On: Biopics

Sunday, March 28, 2010 7:31 PM By Simon

Biopics, as of the past two decades, have been nothing but Oscar fodder, followed by the dreaded bait. And, one can tell when a film is made from conception to make easy awards for a studio to boast.

This is not to say that these sorts of films are bad. Just that they're made for the wrong reasons. A combination of Academy Award fillers and showcases for a star's excellent mimicry skills.

One way to spot these sorts--this is not a rule, merely a pattern--is the title. If you have a title that may feature an in-joke, a reference, some sort of thought, chances are higher that it was conceived as a movie, not a platform. Again, this is not a rule. See, for example, 24 Hour Party People.

Here, the title is a reference to a song by the Happy Mondays, one of the primary bands featured in the film. This is not a straightforward biopic, this is a self-aware monster, a chaotic, loud, entertaining thing that doesn't aim for prestige, but to tell the story of Factory Records, the biggest record label in London. It never strays away from it's principle setting, it never has a moment of breakdowns, or powerhouse, or any sort of acting triumph--even what would be considered the lead actor, Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson, is by his (the character's) own admission not the protaganist...he's just a friendly face to guide you through the anarchic world of three very different bands, and to let you know you're still in the same movie. This was a film made to tell a story in as interesting a way as possible.

And then, you have the worst case scenerio of biopic filmmaking. Mira Nair's Amelia--blatant wannabe Oscar bait, right from the title. A lazy, unsubtle name slapped onto a lazy, unsubtle film. I, in case I haven't said it already, hate when a biopic just puts the first and/or last name of it's hero in the title. It says nothing about the actual movie either way, it just screams what it's about. I get it, not everybody is hung up on titles, but at least put a bit of thought into it.

Starring Hilary Swank in a perfectly okay performance that does nothing to get under the skin of her character, nothing but a half-assed impersonation and a mild look of hopeful wonder in her eyes. It's obvious, to me, that she was taking for granted her love from the Academy. She was expecting this to be her third Oscar, and didn't bother making an effort.

The film itself, just as half-assed, with beautiful cinematography and not much else. A by-the-books biopic at a time when they are reviled, and for good reason.

Of course, it's unfair to compare these two very different films, on subject matter alone. I would compare the former to The Runaways, one similarly making an effort to capture the essence of the music it represents, the real-life people, and maybe not succeeding. And, I would compare the latter to, maybe, Capote, based on the eponymous writer that may be Oscar bait, but damn good Oscar bait, but also the Infamous, a film on the same subject, just as good, one year latter, my own exception to Sandra Bullock. The latter of the latter, yeah, it shows that if you're gonna do awards fodder, you might as well do it right, and earn your inevitable Oscar.

Then, there's the league of their own, biopics that write themselves, that bask in the absurdity of the situation. The upcoming I Love You, Phillip Morris seems to be this, and Ed Wood, The People Vs. Larry Flint. There are the ones that use it's subject as an excuse to go mental, surreal us to glorious death, such as Kafka. Ones that are stylish and artful tearjerkers, like Schindler's List. Ones that preach and turn the story into a cautionary tale, like The Basketball Diaries or Dangerous Minds. Some, To Die For and Total Eclipse, seek humanization and entertainment in the illicit and the debauched, either towards whichever you want. There are so many different categories of these, I'll admit, almost all undefinable in the classic sense.

Just keep in mind, people will make a movie about anyone, anything, and anytime. So, just to be safe, make your will very particular. Good night, folks.


Dannie said...

You, my friend, are getting quite articulate.

March 28, 2010 at 8:33 PM
Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Damn, I really do like Capote even if it's not GREAT.

March 30, 2010 at 2:29 PM