The New Wave of Biopics

The biographical picture, or “biopic”, is one of the most celebrated genres in film, producing classics such as Gandhi, Raging Bull and Lawrence of Arabia. It is also, at least from an objective standpoint, one of the easiest genres to write. Unlike other genres where you have to build your characters and storylines from scratch, with biopics all the material is already there, it’s just a matter of adapting it. However, this attitude has built up a bit of fatigue, which can be evidenced from four big biopic failures in recent years – J. Edgar, focusing on the life of FBI founder J . Edgar Hoover, I Saw the Light, focusing on country music godfather Hank Williams, Unbroken, focusing on Olympian Louis Zamperini, and Concussion, focusing on Dr. Bennett Omalu’s fight against the NFL after discovering the effects American football has on players’ mental states. Despite the prestige and star power behind these films, they did not gain any traction critically or commercially, with critics and audiences pointing out similar problems in all four.

However, on the flip side of this, there were three biopics released last year that averted the cliches exemplified by the above films and instead made the lives of their subjects into thrilling pieces on their own right. They are Straight Outta Compton, focusing on the seminal gangsta rap group N.W.A., Love & Mercy, focusing on Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson, and Steve Jobs, focusing on, well, Steve Jobs. These films are examples of the “new biopic wave”: films that, instead of examining the lives of their subjects in a straightforward fashion, choose to use their real-life inspirations as platforms for cinematic and writing experimentation. Before going into these films and seeing how they do this, though, it is important to look at the recent failures in the biopic genre in order to understand what makes them so unique.

Wikipedia Article: The Movie

A Wikipedia movie is a film where the script is, more or less, adapted from the subject’s Wikipedia article. The events of their lives are read to you in a straightforward manner without any deviations from the facts or major events. This results in a film that, while it may succeed in it’s goal of accurately depicting the person or people the film is showcasing, ultimately fails at a film-making level. This is because films are not textbooks. With textbooks, the purpose is to inform the reader. With film, the purpose is to inform as well as entertain, enlighten and enrich the lives of the viewer. If the writer or director goes into a film with the attitude of a textbook, even if they are producing a documentary, they will not succeed as a film.

The main problem with this format is that, since the films are going through the events as they happened in such a bullet-point manner, there is no time for character building or smaller details. This is exemplified in the film J. Edgar by the semi-implied romance between J. Edgar Hoover and his second-in-command, Clyde Tolsen. Throughout the film and at it’s end, a special relationship between the two is brought up and clearly meant for the audience to pick up on. However, the motivations behind this relationship are never even given a cursory glance. Why does Clyde stay with J. Edgar even though he treats him shabbily? What is the connection that these two people have? The script has no answer for these questions, since they are not in the Wikipedia article. All that is in the article is that some have alleged a homosexual relationship between them, so that is all that is in the film. This results in little-to-no dramatic tension or investment with the film’s characters, as since you know nothing about them besides a basic summary of their lives you have no reason to care for them.

The end result of this approach is the film equivalent of plain toast. Dry, uninspiring and in serious need of some seasoning. Some film-makers are so enamored with their subject that they think by simply displaying their lives on the screen they’ll make a great film, but film is such a challenging and dynamic medium that, if you want succeed, you’ll have to bring more to the table. Which is a lesson that the following films definitely learn:

Straight Outta Compton: The Avengers of Biopics

Straight Outta Compton

Structurally, Straight Outta Compton is a film that shares more in common with The Avengers than Walk the Line, at least in it’s first half. There is an introduction to each of the heroes, a demonstration of their individual traits and the story of all of them coming together to form a well-balanced team. Since this film has the distinction of focusing on a group of people instead of one person, you get more dynamic character interaction, which is something that most Wikipedia movies ignore in favor of focusing on a singular entity and their struggles.

There is also the film’s direction. While with Wikipedia movies the director is often too afraid to add their own visual flair to the concoction out of fear that they might overtake their subject or lead actor, with Straight Outta Compton, the grandiose and boisterous nature of N.W.A lends itself naturally to a kinetic energy (overseen by the director F. Gary Grey) that lasts throughout the entire film, especially during the musical sequences, where their music is given new life through experiencing it in a live environment or in the recording process. Instead of simple education, the film strives for excitement and entertainment alongside it, and it’s technical aspects work in concert with the magnetic personalities at the film’s center to accent their accomplishments instead of simply telling them to you.

But the most unique aspect of Straight Outta Compton that differentiates it from not only Wikipedia movies but biopics in general are the film’s subjects themselves. Hip-hop is an art form that is tragically underrepresented in film, most likely due to it’s relative youth in comparison to musical styles such as rock or country, and Straight Outta Compton is the first mainstream film to tackle it head-on instead of using it as a backdrop or inspiration. Rap is treated with respect and dignity, but it’s ugly elements are not ignored either, which are two key elements of a good biopic. By giving this treatment to a genre that has not been tackled with the full attention it deserves, Straight Outta Compton differentiates itself on a conceptual level from it’s kin as well as a technical one.

In the second half of the film, you get the tropes you come to expect from biopics – the tension between the members, the downward spiral, the tragedy. However, because of the strategies listed above that were established in the first half, you’re still invested. This leads to a film that, while it may not be as unorthodox in it’s narrative flow and structure as the next two, is unique and energetic enough to be a good shot in the arm that the musical biopic needs.

Love & Mercy: Two Films, One Life

loveandmercy

The life of Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson is one ripe for a Wikipedia movie treatment. You have the rise, the success, the substance abuse problems, the downward spiral and the hopeful ending. But instead of going the easy route, director Bill Pohlad and writers Oren Moverman & Michael A. Lerner took several risks with the narrative structure, and all of them pay off. The result is a truly special film that does it’s source material justice.

Instead of starting with the rise of the Beach Boys and going from there, the film starts with a montage showing you all the information you need to know about their origins and truly begins with the band already at their prime. The script does not show you a life overall, but rather narrows down it’s focus to two periods in Brian Wilson’s life, switching between each in intervals. The first is the recording of Pet Sounds and it’s immediate aftermath and the second is Brian meeting his future wife Melinda Letbetter while under the tyrannical care of shady therapist Eugene Landy. This is a great idea that spits in the face of everything the Wikipedia movie stands for. For one, since you don’t have the burden of showing an entire life in one film, you can add in several scenes that flesh out character relationships. The interactions between Wilson and his father, band-mates, wife and therapist are given more depth than the Wikipedia movie because there is now enough time to develop these relationships properly, instead of hurriedly rushing through bullet points. Also, the typical formula of the Wikipedia movie with the rise and fall is thrown out the window in favor of focusing on the most fascinating aspects of Brian Wilson’s life, mainly the recording of his magnum opus and his struggles with mental illness. This results in a script that is tight and lean without cutting too much to the point that you feel you’re watching a textbook on screen.

But an experimental structure is nothing without the talent to pull it off, and Love & Mercy has more than enough both behind and in front of the camera. The performances of Paul Dano and John Cusack as the younger and older Brian Wilson, respectively, capture a combination of a naive innocence and psychosis, while supporting players Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti are given time to shine. The direction of the recording scenes is especially magnificent, portraying the outlandish yet genius techniques behind the recording of Pet Sounds in such a grounded way that you can’t help but be amazed. However, the point here is that Wikipedia movies don’t fail due to a lack of talent, but due to an unwillingness to experiment and develop. Love & Mercy does both of those things with gusto, resulting in a film that equals the creative and soulful genius of it’s subject.

Steve Jobs: A Man in Three Acts

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is a play. While it may be a film and utilize the medium of film well, it is, more or less, a play. It’s in three acts, it takes place in tight spaces, and there is a focus on dialogue and character interaction. Plays have been filmed before, but this is, perhaps, the first time that a play based off a man’s life is made for modern audiences, let alone a man as overwhelmingly influential on the digital age as Steve Jobs.

Like the previous two films, Steve Jobs portrays a larger-than-life personality with both respect and scorn, showing their professional triumphs as well as their personal failures. But it’s the way this story is presented that sets it apart from the Wikipedia movies that utilize the same formula. Like Love & Mercy, Steve Jobs does not show the man’s life overall, but focuses on specific events. Mainly, the launch of three Apple products: the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. However, the overall presentation has more in common with 2014’s Birdman than any other biopic, let alone a Wikipedia movie. The direction by acclaimed film-maker Danny Boyle is claustrophobic and tight, taking place in enclosed spaces and venues rather than nondescript studios and houses, and the script from Aaron Sorkin is a continuous conversation between Jobs and the people surrounding him. It’s for this reason that it fits more as a play than a film, but thanks to incredibly tight and frenetic editing, it works on both levels. By straddling the line between these two mediums, Steve Jobs is a work that elevates it’s material into something completely new.

The most important thing to point out here, though, is the way it averts the Wikipedia movie formula not only with it’s time and setting, but it’s character arcs as well. While, technically, Steve Jobs does have a rise, a fall and a redemption that could be represented in his three product launches, Steve himself remains more or less the same person throughout all of it. His arc is not defined by Apple’s history or the things he’s made, but how he treats the people around him. This stands in contrast to Wikipedia movies, which know only the surface of their subjects’ lives besides what they’ve accomplished. They’ll portray their personal lives, sure, but never scratch beyond the basic outlines of what has been printed in their articles. Steve Jobs goes deeper, as it is more interested than the man himself than what he’s done. That is, in essence, what differentiates it from the Wikipedia movie.

The Current Situation

Right now, the modern biopic is stuck between two categories: The Wikipedia Movie and The New Biopic Wave. While Wikipedia movies take their lineage and influences from some of the most acclaimed films of all time, film needs to continuously grow and evolve in order to stay interesting. This is a message that the New Biopic Wave has taken to heart, showing that even films based on real events need a real vision behind them in order to be interesting in 2016. With TV’s recent The People v. O.J. Simpson proving to be a smash success and upcoming heavy hitters such as The Founder, War Dogs and Snowden, the evolution of the biopic genre is, at this point, an inevitability.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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51 Comments

  1. Orali
    0

    I’d love to see one about Albert Einstein, the Wright brothers, a proper and honest bio pic of Nikola Tesla, Ian Fleming, and actor Christopher Lee (who was a badass before becoming an actor)

  2. Chrystal
    0

    The best biopics are ones that are about a particular unique or relatable aspect of the person’s life, with a narrative built around that. La Bamba, Walk the Line, Love & Mercy, Steve Jobs accomplish this.

  3. Chung
    0

    Straight Outta Compton. Great movie not only about the group but about police brutality and carrying beef in the hip hop realm. Amazing.

    • Arthur Longo
      0

      I think I speak for a select few when I say this, but I was very underwhelmed upon seeing this. Maybe it has something to do with the widespread acclaim it received, which admittedly heightened my expectations, but I found it to be passable at best.

      I know the writers had a long period of time to cover, but parts of the film felt rushed even with the 2+ hours run time. Some of the major events, I believe, happened almost too quickly, with little development behind it. For instance, when Eazy E first rose to fame.

      I did, however, admire the performances. Specifically, O’Shea Jackson Jr. who flawlessly played his father.

      In any case, I didn’t find it to be an overall satisfying experience. Maybe I should give it another shot and re watch it.

    • Mania
      0

      I agree it was a very good movie, but it wasn’t really that historically accurate. General events were shown, but going back and reading about what actually happened after I saw the movie, they cut out a lot of stuff that made them look bad.

  4. What a wonderfully written article. After seeing Straight Outta Compton, I was trying to find a way to articulate what exactly made the first half of the film so great. Now I am going to use your phrase, The Avengers of biopics, when describing the movie to friends. But the second half is difficult to watch, since it goes into Lifetime movie plotting. In my opinion, the movie could have ended after the fallout from the F the Police performance in Detroit, with a short montage of events using real life footage to explain their future, but they probably went longer since the Academy tends to nominate movies over the 120 minute mark.

  5. A sub-focus of this could be biopics vs documentaries and the different perks each can offer.

  6. Aaron

    Reading your article after watching the trailer for The Founder, the upcoming biopic of McDonald’s Ray Kroc, I’m beginning to ponder films celebrating the life and successes of captains of industry and the like. Steve Jobs is on the the to-watch list, but I’m reminded of my experience watching The Social Network. Although these kinds of biopics are generally celebratory of successful capitalists, their intrigue and challenges capture the dramatic flair necessary for a ‘good movie’. I haven’t seen Saving Mr. Banks yet but I’ve heard it missed the mark because of this reason.

  7. Munjeera

    There have been too many biopic about Jobs. It is great when screenwriters find someone who isn’t well known for his or her work and then share their incredible story with the movie world. I wonder if a biopic will be made about Obama. I would love to see as well as biopic about some of China’s new millionaires like Jack Ma.

    • Adam

      There actually is a movie about Obama coming out soon. It’s called Southside With You, and it’s about Barack and Michelle’s first date. You can see the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erpUF2ToUls

      I thought there was a little bit of irony in this trailer being released near Snowden’s, but never mind.

  8. Edge
    0

    Would be fun with all the Marvel comics love these days to do Jack Kirby. He got ripped off so much in life. Drew something like 8 pages a day (this is uncanny, most comic artists can’t do one page in a day) and at the end of his career his estate was left with something like 90 pages of work….after his lifetime of drawing.

    People in Marvel comics offices were using the pages to mop up coffee spills unaware of their future value

  9. SUGAR
    0

    Waiting on Freddie Mercury…

  10. Fortenberry
    0

    Straight Outta Compton did well because of the relevancy it has to today. It relates extremely well to the public unrest going on right now in this country and most of the guys are a) still alive and b) big names not only in music but also in other media.

  11. Yanir
    0

    There is no better movie than A Beautiful Mind.

    My favourite line from the movie: “Imagine if you suddenly learned that the people, the places, the moments most important to you were not gone, not dead, but worse, had never been. What kind of hell would that be?”

  12. EarlGreyTRex

    You bring up some great points, but I’m not sure I agree with how you determine the worth of these movies. Not all movies are made to appeal to the most people possible. And the fact that they didn’t make a big blockbuster splash or win a lot of awards doesn’t determine a movies worth. I love history. I always been enthralled by stories of the past and I don’t mind dull things. Exhaustive detail on some mundane aspect of another’s life can be genuinely interesting. And yes, I know that’s an unpopular opinion, but I sure hope boring biopics don’t stop getting made. I love that stuff.

  13. Daigle
    0

    Still waiting on the Scorsese, Frank Sinatra biopic.

  14. tiumor
    0

    This is my favourite genre of movies so thanks for writing about it.

  15. Naje
    0

    There’s been lots of good films about parts of The Beatles lives, but there hasn’t really been a big movie covering them as a group across their whole career yet. I’m waiting for this.

  16. folle
    0

    Endless meaningless films about meaningless minutiae of meaningless celebrity’s meaningless lives.

  17. Emily Deibler

    Excellent work here! The biopic for John Keats (Bright Star) made me tear up a little. I’m interested to see who else will get great biopics in the future.

  18. I really enjoyed reading this article and love how in depth I enjoyed watching straight outta Compton was a very good biopic most are very standard to name a few like James brown and Johnny cash even though Johnny cash was good it’s just the point it’s very cookie cutter this film was very different it focused on the music and accuracy even if it was a raunchy aspect

  19. Kenia
    0

    We need a third biopic of Steve Jobs.

  20. Strain
    0

    If you want a good bio picture, watch The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

  21. CaSEE
    0

    Catch Me If You Can is my favorite bpic. What’s yours?

    • Haad
      0

      The Aviator is pretty damn good, from what I remember (saw it years ago!)

      DiCaprio fully embodied the character of Hughes with each expression and movement, depicting a man with a strong sense of ambition and respect, only to be limited by setbacks not under his control.

      The film was fantastic, with every scene building towards a harrowing and even haunting final act.

      Damn, I love Scorsese / DiCaprio flicks!

    • Paol
      0

      Walk The Line. Joaquin Pheonix and Reese Witherspoon are so goddamn fantastic.

  22. Great contrast!

    Felipe M.

  23. Isn’t the comparison of Straight Outta Compton to The Avengers part of what makes SoC a problematic film, especially as a biopic? As a biopic (produced uncoincidentally by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube), SoC is largely uncritical of its subjects and presents them in an exaggeratedly heroic form. I found the film to be incredibly crafted and considered in terms of this characterization of unrealistic representation. Accordingly, I find biopics that are impartial to the portrayal of their subject to offer a more so meaningful viewing experience.

    • Adam

      I’d say that, as far as biopics go, it was surprisingly willing to show the good and bad parts of most people involved. The negative aspects of Ice Cube and Eazy-E were portrayed, and even the manager who was ripping them off wasn’t totally demonized. I agree that the portrayal of Dr. Dre wasn’t the most balanced, though. Apparently his abuse of women was originally in the film but was cut for time reasons.

  24. Love and Mercy is a wonderful example that focuses on not an individual’s lifetime but the significant events of that lifetime and does so without devolving into sentimentality. Further examples of strong biopics might be Experimenter (based on Stanley Milgram) and The Social Network (based on Mark Zuckerberg).

  25. Marivel
    0

    I feel as if a Michael Jackson biopic chronicling his rise to superstardom after a rough childhood and all the effects it had on him as an adult would be brilliant.

  26. Lakisha
    0

    Im sure they will end up making something about David Bowie.

  27. I love many biopics, but I feel like Hollywood is overdoing them. Maybe this is because of the lack of original material, so they make a movie out of something that happened already. I like what Don Cheadle does on Miles Ahead: he takes a real life person and makes a fiction film out of it. It gives the audience something familiar (the character) while doing something different with this person’s life. The same thing is happening with the Elvis and Nixon movie that is coming soon. The filmmaker takes a true story and gives it a twist by creating a fictional world.

  28. Hazel
    0

    Bob Marley… why hasn’t there been one on his life yet?

  29. Trask
    0

    They’re an easily bankable bet during awards season. Since it’s “based on a true story”, it hits that middlebrow-aspiring-to be-highbrow niche that makes money during awards season. Very low risk, as old people show up for these things like teenagers for superhero movies.

    • Sammie Manson
      0

      Yea! These almost always garner SOME awards.

  30. Hannah
    0

    I really wanna see somebody make a movie of GG Allin. Maybe Harmony Korine.

  31. Allman
    0

    Unique and well written original material is clearly lacking these days; hence all the reboots, sequels, prequels, and such… so I welcome the biopic genre.

  32. I couldn’t agree more! Producers need to put a new spin on biopics if they have any hope of not appearing as desperate attempts at emotional reactions and critical acclaim. As you said, you need to go beyond the factual life events and try to produce a quasi-story line and present poignant characters. Awesome article!

  33. Malcom X is one of the best biopics i have ever seen

  34. petergeoff21

    Growing up I listened to a lot of rap, particularly N.W.A. I also followed the solo careers of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy- E and all their spin off groups. I feel that ‘Straight Outta Compton’ was a classic Wikipedia movie. I almost felt like I read the book before I saw the movie and the book was 10x better. I was excited to see a younger Eazy-E, as a gangsta, or more on Dr. Dre before N.W.A. This movie should have been a series on H.B.O, that would have made it much more interesting. It would be able to follow several different plot lines throughout the history of the group and the sub-groups it formed. ‘Straight Outta Compton’ was just to cut and dry for me. I’ve never seen ‘Love and Mercy’, or ‘Steve Jobs’, but after reading this article, I definitely want to check them out. I think the recent biopics are more hyped up because of the Actors that are staring in them. O’Shea Jackson Jr. as his dad, can’t miss! Cuba Gooding Jr as O.J? This has to be good! In the end, the history nerd in me loves a good biopic, so keep em coming Hollywood.

  35. seemuch
    0

    Fantastic post.

  36. Stacia
    0

    Biopics seem about as prevelant as they’ve always been.

  37. ismael676

    Steve Jobs is a play. Right on point. Steve Jobs is about the dialogue, about the relationship between the characters. I found it fascinating. I took a class on interpersonal conflict, and it was fascinating to see how the movie was accurate according to actual evidence.

  38. Lujan
    0

    What happened to the Marvin Gaye biopic that was supposed to star Jesse Martin (“Lawn & Order”)?

  39. I’m not sure if lack of research is what makes a biopic sink or swim. I loved Straight Outta Compton, but I went to the Wikipedia page afterward and saw, save a few beats, a blow-by-blow outline of the film. I think it has more to do with how the director/writer presents that material. That, and F. Gary Gray only really focused on three of the five members, which made it feel much tighter than it could have been.

  40. I thoroughly enjoyed this article, loving the new and old biopics!!

  41. Interesting. I actually got in a fight with someone who said that Straight Outta Compton was irresponsible for its deviation from fact. I disagree; as we see here it’s okay for a biopic to be more pic than bio. In fact, it’s more interesting that way.

    On an unrelated note, I’m a big fan of the movie Walk Hard. It’s such a great parody of the more formulaic musical biopic.

  42. This is a fantastic article. I have not seen the films you discussed, but it got me thinking about the biopics that I have seen and whether or not they fit the “Wikipedia Movie” archetype (I didn’t even realize there was one until you specified it). I agree with your points that the individual’s life can’t simply be put on the screen and that some sort of dynamic storytelling needs to make the film compelling; think for instance Hamilton and Jersey Boys on Broadway at the moment, Walk the Line, etc. However, there are several biopics that can follow the traditional archetype and still put out a compelling film like Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. Yet, I agree, film and theatre needs to constantly evolve and with life storytelling like Hamilton and Straight Outta Compton, the industry can do some incredible work.

  43. danielle577

    I enjoyed Straight Outta Compton more than I thought it would and it was due to the dynamics between the members of the group.We knew the music, we knew the headlines, but we didn’t know the backstory. Do we really know the true backstory now? Who knows? But we know more than before, and that’s what I enjoyed. I grew up with that music, when hip hop and rap was on the rise and people were attempting to understand how this type of music fit in. Now look at the music scene?! Back then, though, they cared about what they said; their message was clear–stop the violence. Though sometimes they took it too far and did write lyrics that created anger that incited violence, their original message was to stop the brutality. Showing younger audiences how rap music began, and differentiating between the “fun facts,” versus the inception, success, and demise of the group is a type of pop culture lesson.

  44. Tigey

    I’d love to see a Brian Wilson biopic, not only to see his fascinating life on film, but to see Eugene Landy’s misdeeds better publicized.

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