Why Biopics Just Don’t Work

2009-01-16 (General release)

It’s not a hard genre to mess up. There are so many pre and post production hazards to overcome that the moviemaking winds up the easiest part – some of the time. Writers and directors have to deal with producers and advisors with a vested interest in the outcome (and in most cases, how they see themselves depicted onscreen) and the subject usually gets lost in a web of superficial anecdotes, obvious symbolism, and the sort of hackneyed hero worship that fails to get behind the reasons for their fame. That’s right, of all the Hollywood go-to categories, the biopic is the most misunderstood and misapplied. From the earliest days of the artform to the current cliché ridden examples, the cinematic retelling of a noted person’s life is usually decent, but not definitive – and that’s where the problem lies.

You see, it’s almost impossible to figure out – film wise – what makes a celebrity celebrated? After all, for the most part, they are just people given over to a remarkable talent or skill that few others have. They aren’t the people they play onscreen, or represent onstage, or muse over on the printed page. Instead, they are (usually) normal individuals who have the luxury of using creativity, imagination, prescience, ability, or physical/mental acumen to forge a path in this wounded world. We admire them out of inferred jealously and/or envy, secretly wishing that we could run as fast, think as quickly, or hold enough corporate sway to become the kind of limelight the movie moth is drawn to.

Yet buried inside such a subjective slam dunk are a myriad of problems that no production can truly conquer. Let’s take the most recent example of the genre, making its way to home video today (21 April, 2009) – the Biggie Smalls effort Notorious. For what’s it worth, the film itself is an entertaining look at the lives of marginalized members of America’s minority class, each with a contentious drive to dig themselves out of poverty and crime. Voletta Wallace (played by Angela Bassett) raises her son Christopher (newcomer Jamal Woolard) to respect education and love himself. But when the easy lure of money turns him into a crack dealer, nothing can save the troubled teen. A stint in jail and a meeting with future media mogul Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke) send him on a journey toward becoming the “savior of East Coast hip-hop”. Of course, his untimely death at 24 ends those immediate dreams.

Now, there is really nothing wrong with George Tillman Jr.’s film. He covers the basics – a bad life in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant area, running with the wrong crowd, the mistakes that lead to incarceration, the sudden pregnancy that pushes Wallace toward the reinvention as Biggie Smalls. He casts the film well, and does a nice job of keeping perspective without going overboard into glorified sainthood. For the most part, the important elements in Smalls’ career are addressed, and it’s clear that the whole East Coast/West Coast feud between the rapper and fellow artist Tupac Shakur is blamed for both men’s unnecessary death. Mixed throughout are scenes of Smalls in the studio, cutting hits, and translating those tunes into hypnotic live performances.

So what’s the issue, you may be asking? Why does a film like Notorious, which seemingly hits all the right beats and ladles them out in entertaining ways a “failure”? The answer, oddly enough, is insularity and lack of perspective. You see, most biopics start from the position that the life behind the cultural curtain is far more interesting than the social impact itself. Put another way, these movies make us believe that the ups and downs of everyday life are far more important than the artists (or politicians, or activists) undying legacy. In the case of this film, there is no attempt by Tillman Jr., his screenwriters, or the various named figures playing producer (including Ms. Wallace and Mr. Combs) to illustrate how Smalls became a hip-hop superstar. Mythos is inferred, not explained, simply because the level of fame reached supposedly speaks for itself.

But actually, that’s not true. A good example exists at the start of Oliver Stone’s amazing Kennedy Assassination deconstruction JFK. For decades, people have heard about the influence and lasting impact of the 35th President of the United States, yet unless you were alive during his rapid rise and sudden fall, you wouldn’t really understand what was at stake. Stone knew this, and spends the first 15 minutes of the film setting up the situational facets – the end of World War II, the rise in suburban white flight, the shift over to the military industrial complex, and the Camelot like fairytale that was Jack and Jackie. When the fatal bullet blows half the man’s head off – Zapruder film in full up close mode – the crime really resonates. We’re invested in the whole, so that the parts can become more meaningful.

Biopics always miss this (documentaries usually don’t because they are almost exclusively objective overviewing) simply because they gamble on the audience’s prior knowledge of the subject. It’s what lawyers call “judicial notice” – assuming the judge or jury knows something obvious, like what the speed limit is, or what the First Amendment stands for. As a result, we miss the most intriguing aspect this kind of film could bring – a clearer appreciation of a celebrities import or impact. It happens all the time, be it in Ray, Walk the Line, El Cantante, or more fictional efforts like Last Days or Sid and Nancy. Without understanding the need for a motion picture document of a person’s life, you might as well be making movies of your next door neighbor, or that boring secretary at work.

You see, aside from issues of access, veracity, recreation, intuition, media rights, and a dozen other potential pitfalls, a biography without an explanation – or better yet, an illustration – of why a non-fan should care is internally flawed. It lacks the one element that makes such a statement special. Sure, people like Biggie Smalls and Sid Vicious and Johnny Cash offer the walking contradiction of being humanity in the shoes of gods, but that doesn’t mean you have to strip their story of all such hero worship. Adoration made the subject – it should definitely be part of the plotline.

Oddly enough, one of 2009’s best films also comes out on DVD at the same time as Notorious. Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler tells the story of a washed up grappler from the ’80s who knows little else except life in the squared circle. In typical Requiem for a Heavyweight style, we see his downfall in perfectly realized dramatic couplets. True, something like Notorious has to play within the rules of realism, but instead of laying it all out, some stylization and poetic license should trump the plain truth. Of course, then the faithful would be having fits over the film’s “authenticity”, which all leads back to the original supposition. In many ways, biopics can’t win for losing. That’s why they just don’t work.