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Biopics – the complexities of a difficult art form

Today I take the risk of venturing into territory upon which I am no expert – movies, and a particular genre at that – without any justification for doing so other than, like any observer travelling upon the time-honoured proverbial (legal) Clapham omnibus, I am entitled to hold opinions and indeed express them.

There was a time – between the ages of about 14 and 40 – when I was an infrequent but regular cinema-goer, in the middle of which I got into the rut of attending supposedly outstanding and/or influential films because firstly, everyone else around me was doing so and secondly, I felt it was somehow incumbent upon me to expose myself to them.

Thankfully, at some point I managed to escape from that particular period of my life courtesy of the UK launch of the latest Bond movie.

From this distance forward and being the age I am, I cannot now recall which Bond project it was – indeed not even the actor who was playing him at the time – so I’ll have to beg readers to allow me the indulgence.

In any event, to cut to the chase, my wife and I decided to go to the Empire, Leicester Square, in order to see this Bond movie.

It was a solid version of the franchise in that it comprised a half-decent plot, some excellent action sequences and exotic locations, a good deal of wry humour, a bevy of gorgeous, decoratively half-dressed, young female actresses as Bond’s love interest(s), some mind-boggling gadgets, one actor of standing as chief villain and another as his one-dimensional but formidable henchman, the original Miss Moneypenny still flirting outrageously as Bond arrived to receive a dressing down and then his ‘orders de jour’ from his boss M and (finally) a brand-new car (Bond, for the use of).

In short, it was an entertaining hoot from start to finish and afterwards we both emerged blinking into the cold West End night air, buzzing with bonhomie and feeling good about the experience of being alive.

The next day I announced to the world I had experienced an epiphany. No more would I ever watch a ‘worthy’ movie. Through this Bond outing I had realised that (for me) the purpose of movies – and indeed theatre, or indeed any ‘arts’ productions – was to entertain. And from that moment onwards I only ever went to watch things that would make me laugh or cry.

Now I come to think of it, this is probably why I began going out to arts productions of all kinds less and less – to the point that today I do so only once in a blue moon. If that.

No doubt an attendant reason for this development was my growing preference for watching everything in life from the comfort of my drawing room sofa.

Rather than pay hugely over the odds to mingle with the Great Unwashed British public in the noisy, smelly darkness of a public cinema accompanied by a box of mixed plain and sweet popcorn and a giant carton of sugary Fanta fizzy orange, I was content to wait for any given movie to go on UK television release and watch it then.

[I guess this is another manifestation of the Rust Great Debate over whether it is better to attend a live sporting event or watch it at home].

My cue for posting to the Rust today was last night’s UK premier of Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic of Freddie Mercury, front man of the rock group Queen.

See here for a representative example of a review of this epic – by critic Clarisse Loughrey, as appears today upon the website of – THE INDEPENDENT

My point is that, as a genre, as night follows day, it is inevitable that all biopics will disappoint.

This may seem a blindingly obvious statement to make but it needs re-stating.

I say that because – year after year, decade after decade – there has been an endless list of movie moguls and/or producers who have somehow managed to make the facile mistake of presuming that a biopic of some supposedly great figure, in any walk of life that anyone would care to mention, will buck the trend and become (in their dreams) not only an Oscar-winner for its sheer quality and scope but a mega-sized global box office hit into the bargain.

No, it won’t.

Here are the two reason why:

Firstly, no matter how brilliant the impersonation – or indeed the acting of the person playing the lead role, the directing of the director, the scriptwriting of the scriptwriter etc. etc., ad infinitum – the audience knows that they are all not only ‘pretending’ but presenting a subjective and fictional version of the subject of the movie.

Arguably, no biopic can match the impact of a documentary film about a famous or special person. Because in the latter the audience knows they are viewing the real person as they were/are, not an invented version of them.

In biopics, inevitably, no matter how good the lead actor, from the off the audience is going to be comparing the actor’s performance against their own personal perception of the real-life person being portrayed.

Secondly, the other major problem with any biopic of a real-life person – and come to that, any dramatic version of any historical event – is that the audience already know the story, or at the very least the basic facts, before the Censor’s Ceritficate, let alone the opening titles have appeared on screen.

Any movie insider with knowledge of the creative process will confirm that the key aspect of any storyline is creating the dramatic structure – exposing the different characters involved, what happens to them, the dramatic twists and turns and, of course, the sudden plot surprises that – above all – add drama, conflict and ultimately entertainment to the mix.

The fundamental starting problem with movie versions of historical events – e.g. just war (take Dunkirk, D-Day, the Battle of Waterloo, Custer’s Land Stand) and sport (take the 1966 England football World Cup win, the victory of South Africa in the 1995 Rugby World) – is that the audience already know the result. You can dress it up how you like – and do it superbly well – but you’ll never get around that issue.

[Well, you can – e.g. by in your film having the Germans drive the would-be D-Day invaders back into the sea – but, of course, that would be such a point of controversy that it would be heavily trailed in the media before the movie was launched. Which in itself might strongly influence those people who might or might not choose to go and watch it.]



About J S Bird

A retired academic, Jeremy will contribute article on subjects that attract his interest. More Posts