

Sadie Flood sings to bare her troubled soul. The music world has celebrated many emotional wrecks, and she feels entitled to the same reward. Sadie’s not a bad singer. Her backup vocals on “Sally Can’t Dance” are just right, even if there’s only an empty bowling alley to receive them. Her “Almost Blue” is frail but deeply soulful. Georgia isn’t the only one cringing during her squawk on “If I Wanted,” but it would be sincerely applauded at a karaoke party (if she didn’t first alienate everyone there). And it’s not like Van Morrison’s original “Take Me Back” is devoid of rough edges. Sadie just isn’t good enough, and begging is the only way she knows to ingratiate herself.

Georgia’s wrenching power lies in its pitiless compassion for her. Her misery is given its full due by Grosbard without soft-pedaling the countless ways in which she’s complicit. Her world is filled with people who “wish [her] every happiness” (her father’s devastating kiss-off) but just can’t deal with her desperation. Barbara Turner’s script should be the model of how to handle a damaged character: begin in the middle, don’t look back, and offer no catharsis. Humor permeates even the darkest passages—a welcome rebuke to the innumerable films bent on treating self-destruction with righteous solemnity. Jennifer Jason Leigh is staggeringly great, equally impassioned whether singing or just watching her sister do it. Winningham, Levine, and Perlich bring unexpected dimension to their supporting roles and complicate each other's perspective on Sadie. It's an exceedingly generous film.