Thomas Sutcliffe: Why biopics make me sing the blues

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I've always had problems pronouncing the word "biopic". It has an embarrassing tendency to come out as bye-opick, as if it was some kind of ophthalmological description, and repeated correction never seems to improve matters. After watching a stack of recent biopics, I've been wondering whether there might be some kind of Freudian reflex at work here - a subconscious flinching from the very concept itself. Because it isn't just the Variety slang I shrink from - although that in itself seems to underline the mercantile artificiality of the form - it's the biopics themselves. Has there ever been a genre description that offers such a reliable guarantee of mediocrity?

I wouldn't want to knock mediocrity, you understand. It's the best most of us can do - and in quite a lot of cases it will do fine. Biopics, for example, can often be a perfectly enjoyable or instructive way to pass an hour or two. What they can almost never be, I would argue, is great. There's something inherent in these movies that prevents them leaping the gap between serviceable product and durable art - a gap that any truly great movie has to cross. And yet there's no question about the commercial vigour of the form. This year and last has seen a rash of biopics, from Ray, Beyond the Sea and The Aviator last year to Walk the Line and Capote this year.

These are films that do pretty well at the box office and awards ceremonies (Walk the Line has three Golden Globes under its belt and is sitting on five Oscar nominations; Capote is also up for five Oscars). They even do pretty well in reviews. But it can be hard to square the experience of watching them with the honours that come their way. For one thing - and this is particularly true of showbiz biopics - you know that you're in for a kind of processional ceremony rather than a story line. Biopics are just one damn thing after another - and we're wearily familiar with the damn things by now.

You get the fable of first discovery, the rigours of performance, the addiction and rehabilitation, and finally a kind of hall of fame apotheosis as the credits roll to a well-loved song. You'll get the career highlights and lowlights and - if you're lucky - you'll also get a tour montage, as discarded newspapers or peeling posters spell out the venues. What you don't get very often, though, is any kind of real honesty about the life, since most biopics are powered by admiration or fandom, a dangerous kind of fuel.

One understands, of course, that a director isn't really at liberty when he chooses to take on a biopic. The biographers and fan club managers are out there, ready to pounce on the discrepancies between the recorded life and the recreated one. But what's so depressing about biopics is the sense that we aren't at liberty in our responses, either. It's like a compulsory visit to a celluloid version of Madame Tussaud's. How accurate is the likeness, we ask ourselves? Have they captured the essence of the subject? And even the attempts to sidestep this conversation have a dull predictability. How many times have you heard that notionally sophisticated cliché about how a performer doesn't do an imitation of a famous person so much as allow their mannerisms to colour the acting? I've certainly been guilty of wielding it myself. You feel your wheels lock into the tramlines of certain responses, and it can be virtually impossible to wrench them free.

The main problem with biopics, though, is that they are always a signpost, pointing beyond themselves to something more worthy of our attention. A great film is a destination in itself - the focal point around which a halo of commentary and allusion and imitation almost immediately builds up. A biopic, on the other hand, obeys the gravitational pull of greatness rather than exerting it. It's just another bit of the debris that clusters around a talent or an exemplary life, and as such it is doomed to artistic subservience.

There are some exceptions to the rule, although they are instructive ones. I suppose you might count Abel Gance's Napoleon as a biopic, but it arrives on the scene so early that it makes the rules rather than merely obeying them. In any case, its subject is so self-consciously an epic creation that it isn't required to surrender anything in mythic sweep. Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas could be regarded as a biopic, too, since it's based on the real experiences of a real man. But GoodFellas couldn't be dependent on Henry Hill's fame because he didn't really have any, until Scorsese used his life as a scaffold for something much larger.

Such exceptions are very rare, though. By all means go to see Walk the Line. The songs are nice and the performances good. Just don't expect it to be great.

Comments