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In ‘Taurus,’ Machine Gun Kelly Embodies a Lost Generation of Rap

TheDailyBeast
TheDailyBeast
 2022-11-30
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Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos by Getty/RLJE FILMS

For fans of Machine Gun Kelly (MGK), the opening scenes of Taurus are frustrating. We already know we are about to see his portrayal of a rising star rapper struggling with addiction, women, and the never-ending conflation of the two. We are somewhat expecting the feel of a rock biopic, despite the film centering on the fictional Cole Taurus. We are looking for little nods and asides to our MGK-and-associated-acts fan club/movement, known as EST (“Everyone Stands Together”). And we expect to hear music, a lot of it, and at a high volume.

But director/writer Tim Sutton gives us little of that in this tone poem about illness, success, family, and the music industry. Instead, excruciating seconds go by as the film opens on a violent, MGK-free scene that pays off much later in the film, followed by only obscured glimpses of MGK’s famous face. Shaggy blond hair hides his expression, or intoxicated lack thereof, as he bends over a piano, then, the camera follows him from behind at a music festival, walking hand-in-hand with real-life fiancée Megan Fox . Of note, the latter footage was clearly taken from one of his summer tours (to give you an idea of the probable budget for Taurus , hair and makeup did not attempt to cover any of his extensive and well-known tattoos, even the “MGK” and "EST” ones).

Equally unsettling is the silence. Cole, high, bends over the piano with a singer (Naomi Wild) by his side, and uncertainty hangs in the air. He's grasping at snippets of a song he needs to finish. Is this what songwriter's block sounds like? What the slowdown of a galloping creative brain on drugs sounds like?

Most unfamiliar, though, is MGK’s stillness. We are used to seeing him climbing on scaffolding, bouncing onstage, and making goofy videos with best friend Pete Davidson . (That music festival scene actually cuts to him hanging from concert scaffolding, but the effect is satisfyingly ominous without his familiar music or crowd noise in the background.) In just these brief moments, Sutton has asserted that this purported avatar for our beloved artist is anything but.

MGK, who makes films and does everything non-musical under his real name, Colson Baker (he's dropped the staid “Richard” in favor of his cooler middle name), has leaned into different aspects of his public persona to bring other characters to life before. See: a tattooed rocker wild-man (drummer Tommy Lee in The Dirt); stoner (an actor in Good Mourning ); a moody dude who looks like he could be bad news (a criminal in Sutton's period Western The Last Son). Taurus has been widely billed as a cinematic homecoming of sorts for Baker, a chance to play someone close to who he really is.

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The triumph of Baker’s performance here is that he denies his fans that immediate recognition. I spent the movie forgetting I was watching someone whose art and persona I know intimately; “Wait, this is MGK,” I’d remind myself, before forgetting again. As Cole, Baker deadens the trademark twinkle in his eye and slumps away his familiar pogo stick energy. He makes us believe Cole’s anger and neediness, his obsession with a little crystal he keeps in his pocket, and that he was too drugged out to remember the name of the guest on his new song.

Despite the real-life parallels (Baker has a daughter, like the similarly named Cole, and used harder drugs before settling into his cozy millennial routine of whiskey and marijuana; he has suffered from depression to the point of suicidal ideation, with a plan communicated to Fox), the inspiration for Taurus came from elsewhere. The film draws on the stories of musicians whose light burned out earlier—rappers like the late Mac Miller , Juice WRLD , and Pop Smoke . None of them had the chance to achieve the kind of mega-stardom Baker has as Machine Gun Kelly. They were huge in their genres, young and talented, with fervent fans. But these artists never became household names.

Their viscerally tragic deaths followed sharp rises to fame from humble beginnings: Miller , in an overdose after years sickened with substance use disorder; Pop Smoke, shot in a possible robbery at age 21 ( XXXTentacion died at 20 in the same manner); Juice WRLD ’s diabetic ketoacidosis seizure at 21. This new generation of rappers embraced deeply personal lyrics about anxiety disorders and struggling with street and prescription drugs. (Wild and MGK previously duetted on “ Glass House ,” a song with lyrics summarizing his pain around losing his younger colleagues; Taurus almost feels like a long-form music video for the song.)

Controversy erupted in summer 2021 , when Deadline announced the film's working title . Good News was an homage to Mac Miller’s first posthumous single. In retrospect, the backlash claiming “disrespect,” led by Miller’s brother, seems excessive, but Sutton and crew backed down quickly and changed the film's name.

But remembering the original title of the film helps us understand where Cole ends and Machine Gun Kelly begins. Unlike MGK, who has a longtime entourage of bromantical collaborators , an excellent relationship with his daughter, and a fiancée, Cole seems truly alone. The only people he can rely upon are his beleaguered personal assistant, Ilana, and maybe a kindly sex worker/drug dealer.

Maddie Hasson has received wide acclaim for her rumpled performance as Ilana, serving as a secondary lead. Her desire for Cole to be safe, on time, sober, and happy guides the film. Hasson embodies a Hollywood assistant perfectly, from her weary phone-scrolling as she waits for Cole in the middle of the night to her return to her role as his surrogate mother after they have a huge fight. The fight is the most enjoyable moment in the film other than the crackling rap scenes.

The reason for the music-making urgency surfaces in the form of an impatient Hollywood suit (Scoot McNairy, appropriately jerk-like). The fat cats have invested in Cole, and he needs to be productive. But he's not the real antagonist—that would be Cole's unresolved addiction. The star stumbles drunkenly into traffic; Ilana puts all her energy into slowing him down at the bar. He’s volatile in the recording studio; he explodes at a press interview. “I can’t watch him every minute,” pleads Ilana, like a single mom at the end of her rope.

Fox appears as a girlfriend in a silent sequence viewed from the producers' point of view looking into the vocal booth, one example of the dreamlike and otherworldly choices employed throughout. A sweet reunion devolves into a wince-inducing fight, all the more poignant because they are a couple offscreen. Cole’s mind seems to be everywhere else, glinting in shards like the pieces of his song skittering about the scenes in Taurus.

Other supporting characters would have benefitted from a strong script. Ruby Rose arrives too late into the film as a secondary antagonist, a stereotypically “dangerous”-looking woman who is Cole’s walking gateway drug to coke binges in strip clubs. Brandon Allen, a.k.a. MGK’s real-life keyboardist and producer SlimXX, is woefully underused as a studio producer; his face screams, “I'm the responsible one here,” and it would have been fun to see him give Baker a little attitude onscreen. As Cole’s ex, Siri Miller does not get a lot to do other than guarding their daughter from the worst of him. I actually would have welcomed a flashback to happier times with Cole’s family, as it would have bolstered the impact of the devastating final scenes.

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Sutton does shine at eliciting performances from the entire cast, and the moody cinematography creates some memorable visuals. But, as a writer, Sutton would do well to find a partner to infuse his work with iconic lines, remove some stilted exposition, and reorder scenes. A fever dream with Cole performing stand-up comes too early to resonate: We haven't made a bond with the troubled singer yet, and it’s unclear as to what is real and what is not. An unnerving conversation between Wild’s Lena and an unseen producer would have even more weight with more time spent with the ingénue beforehand. Cole wanders into a house where a child killed his parents and finds his own poster on the wall; we didn’t need to see the tragedy actually happen on screen, but we did need more of Cole’s thought process once discovering this. We know Cole is distraught, but it is unclear whether actions he takes later are directly related.

The moments we get with Cole making music are precious, because his fictional talent feels real—ravaged, wrenched from his depths, bitter, but real. In a Q&A following a recent screening of the film in Los Angeles, Sutton shared his intent for the music of Taurus : that the haunting lack of score in the beginning is meant to inform our impression of the completed track Cole’s been working on at the end.

During the same talkback, Baker also explained his collaborative process with Sutton behind the scenes, noting that he pushed for showing Cole and his team putting hooks and rap lyrics into the iPhone voice recorder, because that's what actually happens in modern-day studios, before things are recaptured with an $800 microphone. Even when Cole stares at an external monitor filled with the tiny waveforms and multicolored grids of a digital audio workstation, it rings truer than if he were frustration-smashing guitars as in an ’80s music biopic. Most of us have stared at a screen, desperate for inspiration, with a deadline and our job at stake.

After we've heard isolated vocal and instrumental lines during the film, Cole’s magnum opus soars with cathedral-grade reverb, the lowest reaches of a piano, and Wild’s haunting voice before tearing into a ferocious rap. The song, “ Eyes on Fire ,” is an instant classic. (I think I hear Baker rapping-as-Cole in it; there's a heavier and slurred quality compared to his work in songs like “El Diablo,” “Daywalker,” and “The Dirt.”) With a different edit and some rewriting, the film would have been a classic, too.

But for Baker’s massive fan base and others who know his backstory, Taurus will be one to revisit as a visual reminder of what their support prevented. Baker isn’t just “drawing authenticity from his day job as rap/rock star MGK,” as The Hollywood Reporter’s review puts it. Baker draws authenticity from being a skinny white kid selling rap mixtapes after his mother abandoned him and entering fatherhood at age 19; from being plucked from the Midwest because of his creativity, then attacked mightily when he tried to express it by switching genres. There, but for the love of fans, goes Colson.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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