Writing about what you love is easy; but taking something you pretty much hate and finding a way to love it is perhaps more valuable. Which brings us to the subject of today’s excavation: the horror of banality summoned by the word “biopic.”
“Biographical picture” should be a value-judgement-free term for a category of films that can encompass every possible genre, depending on who is being profiled. But instead, the standard biopic has evolved into a kind of genre unto itself, so when we hear that Famous Person X is “getting the biopic treatment” we already know what to expect: awards baity star turns from actors looking for a short cut to the Oscar podium (“The Theory of Everything“); plentiful montages, prologues, epilogues, flashbacks, and more to cover as much ground as possible (“Ray“); convenient scenes that cue up the better-known episodes in the subject’s life (“Y’all can’t walk no line!” spits Reese Witherspoon before we cut to Joaquin Phoenix performing “Walk the Line“); and a kind of baggy, episodic shapelessness that comes from trying to cram a whole life into two hours (“The Butler“). Biopics frequently manage to be both packed with incidents and extraordinarily dull.
There are some exceptional movies among them, though, and quite a few stellar performances. There are even filmmakers who can work within that rigid format and turn in something with both polish and personality (though it’s rarely our favorite title in their repertoire) — Steven Spielberg‘s “Lincoln,” Michael Mann‘s “Ali,” Spike Lee‘s “Malcolm X,” Steven Soderbergh‘s “Erin Brockovich,” even arguably David Lynch‘s “The Elephant Man,” and so on. But for every one of those there are twenty turgid, plodding versions that cave under the weight of their reverence for their subjects. Or, in attempting to “tell a life” (who did what and when), they forget to tell a story (how and why they did it, and what it means).
Thank heavens, then, for the few, the brave, the films that challenge the well-worn grooves of the conventional biopic. With this week seeing the release of one relatively unusual biopic, Michael Almereyda‘s “Experimenter” (review here); the expansion of another, Danny Boyle‘s “Steve Jobs” (review here); while Don Cheadle‘s atypical Miles Davis movie, “Miles Ahead” (review here), just finished it’s NYFF appearance; and James Ponsoldt‘s quasi-David Foster Wallace biopic, “The End of the Tour” (review here), has, erm, ended its tour; we waded through this wildly overpopulated category to bring you 15 examples that kick against standard format in one way or another, and all of which we can recommend even though they’re biopics. Which is quite something.
“Marie Antoinette” (2006)
As airy and delicate as a cream puff, and about as substantial beneath its attitude-y soundtrack and some punkish affectations, Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” radically re-writes the rules of the period epic by re-framing the narrative of the former Archduchess of Austria and onetime Queen of France as another one of her wistful yet strikingly modern odes to young womanhood. Shot by the great Lance Acord (who lensed many movies for Coppola’s onetime beau Spike Jonze) in an unusually low-key and naturalistic style, and peppered with anachronistic 80’s pop cuts (New Order, The Cure, and Adam and the Ants are all featured, and fabulously placed), it’s about as far from a standard biopic as you could hope to get, attempting a recontextualizing of the Marie Antoinette story so radical it’s almost a reinvention. Best viewed as a sort of daring cinematic experiment, it takes the portent and sense of self-importance out of the blueprint for the modern period piece and replaces it with something far more playful and fresh (even if not always wholly successful) colliding old and new in practically every frame. Kirsten Dunst is cheeky and light on her feet in the title role, and a who’s-who of character actors — everyone from Rose Byrne to Rip Torn to a very young Tom Hardy — round out the terrific cast. But it’s Jason Schwartzman, radiating insecurity and neediness as King Louis XVI, who manages to quietly steal the movie. He brings a messy, very real sense of humanity to all his scenes which is outstanding — in fact, “Marie Antoinette” could have used a bit more of the deep feeling evident in Schwartzman’s performance, but it’s a pivotal picture in Coppola’s filmography nonetheless, and you certainly can’t say it falls back on the tropes of its genre.
“Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” (1993)
If one of the major issues with the vast majority of biopics is an inability to see the forest of the subject’s life for the trees of the individual events and episodes that made them who they were, it’s an issue Francois Girard‘s delightful, inventive “Thirty-Two Short FIilms About Glenn Gould” addresses head on. As its descriptive title suggests, Girard does not attempt to weave a seamless, cause-and-effect narrative out of the life of troubled Canadian concert pianist and composer. Instead he gives us 32 “short films” (inspired by the number of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which was a signature recording of Gould’s) — sometimes single clips lasting just a few seconds, sometimes dramatized scenes from his life starring Colm Feore as Gould, sometimes meditative animations, sometimes documentary footage of friends and colleagues in interview. The resulting collage is scrappy and yet symphonic, mirroring the fragmentary, contradictory nature of its brilliant but difficult subject. Of course, the narrative of the tortured genius is a familiar one in biopic-land, and to look at how Girard could have approached Gould’s life in a more traditional manner, you could simply watch Scott Hicks‘ “Shine,” about pianist David Helfgott. But Girard’s film, not simply unconventional but outright experimental (one longish sequence is nothing but shots of pills with a voiceover intoning the names of every medication Gould was ever on), is as creative as its subject and so is the supremely rare biography that rewards even if you’ve never heard of its subject. “Respectful” is usually a byword for slavishly whitewashing the subject, but ‘Glenn Gould’ is a different sort of respectful, exploring the man’s drive and demons, but remaining respectful of the mystery that he was — that any of us are — deep down.
“American Splendor” (2003)
Winner of Sundance‘s top prize in 2003, based on the late Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical underground graphic novel, “American Splendor” has all the energy and fearless invention of a first film, and indeed is the debut feature from married directing team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Using a variety of different styles and approaches and stories-within stories, the directors, aided by the perfect casting of Paul Giamatti in something of a career-defining role, layer insight onto incident in telling the story Pekar’s life and caustic worldview. But they also progressively strip back the extraneous details, as if by showing us so many different versions of Pekar (there’s Pekar himself in interview, there’s Giamatti, there’s an animated version, there’s Donal Logue as an actor playing Pekar in a theater play), we get to see what’s is common among them, and what, therefore is really the essence of the man. First it’s just kind of downer, as the irascible, misanthropic cartoonist trudges through his grimly banal life, constantly stymied by the self-defeating nature of his own pessimism. But it matures into something both weirder and more touchingly truthful as he gradually discovers (partly through an acquaintance with Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak) the consolations of writing, and even a kind of low-key cult fame. One of the film’s most meta flourishes is its constant self-referential meditation on the creative process and on the impossibility of truthful representation (the real Pekar is even asked to talk about what it feels like to be played by an actor). And yet this wilfully post-modern, fractured, and fragmented approach somehow gives us one of the best representations of the totality of a man who, as like Pekar, simply doesn’t make linear sense, and would no doubt prove resistant to any attempt to be understood in that way. Perhaps the only way to make a biopic of such a self-aware man, one who constantly turns his scathing eye inward to create his art, is to make such a supremely self-aware movie.
“Sid And Nancy” (1986)
It’s hard to discern now if Alex Cox‘s retelling of the notorious love affair between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and groupie Nancy Spungen is truly, intentionally unconventional or just rather amateurishly told but its cult status after the fact makes all that kind of moot. Whatever the case, there’s no doubt that watching it now, it’s just not like other biopics, with its weird mix of jerky editing, woozy camerawork (from Roger Deakins) that often finds the beauty in trash (sometimes literally), and creaky, awkwardly slangy dialogue delivered in performances that span the vast spectrum of quality. On the better end, of course, are Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb as the star- (and vomit-, blood-, and spit-) cross’d duo tracked from their first meeting to their last, fatal, heroin-addled night when Nancy dies some time after being stabbed by Sid during an argument. In fact, it’s a film that’s at its best in the scenes between just the two of them (the wider punk world feels a little inauthentic at times), or during the odd moments of magic realism that pepper the gritty faux-realism elsewhere: Sid and Nancy walking away through a dockland riot as though they’re untouchable, impervious to the police brutality and hooligan violence happening all around; Sid and Nancy kissing by a dumpster while trash rains inexplicably down from the sky in slow motion; Sid and Nancy screaming and flailing against each other in a grotty room in the Chelsea Hotel. The doomed, dirty romance of these images, and the rawness of Oldman and Webb makes “Sid And Nancy” grasp a little grim, grimy truth beneath all the posturing and self-conscious, sneery ugliness of this depressing world.
“Ed Wood” (1994)
Ed Wood is widely reputed, among those in the know, to be “the worst director of all time.” The mastermind behind such trainwrecks as “Glen or Glenda” and “Bride of the Monster,” we may not have much to thank him for cinematically except inspiring this delightful, artful and deliciously melancholy biopic. “Ed Wood” is Tim Burton’s tender and insightful look at one man with boundless ambition and zero talent, and marks one of the best collaborations between director and star, harking back to a time when Burton wasn’t a prisoner of his own twee-goth mannerisms and Johnny Depp was capable of giving an honest, human performance without being buried underneath mounds of makeup. As embodied by Depp with puckish, toothy, can-do enthusiasm, the Ed Wood of this 1994 film is a fascinating figure for a biopic anyway (even choosing someone talentless as a subject is an unusual move in a category dominated by portraits of exceptionalism). He’s determined while also being stunningly oblivious, comparing himself to Orson Welles (whom he regards as his peer). The film wisely limits its focus to Wood’s attempts to get “Glen or Glenda” off the ground, and to his strange, bittersweet friendship with legendary screen actor Bela Lugosi, played in an absolutely heartbreaking turn by the great Martin Landau. Rounding out the cast are Sarah Jessica Parker as Wood’s squeeze Dolores Fuller (who would later go on to write music for Elvis Presley); Burton regular Jeffrey Jones as a creepy TV psychic and the patron saint of cool; Mr. Bill Murray as Wood’s drag-queen pal Bunny Breckinridge, most famous for his role in “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” Beautiful in black-and-white, humane, and deeply weird, tinged with moments of deep feeling, “Ed Wood” is the textbook opposite of a paint-by-numbers biopic and a career highlight for the creative braintrust involved.
“The Sun” (2005)
We’re stretching the definition of biopic to its elastic limits here, and no doubt willful obscurantist Alexander Sokurov would be distressed to imagine any of his films could be categorized in such traditional terms. But his film about Japanese Emperor Hirohito (Issei Ogata in simply one of the greatest screen performances of the new century) is an arthouse experiment that is also a brilliant portrait, showing the man behind the title contending with encroaching senility and the renunciation of the his divinity, all while fielding meetings with General MacArthur to discuss Japan’s surrender in WWII. Hirohito comes across as a man enfeebled by power, whose whole life, lived in the most rarefied of circumstances (the Emperor is explicitly considered to be a God by his people), gives him about as much in common with the ordinary men and women who fight and die in his name as an alien might have. And yet Sokurov and Ogata humanize him, while never fully “solving” the central enigma over how much he was directly responsible for (or even aware of) Japan’s wartime aggression and her losses, and how much he was just the puppet of other forces and stronger personalities, imprisoned and paralyzed by the rigid hierarchy of Japanese society, even though he’s nominally its summit. The film unfolds at a typically Sokurovian snail’s pace, but is so focussed on Ogata’s extraordinary performance that it’s riveting, impressively suggesting a whole life by focussing on the minute details of this one day in it. Evoking a powerful, bunker-like claustrophobia, “The Sun” is possibly closest to Oliver Hirschbiegel‘s also-brilliant portrait of Hitler in the closing days of the war, “Downfall.” If the hovering, vague Hirohito makes more claims on our human sympathy perhaps than Bruno Ganz‘s sclerotic, meme-inducing Fuhrer, both are stirring, fascinating suggestions of the madness-inducing aloneness of absolute power.
It’s hard to imagine any committed Joy Division fan not going apeshit over Anton Corbijn’s moody and gorgeous “Control” — after all, the veteran photographer and filmmaker behind last year’s “A Most Wanted Man” and the upcoming “Life” did actually take some striking photos of the legendary British post-punk band way back when. But even those who aren’t familiar with Joy Division’s gloomy/gorgeous music or the disquieting mythology behind it will find themselves drawn to the film’s aching, tragic story: that of Ian Curtis, who ended his life on the dawn of what could have been his band’s breakthrough moment. But as biopic-ready as this tragic arc may be, Corbijn’s film, which is essentially a love letter to one of the most important groups of the British new wave, hums with a dark, alien energy. It’s full of crisp and impressionistic images that burn themselves into your memory and the movie’s re-creation of Joy Division performing some of their most beloved songs (particularly “Transmission” and “Disorder”) feel almost as powerful and ravishing as the real thing. Sam Riley gives a moving, nuanced turn that never resorts to mimicry: he makes us feel every heartbreaking blow suffered by Curtis, even when he’s behaving like a world class fuck-up. Samantha Morton is also very good as Curtis’ long-suffering girlfriend, and British character actor Toby Kebbell has a nice bit as the band’s mouthy, overconfident manager. What’s perhaps most impressive about “Control” is its ability to effortlessly capture the vibe of a certain time and place: the era when doom and despair was in, when the sound of rock was changing and when being young, British and disaffected was all you need to start a band with your friends. “Control” may not play as well for non-fans of the seminal group, but for anyone who’s spent an afternoon grooving along to the miraculous bummer that is “Unknown Pleasures,” it’s a film that you won’t soon forget.
“Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (1987)
Some biopics are more unconventional than others, but given that “Superstar” is 1) told mostly with Barbie dolls and 2) has been theoretically banned from being viewed for nearly thirty years, you can be sure that it’s a long way away from “The Theory Of Everything.” The breakthrough film by Todd Haynes, who shot it while at Bard College, “Superstar” (which is technically a short, at just 47 minutes long) follows the tragic story of Karen Carpenter of The Carpenters, the folk-pop duo behind legendary songs like “(They Long To Be) Close To You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and who passed away from complications due to her eating disorder at the age of 32. The film’s arc follows familiar patterns, to some degree — it’s not difficult to see this story, from the band’s discovery to Karen’s tragic demise, being the basis of a Lifetime movie. But it’s in the form that Haynes, then just 26 and making his first delve into a sub-genre that would find greater success down the line (see below), excels himself. Partly through the necessity of a low budget, Haynes recreates Carpenter’s life almost entirely through films shot with dolls (there are a few live-action interview segments), but there’s far more to it than simple practicality: by casting Carpenter as a Barbie doll, he plays up the wholesomeness of the Carpenters’ personas, and the obsession with body image that both runs through American life, which ultimately doomed the film’s subject. It’s sometimes crude and heavy-handed, but infinitely darker, weirder, and more interesting than any other approach you could imagine. Unfortunately, Richard Carpenter, Karen’s brother and bandmate, didn’t agree — angered by the film, and its innuendo that he might have been gay, he sued Haynes for failing to get the rights to the band’s music, and won. As a result, almost all copies of the film were destroyed. That said, it’s survived in bootleg form, and is now widely available on YouTube.
He’s fallen somewhat out of favor of late (perhaps because his last movie, “Goya’s Ghosts,” was such a misfire), but few filmmakers have consistently redeemed the biopic genre in the way that Milos Forman has. His Jim Carrey-starring Andy Kaufman movie, “Man On The Moon” was playful, moving, and truly captured its subject, and “The People Vs. Larry Flynt,” while more conventional in showing the breadth of the Hustler millionaire’s life, has much to recommend it. But the big daddy of Forman’s biographical movies has to be “Amadeus,” the Best Picture-winner that takes what could have been a fusty, dusty subject matter — the life of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — and turns it into something thrilling and entirely vibrant. Of course, a big chunk of the credit should go to writer Peter Shaffer, on whose 1979 Tony-winning play the film is based: it was he who created the brilliant central conceit, of telling Mozart’s life through the eyes of Salieri, a composer contemporary to Mozart painted here as a mediocre talent who, unable to reconcile his rival’s music with his crude, boorish behavior, attempts to undermine, destroy, and ultimately murder him. The result (which takes hefty creative licence with the facts, as Shaffer has freely admitted) uses the story of Mozart and Salieri as a jumping off point to examine the nature of genius, jealousy, and fairness, and it’s hard to imagine a better adaptation than Forman’s film, which never feels stagy, bringing the big operatic themes to the screen without losing the nuances. Some of the greatest actors around played the key roles — Paul Scofield had originated Salieri at the National Theatre in London, Ian McKellen won a Tony on Broadway — but then little-known stage actors F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were unexpectedly cast by Forman, and they nail it: Abraham’s an endlessly watchable Machiavellian Salieri, and Hulce seemingly channels the Sex Pistols as the over-the-top, giggly, foolish yet somehow charming Mozart. Both were Oscar-nominated, though only Abraham walked, one of eight Oscars the movie won, though that marker of the film’s nature is misleading, concealing its lightly subversive take on a monolithically admired figure.
“I’m Not There” (2007)
Todd Haynes has several modes — Sirkian melodrama master, New Queer Cinema pioneer — but one of his most interesting is the Haynes that makes offbeat biopics of musical legends where the mythology of his subjects is just as important as the facts. After “Superstar,” and thinly-veiled Iggy Pop/Marc Bolan/Lou Reed/David Bowie tale “Velvet Goldmine,” the director made perhaps most his ambitious and fascinating movie to date, “I’m Not There,” a portrait in mosaic form of Bob Dylan. “Inspired by the music and many lives” of the legendary folk star, it sees six actors play different aspects of Dylan: Ben Whishaw as Arthur Rimbaud as Bob Dylan (or Bob Dylan as Arthur Rimbaud?) being interrogated; eleven-year-old Marcus Carl Franklin as a Woody Guthrie-esque runaway; Christian Bale as folk singer Jack Rollins (who later becomes a born-again Christian); Heath Ledger as movie star Robbie Clark; Cate Blanchett as the gone-electric Jude; and Richard Gere as outlaw Billy in a Peckinpah-homaging segment. It’s among as experimental a (semi-) mainstream movie as has been made in recent years: the different sections only loosely tying together, the style and form darting all over the place, and little of the “Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays” structure or “the wrong kid died” emotion involved. The result can be difficult, even infuriating in places, and undoubtedly is best viewed if you’re someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Dylan’s life and times. But even without this, you get infinitely more of a sense of the film’s subject from Haynes’ fascinating, abstracted work — one full of a huge number of small pleasures, from Blanchett’s Oscar-nominated performance to the beautifully elegiac feel of the Gere-starring section — than you would from a thousand more conventional Dylan biopics combined.
“The Social Network” (2010)
If you’re making a biopic of someone who was just 26 when the movie was released, you’re probably going to be forced into being somewhat unconventional, but David Fincher’s Aaron Sorkin-penned “The Social Network,” the story of the founding of Facebook, and in large part its co-creator, Mark Zuckerberg, differs from the norm beyond that. As with his equally-clever script for the currently-in-theaters “Steve Jobs,” Sorkin isn’t interested in just chronologically structuring the story of the life so far of Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), or his co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), even though both have interesting elements that the film only loosely touches on: there’s little in the way of back story or their childhoods. Instead, it’s built as a combination of a courtroom drama, a character study and a tragedy — soon after meeting Zuckerberg, who’s being deeply obnoxious, we learn that he’s being sued by his former best friend (among others), with the story unfolding amidst sparky testimony from the pair. Sorkin’s brilliantly quotable script (“You know what’s cooler than a million dollars,” etc., etc.) is lent real and deep sadness both by the faultless performances, but also by Fincher’s zippily mournful direction, using the sterility of digital photography to create a world where everyone seems surrounded by noise even before they’re connected. Unlike most biopics, which are satisfied with replaying the life of their subjects, Fincher and Sorkin find something much bigger in “The Social Network” — a portrait of a world in which it’s easier than ever to communicate, but harder than ever to connect.
“Andrei Rublev” (1966)
With only his second film, this paean to Russia’s greatest icon painter, renowned filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky cemented his place among the most important directors of the 20th century. That he did it by gloriously reconstructing the desolate malaise of early 15th century medieval Russia is all the more reason to praise the visionary power on display. In “Andrei Rublev,” as in most of our featured non-traditional biopics here, what dominates over the standard-issue recounting of great deeds is the context: of time and place and how we move about in both. Traditional filmmaking techniques were never part of Tarkovsky’s arsenal, and in this 3-hour plus epic (the Criterion release is the fully restored 205 minutes, but it’s the 186-minute version that has Tarkovsky’s blessing as the ultimate cut) he follows the stoic and steadfast Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn, wondrously expressive) through various chapters of his early creative life. With an uncanny eye for how his surrounding must have influenced and dictated Rublev’s art, the picture is divided into eight chapters. We see Rublev grow from lowly monk with perceptible artistic talent in the early 1400s, to the precipice of his fame as one of greatest Christian Orthodox icon painters. Depicting various encounters, some viciously cruel Tatarstan raids, and the horrifying consequences of famine and plague, among other events, Tarkovsky seemingly finds a way to trace the outlines of Rublev’s very soul. With the help of his reliable cinematographer Vadim Yusov, this makes the film an unforgettably intimate and realistic portrait of a rich patch of Russian history, with a great many intellectual digressions on the nature of art, religion, and war. “Andrei Rublev” is the fruit born from the labor of a poet-philosopher who vividly has a deep relationship with art, that turns so many of our modern biopics into dust by comparison.
“Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” (1985)
Paul Schrader‘s take on notorious and controversial Japanese author Yukio Mishima is one of the most captivating biopics ever realized on screen. Not least because of its ornate structure: a persona dissected through a triangular prism of what made him an artist, a man, and one of his country’s most popular 20th century cultural figures. One facet is positioned in the present time, where Mishima (poignantly portrayed by Ken Ogata), at the peak of his popularity, prepares for his “final act”: an attempted coup inevitably ending in public seppuku (traditional Japanese suicide). Another dramatizes three of Mishima’s novels (“The Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” a segment from “Kyoko’s House,” and “Runaway Horses“), and the third adapts sections from Mishima’s autobiography, “Confessions of a Mask” and John Nathan‘s “Mishima: A Biography.” It’s a discombobulating experience for anyone expecting a conventional biopic, and a wholly satisfying one for those hoping for something else. Mishima’s lifelong thematic obsessions with the nature of beauty, reflections on the self, and national identity are rendered magnificent through John Bailey‘s sumptuous cinematography, one of the loveliest Philip Glass scores this side of “Koyaanisqatsi,” and Eiko Ishioka‘s dazzling production design (the three shared the Cannes prize for ‘Best Artistic Contribution’). Pulling it all together, of course, is Schrader’s impassioned vision for the subject at hand and his unifying resolve in presenting the film as such a complex array of fragments. A beautifully un-ordinary depiction of a fascinating artistic mind, ‘Mishima’ is wrought with concepts of creativity, doubt, self-reflection, and a patriotic nostalgia for a Japan of old, succeeding in filming an ‘unfilmable’ biography with breathtaking results.
“24 Hour Party People” (2002)
Not so much a biopic of a single person, “24 Hour Party People” steps it up a few notches as a biography of a special time in England’s underground music scene. In an atmosphere percolating with rebellious itches, TV music journalist Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan, in one of his career highlights) takes it upon himself to scratch the scene with postmodernist panache by founding Factory Records. Michael Winterbottom thus crafts a multi-tentacled creature of a film in both form and content. Anchored by his journalistic passion and hilarious cynicism, Tony literally takes us through the late ’70s and ’80s Manchester and the who’s who of punk acts (The Sex Pistols, Joy Division, The Buzzcocks…). Coogan breaks the fourth wall time and time again (“being postmodern, before it’s fashionable”), while Winterbottom freely experiments with semi-docu black-and-white aesthetics, real concert footage, and re-enactments of legends, myths, and truthful accounts. Examples include poisoned pigeons falling from the sky to Wagner‘s “Ride of the Valkyries,” reported UFO sightings, and the rise of drugs and violence in the rave scene. Coogan’s got strong support in many Brits who’ve become famous in their own right since 2002 (Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Simon Pegg, Rob Brydon, and a fantastically funny Andy Serkis), but it’s perhaps Frank Cottrell-Boyce‘s erratically tongue-in-cheek screenplay (his best in a long string of Winterbottom collaborations) that gives the film its long shelf-life. Prescient in its meta- method of destabilizing standard biopic practices, “24 Hour Party People” builds to a tremendous portrait of Wilson, but is even more faithful to the spirit of that milieu than to any one event or person, and (obviously) boasts a must-own soundtrack.
“Love and Mercy” (2014)
It’s no coincidence that there are two films with script credits for Oren Moverman on this short list: seeing what he did with Todd Haynes‘ “I’m Not There,” sophomore director Bill Pohlad got Moverman to rewrite the script for his Brian Wilson biopic. And as triumphant, affecting, imaginative, and gripping as the final film is, from the choice of varying film stocks to signify different periods, to the immaculate soundscape (from Atticus Ross) to the quite brilliant quartet of performances from Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, and especially Paul Dano and John Cusack, the writing deserves special mention. It is the rock-solid script, and Pohlad’s unerring confidence in it and his actors, that allows the film to break all the biopic rules but hit all the right notes (sorry). Even the fact that Dano and Cusack, who look nothing at all alike and who neither resemble Wilson very much, feel inarguably like the same man at two different periods in his life, is a lot down to how skilfully Wilson is written — he speaks and reacts and behaves like the same man, so the different-actor conceit is hardly noticeable after a while. Leaving a lot of the more salacious or dramatic events to happen in the gap between the two time periods feels less like soft-soaping the character (after all, we see how fragile he is in almost every scene) and more like a wilful choice not to be reductive by boiling a life down to tragedy, mental health issues, and drug addiction. Instead, we get a fascinating glimpse into the beautiful and troubled interior life of a blazing talent (the studio scenes are a thrilling evocation of the joy of the creative act, even if you’re not a massive Beach Boys fan), wrapped up in a hugely entertaining, satisfying, moving film.
Narrowly missing out on the list were Derek Jarman‘s “Wittgenstein,” or indeed any of his biographical arthouse riddles — “Caravaggio” and “Sebastiane” could also qualify. Dreyer‘s “Passion of Joan of Arc” is still startling today, nearly nine decades after it it was made. Werner Herzog has a few films that can loosely be termed biographical under his belt, but probably the closest to this list’s criteria is “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” his terrific recreation of the fascinating, semi-mythic story of a young man who claimed to have been raised by wolves in 1800s Nuremberg. George Clooney‘s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” is certainly unconventional, but it’s also rather disappointing considering the talent involved, so we skipped it. Richard Lester‘s epochal “A Hard Day’s Night” blurs the biopic lines so much that we just couldn’t quite include it — not only is it a fictionalized impression of a day in the life of The Beatles, it also stars the Fab Four themselves and so falls somewhere into more of a fantasy/documentary hybrid.
Speaking of docs, we didn’t include any biodocs, as a whole other list could be made for them exclusively, though of the more recent ones, we’ll take the opportunity again to shout out “Listen To Me Marlon” as truly exemplary and innovative biodoc filmmaking.
Lastly, there have been some recent biopics that, despite more or less cleaving to traditional format, have been impressive for the quality of their performances and/or storytelling. F. Gary Gray’s “Straight Outta Compton,” Ava DuVernay‘s “Selma,” Mike Leigh’s “Mr Turner,” Tate Taylor‘s underseen James Brown biopic “Get On Up,” and Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” all largely fall into the traditional biopic arena, but are classed up considerably by the passion and artistry of the filmmakers and actors involved.
Still, all of this is just a brief selection of the films in the massively overstuffed biopic category, the slender ropes of hope we hang on to for dear life when the deluge of superficial Tom Hooper Oscar contenders and starchily reverent portraits of tortured genius, threatens to drown us entirely. Let us know which unconventional, innovative, or experimental biopics you can recommend without a shudder in the comments below.
— Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton, Nicholas Laskin & Nikola Grozdanovich