Thinking of doing a biopic? Here's the formula:
1. Choose a famous, successful star. Get an
actor with generally similar physical characteristics. And-- I don't
get this part, but it works-- have them perform the music themselves, if the
star is a musician. Astonishingly, audiences can't tell the difference
between, say, Joaquin Phoenix and Johnny Cash or Sissy Spacek and Loretta
Lynn anyway, and the PR value is terrific.
2. Add one childhood trauma of some sort- preferably the death of a close family member. Even better if the star is partly responsible, so we can explain the later addiction to drugs or alcohol.
3. Dramatize how nobody except the star himself, or maybe a lover, believed in their talent, until a single revelatory performance, or a meeting with a celebrity.
4. Show the audiences being incredibly enthusiastic about the performer even though they don't know yet that he or she is a star. Disregard the fact that most audiences are generally pretty clueless about real exceptional talents. (Many people acquainted with Bob Dylan, for example, didn't think much of him until Robert Shelton wrote his famous review.) And make sure that no one in the audience ever talks during the performance. Right.
5. Next, the artist is shown rising in popularity and acquiring wealth. Along the way, he bumps into numerous other future "stars". The artist inevitably recognizes their talents even when no one else does. "One day, I'm telling yah, that young Bobby Dylan is going to be a star. Mark my words..."
6. The movie ends. No-- it can't. That only takes a half-hour. Now you show the incredible suffering artists endure, because if you didn't show the suffering, you would find the subsequent corruption, drug abuse, and venality insufferable. The suffering usually consists of nay-sayers, bad agents or promoters, record company executives, or abusive parents or spouses.
7. Show the artist down and out, even if they were never really that low in real life.
8. The artist comes up with his masterpiece, Buddy Holly, for example, sounding like a Las Vegas entertainer, or Cash planning the concert at San Quentin, or Ray Charles inventing a new style. All of his advisors and cronies advise him against it- but he goes ahead.
9. End in triumph.
When Hollywood made King of Kings in 1960, it decided it couldn't be too careful with the first talking film about the Son of God. Test screenings were held for carefully selected representative preview audiences to garner their reactions to the film. Would audiences find the idea of a celluloid Christ shocking? Would they be offended at the idea of Hollywood packaging and glamorizing the story of salvation? Would they be appalled at the vivid scenes of Christ on the cross, one of the most sacred images of the Christian religion?
Most movie biographies-- almost all of them, nowadays, in fact-- are the result of incestuous relationships between the guardians and owners of copyrighted material and the film-makers. The guardians want a fawning tribute to their deceased or not so deceased beloved. The film-maker wants a hit movie. If it's about Ray Charles, it's got to have his music in it. Well, who controls the rights to that music? Right-- Ray Charles' family and heirs. Without a doubt, all parties to the charade make all the correct noises about "authenticity" and "warts and all" without the slightest intention of letting anyone else decide which warts deserve exposure and which might better be left in the dark. The audience, indulged in with a few carefully chosen scenes of debauchery or alcohol abuse, are convinced that the movie is telling it all. The actor hopes to get a chance, like Reese Witherspoon, to realize their life-long dream of becoming a country music singer! Bring it on, Reese! I just hope that Dolly Parton, sitting in the audience, didn't feel that her career achievements were in any way diminished by the fact that Reese Witherspoon only required a few months to render a creditable counterfeit.
(2005, d. James Mangold, Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon) More honest than most, but formulaic as hell. And I really do hope that people don't get the impression that this is what Johnny Cash and June Carter really sound like.
(1980, D. Michael Apted, Sissy Spacek) Loretta Lynn has consistently claimed she was married at 13. In fact, county records show she was fifteen when she married Dolittle Flynn.
(1978, D. Steve Rash, Gary Busey) Cheese please: This film shows Holly writing a score in the studio-- Holly could neither write nor read music. And where did the fourth Cricket go?
(2004, D. Taylor Hackford, Jaime Foxx) The state of Georgia never banned Ray Charles.
(1994, D. Iain Softley, Stephen Dorff, Ian Hart, Gary Bakewell, Chris O'Neill, Scot Williams) No Lennon-McCartney originals were used, or harmed, in the making of this otherwise intriguing production. One of the better biopics of this bunch.
(2000, D. Ed Harris, Ed Harris) Ed Harris, Ed Harris, Ed Harris, Ed Harris....
(2001, D. Ron Howard, Russell Crowe.) Omits any mention of his subversive period, his alleged homosexuality. And Nash didn't see things-- he heard voices. And his wife did leave him.
(1985, D. Jim McBride, Dennis Quaid) Conveniently ended in 1959, before the suspicious deaths of two of Lewis' wives.
(1993, d. Steven Spielberg, Liam Neeson) That ridiculous last scene--- Schindler weeping and wailing that he could have saved more if he had only sold his rings-- never happened, and insults his memory. Spielberg just couldn't help himself-- just in case you didn't get it, he has to clobber you over the head with just how slobbering beautiful Schindler's actions seem to day. They were beautiful-- but shameless hamhanded scenes like this only raise doubts about the integrity of the rest of the movie. Schindler's wife, shown fondly appreciating him in the film, actually left him. The book, incidentally, was originally marketed as fiction-- the author took some true events and "fictionalized" them for whatever reason (possibly because he was unable to verify his information to acceptable journalistic standards). It was only when Spielberg decided to make a movie that it was rebranded as "non-fiction". What changed? Spielberg's desire to give the movie more gravitas.
(2004, D. Marc Foster, Johnny Depp) This one might take the cake-- J. M. Barrie's relationship to the Llewelyn children was problematic-- all of them, later in life, had very ambivalent feelings about Barrie-- to say the least. The boy for which Peter is named threw himself under a train at the age of 65, detesting his association with the play. Two of the other children died under suspicious circumstances (possible suicides). But this version makes him look like a lovable saint. Who owns the rights to "Peter Pan"? The Great Ormond Street Hospital. Would they like you to think ill of their cash cow? Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, incidentally, was not a widow when J. M. Barrie began visiting and monopolizing her children. Barrie himself was married earlier but never consummated the marriage.
(2005) Since Capote is long dead and he didn't sing, more honest than most.
( 1979) Disguised biography of Janis Joplin. It is an utterly depressing world we live in if it is to be believed that Bette Midler can supply anything remotely resembling even a facsimile of Janis Joplin's singing performances. You owe it to yourself, if you have to seen this movie, to purge your soul with a viewing of an honest-to-god performance by the real Janis Joplin.
( 1991) Oliver Stone's bizarre and often tiresome portrait of Jimmy Morrison has at least one virtue: it isn't unduly flattering. And it has a relatively impressive performance by a very committed Val Kilmer. There is a moment: the live performance of "Light my Fire" at least gives you something so lacking in most of these biopics-- a moment in which you might actually apprehend what it was that made the artist great in the first place.
Where do I begin?
My goodness-- and we all thought the Queen was plotting, right up to the end, to bring in Austrian armies to put down the revolution!
The exception: an exquisite antidote, though slow-moving, paean to the roles of Antoinette's servants and sycophants in the last days of the Louis XVI regime.