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Monday, December 15, 2008


The old adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," has become the motto of most of the Hollywood studios. In this modern era of cinema, nothing has become more formulaic than the bio film. This is a sad state considering that the lives covered in these films (and even some of the performances captured within them) are so diverse and compelling that they could never be described as by the book. Yet the new standards of the bio film provided by monetary success of their predecessors has provided us with come dull results.
    The formula for the modern day bio flick is simple. The journey begins at the end. Just before a monumental point in their life (maybe even their death), the audience is preview to the subject as everything that they remembered. If the subject is a president, than the audience sees that president as the portrait staring back at them from the history books. Once introduced to an image the audience is comfortable with, the subject then remembers back to how this whole crazy ride of a life started. There are the basic hardships which the subjects endure that are proposed in a variety of ways. Maybe the president's father was a preacher and thought to himself, "Well, if my daddy can use Hell to scare the money out of these people, then maybe I could use control of the entire free world and one hell of an army to do the same,". Cue president at White House listening to an old gospel record until his grandson enters and then he gets to rememberin'. For the entire rest of the film, while voice overs (usually by the subject themselves or people who were very close to them), the viewer bounces back and forth through time, dissecting the subject's life into tiny fragments of easily swallowable tablets of dramatic and funny bits that make up their life.
    Certain filmmakers have used this formula to their advantage (Raging BullReds) allowing the audience to find and shape their own opinions of the lives that are unfolding before them. The formula is not the problem, per se, but once falling into the wrong hands (Le Vie En Rose) it makes for a predictable and frustrating experience. For all the calls of praise for how "different" and "groundbreaking" these new versions of biographies get, one has to wonder what a life that starts with a character's actual birth and ends with the character's actual death would look like. Though our fleeting attention spans and need to break the laws of that dreaded word narrative have caused the audience to sum up life by it's parts and only the most provocative ones at that. 
    The popularity of this formula has taken the life out of the bio flick. A life of true perseverance through legitimate struggle reduced to confusing snippets of sensualized versions of lives that no member of any audience could relate. Or maybe it's the audience, who would rather escape than relate. To escape would mean that the subjects' lives would only be remembered by the times that fits with the agenda of the filmmaker who created their version of someone else's life. The audience can only hope the filmmaker's version is one that even the subject can be happy with.  


  1. Nice Timmy. I was thinking of Walk The Line and Finding Neverland while reading your post. There is nothing wrong with a formulaic Bio-Pic if done with some flair like Nixon or Amadeus. Average viewers don't react well to films like 32 Short Films About Glen Gould, which I think is the most original Bio-Pic ever made.

  2. "Before Night Falls" is pretty good and it literally starts with the character's birth and ends with their death. So do most Jesus films I imagine. Except maybe Mel Gibson's one. But that's more a snuff bio-pic, which is an entirely different genre.

    I always thought Michael Mann had something with focusing on just ten years of Ali, letting that short period of time speak for someone's entire life, but I think Mann had too much adoration for his subject to get all that close to him.

    To be honest, I can't really think of a better bio-pic than Mishima as far as the style and structure of a film complementing an iconic figure's personality.

    Wait a minute, what about Citizen Kane. That shit is like, nakedly about Hearst, and even if much of it is extrapolation and exaggeration, it's still in essence a story about Hearst. Citizen Kane wins.

  3. Nice article Timmy my boy! I would say that 95% of all biopics follow the same narrative structure. Now, in the hands of a superior filmmaker they can take that structure and turn it on it's head (Amadeus). In the hands of a hack, you get 'Ray'.

    But, in my humble opinion, the biopic is only as strong as it's performances. If you think about the best biopics of all time, every single one of them has an unbelievable performance: Amedus, Bird, Ed Wood, Malcolm X, Basquiat, Raging Bull.

    Now, here are my Top 5 favorite Biopics:
    5. Ed Wood
    4. I'm Not There
    3. Sweet and Lowdown
    2. Raging Bull
    1. Malcolm X