While the quality often varies, biopics are a staple of film. There are good biopics, and some are even great, but they often lack the daring, innovation and uniqueness of their subjects. They can too regularly rely on the assumption that their subject is inherently interesting and that merely recounting their lives will make a story. There are two distinct types of biopics: either a true story about a person or people about whom we should know (but might not), as is the case in Hidden Figures, or a new perspective on someone already known, like Jackie.
The first type relies on the actions of the characters to carry the film, as most films do. The second style is a little more intriguing however; focusing less on a character achieving a goal, and more on recounting the subject’s life. There is, however, a problem with deciding to make a film about a person, which is that a person is not a story. Biopics open themselves up to a lifetime’s worth of material and have to try and work out what stories to tell – it is here that many biopics lose their power. They focus too much on the many ‘whats’ that happen to their subjects, hoping that the ‘who’ will emerge. Too often, what results is just a condensed version of the person’s life on screen – Walk the Line is an excellent example of this.
The film is about what led Johnny Cash to his concert at Folsom Prison; however, it doesn’t have a theme and covers most of his life – thus losing the energy of a more action-driven story – and also fails to convey what Johnny Cash was actually like, or how he experienced the world around him.
The Iron Lady offers an interesting contrast to Walk the Line. The two films have commonalities: they are both told in flashback, and cover a large expanse of time. Where they differ is in their management of time. Walk the Line is basically a single flashback, a structural device that appears not to be chosen for any reason beyond providing a shallow frame for the larger narrative. The Iron Lady is different; here, the frame is actively important, providing the main story of the film: an old lady trying to sort through her dead husband’s clothes.
This gives the film an action, a goal for Maggie to achieve, while also communicating a particular experience of the character: living with dementia. The flashbacks are not just a mildly interesting storytelling technique, they communicate the fluidity of her mind and the difficulty she had distinguishing past and present, and thus the difficulty she had accepting her husband’s death.
In Jackie we have a different approach again. The story structure doesn’t reflect Jackie Kennedy’s mental well-being, but it does show a progression as she begins to understand her impact on America. Jackie was, in the public eye, completely defined by her relationship to her husband, and the film’s subject matter reflects this. That is, we learn about Jackie through her reaction to JFK’s assassination. The film doesn’t bother trying to tell Jackie’s life story, instead detailing the actions she took when motivated by grief.
Some of these actions are large, like planning an enormous ceremony; some are very small, like talking to a priest. Again, these actions give the film momentum (playing to the medium’s strengths), but also, all play directly into the film’s theme of legacy. This film doesn’t assume itself to be interesting by virtue of being about a famous person; rather, it delicately laces together moments of grief to create a portrait of Jackie.
The gold standard of biopics is Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, a film about Bob Dylan. Instead of simply trying to recount Dylan’s life, Walk the Line style, Haynes runs with the concept of Dylan’s mysteriousness, and makes a unique, extremely striking film. Six different actors play Dylan (including Marcus Carl Franklin – a black teenager – and Cate Blanchett), no character is called Bob Dylan, and each captures Dylan in a single era of his life.
The way the film is told directly corresponds to an aspect of Dylan’s self. It manages to both tell events of Dylan’s life but also, and more importantly, explore his personality. Though this means the film doesn’t have a clear throughline like The Iron Lady or Jackie does, the pay-off is innovation. I’m Not There is such a great success because it is that rarest of things: a biopic that is as every bit as interesting as the person that it is about. It’s time that more biopics started taking after the likes of I’m Not There and Jackie, focusing on the details and making something that fully embodies the subject matter, rather than just recounting history.