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
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
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 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.
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