The rise of the political biopic

Why do we want to see our political figures on the big screen?

Political biopics have always been popular. The past two decades has seen film chronicle the lives of President Kennedy in JFK, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland and human rights leader Malcolm Little in Malcolm X, among countless others.

In an age of political dissent and dissatisfaction with governments world-wide, the political biopic is flourishing. Already released this year is J. Edgar, the biopic of the first head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Next year will also see the release of the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady and two major presidential biopics: Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, and Hyde Park on Hudson, starring Bill Murray as Franklin D Roosevelt.

Aside from the fact that politics makes for gripping drama, why is looking to history's iconic leaders becoming so popular? Biopics are not a source of political truth - they often obscure elements of history, ignore social relationships and distort important facts. The truth is subject to the imagination and artistic direction of the screenwriter, the actors and the director. In many cases, as film critic Ronald Bergan points out, the stars of political biopics "have substituted their own personalities for those of the persons portrayed".

Political biopics must tread carefully. There is the danger that a two hour film makes a bloated attempt to pin the protagonist to the psychiatrist's couch or tries to unearth a childhood trauma in an attempt to reveal some sort of psychological epiphany. In an effort to avoid this, Hyde Park on Hudson is instead told through the eyes of Daisy Suckley, Roosevelt's distant cousin and confidante.

They are also at risk of trying to cram as many details and events of the person's life into the film as possible, resulting in a directionless and uninspiring film. It is unnecessary and frankly rather boring to watch someone's life unfold from cradle to grave - famous or not. Frost/Nixon avoided this pitfall by only focussing on the post-Watergate interview given by the disgraced president, rather than rehashing his whole presidency or, indeed, his entire life. Similarly, Spielberg's Lincoln will focus on the final few months of Abraham Lincoln's life.

A good political biopic must also avoid glorifying the protagonist and ignoring their flaws and weaknesses. The key to the success of a political biopic lies in its ability to portray a humanised version of a seemingly stoical political figure. Despite Meryl Streep's storming performance as Thatcher in The Iron Lady, she is arguably too likeable in comparison to the lady herself. In addition, biopics that portray the protagonist as merely fulfilling their destiny are equally unappealing. All men and women are mortal and fallible and a biopic that implies someone is otherwise is both unrealistic and trite.

However, many biopics do the opposite and instead paint the political figure as a monster - a caricature of themselves. Oliver Stone's George W Bush biopic W does just that. Granted, he may be one of America's most unpopular presidents as a result of the war in Iraq, and has made more gaffes than Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry, but the soap opera-like film glosses over Bush's immense popularity when he first entered office. Perhaps because of the lack of aesthetic distance due to Bush being an incumbent president at the time of the film's making, Stone chose to capitalise on the mood of the nation and paint Bush as totally one-dimensional with a complete lack of self-understanding.

Far from revealing a benign truth, a political biopic should seek to provide intimate insight into a real human being. Their surge in popularity is arguably a reflection of society's desire to see our political figures in real terms and thus avoid the tendency to label them as simply good or bad; wrong or right. Frank Cottrell Boyce, the British screenwriter responsible for 24 Hour Party People, sums it up nicely: "It's important for biopics to challenge the idea that there's a fixed interpretation. There might be a definitive truth about the partition of Poland, but not about a human being."

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Pete Burns: too abrasive to be a national treasure, his talent made him immortal

The musician's vulnerability and acute individualism made him hard to pigeonhole but ensured endless media fascination.

When Dead Or Alive's “You Spin Me Round” was number one in 1985, the singer Pete Burns found himself trapped in a limousine by screaming schoolgirls. It's a common enough occurrence — overnight success, autograph hunters, fans wanting a piece of you — but in this case Burns was in his hometown of Liverpool and the schoolgirls were screaming “We’re going to kill you, you fat poof!” From the moment Burns hit the public eye, his untethered wit and unapologetic appearance had the ability to inspire, inflame, and get under society's skin.

In 1985, freshly famous, Burns was already a familiar face about town. Liverpool's centre is compact, and he traversed it every day in the early Eighties to work in Probe Records, the city's equivalent to Rough Trade. Behind the counter, working alongside possibly the most caustic shop assistants in the country, Burns was the most approachable. His demeanour was something quite different, though – hair teased up into a dark lion's mane, a cloak dragging behind him decorated with bells that jangled ominously whenever he moved (he could be audible streets away), and black contact lenses for added horror. 

He looked like a star in waiting, but was in the shadow of Liverpool's Crucial Three: Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Pete Wylie. The relentless electro pulse of “You Spin Me Round” was light years away from the first Dead Or Alive single in 1981, an extraordinary slice of neo-psychedelia called “Flowers”, on which Burns' booming, vibrato-loaded voice seemed to be urging us to travel on a gothic time-travelling galleon back to San Francisco: “What's wrong with this world?” he roared, over shrill organ and sheets of echoed guitar. Liverpool's brief but iridescent pop revival at the turn of the Eighties – a dark strain of melodicism that linked Echo & the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Wah! Heat and early Dead Or Alive — would later be succinctly demystified by Burns: everybody took acid, they all pretended they were living on the West Coast in 1967 rather than Toxteth in 1980, and they all listened to the Doors.

By the time “You Spin Me Round” hit number one in March '85, Burns' acid tongue and working class glamour were a necessary corrective to a year which would make stars of such catastrophically dull acts as the pop duo Go West. He was just what the media wanted after Boy George acquired a destructive heroin habit and fell from grace.

Neither was ever likely to happen to Pete Burns. He felt uncomfortable around anyone out of control on booze or drugs as it reminded him of his upbringing. His mother had escaped Nazi Germany, married a Scottish soldier, and settled in Liverpool. She became a depressive alcoholic after discovering what had happened to her Jewish family during the Holocaust in Germany. Burns made several suicide attempts, he said, to keep her focused and alive.

This vulnerability was combined in childhood with an acute individualism. He wore an American Indian headdress to primary school one day and refused to take it off. He fought compromise and conformity at every turn, and didn't care a hoot if schoolgirls called him a “fat poof”. He was never off, not even for a tea break; he was Pete Burns, full time. A friend of mine recalls being in the queue for a Liverpool club called the System in 1982 — Burns passed him, pulling full-on dance moves when he was only halfway down the steps, which led directly onto the dancefloor — he hadn't even paused to say hello to anyone.

As a pop star, Burns clearly couldn't give a shit, and wouldn't play ball with radio, record companies or the press. Fame didn't tighten his tongue, though it did allow him to be outrageous on a heightened level. After Haircut 100's Nick Heyward gave Dead Or Alive a pasting in a Melody Maker, the group burst into a toilet cubicle and sprayed Heyward with five fire extinguishers. On tour in America, Burns called his press officer's house at 3am in the morning, screaming “I need a plug! A rubber plug! For this fucking bath!” The upshot of the conversation was that Burns had never seen a bath plug operated by a plunger rod.

Pop stardom in Britain, then, was brief. The PWL team that gave him “You Spin Me Round” (their first number one, and unarguably their best) quickly cooled on him, following it with lukewarm soundalikes – only the luxuriant “In Too Deep” came close to matching its fire. Dead Or Alive's next truly great record wouldn't be until 1988 with “Turn Around And Count 2 Ten”, another poppers-at-the-ready electro-blitz which only reached number 70 in the UK but made him a superstar in Japan.

Burns' vulnerability later resurfaced in endless, much documented plastic surgery – he said that the only part of his body that hadn't had work were the soles of his feet. He was always too abrasive to become a national treasure, but he must have known that “You Spin Me Round” had effectively made him immortal — uncoverable, perfect, a saturated record on which it is impossible to add anything. It's so euphoric, so very full of life.


Reflections on Pete Burns:

Gary Kemp, musician and actor

"Pete was one of a triumvirate of cross-dressed boy stars, brought up on a diet of glam rock, who stormed the barricades of macho rock in the Eighties. He also created one of the best white dance records of all time."


Julian Cope, musician and author

"In a sense I’m relieved for him, he was in such pain and was never happy with how he looked… there was something so inevitable about his death, but it’s important that he’s remembered as a truly significant cross-cultural figure

I think the gender fluidity that exists today is really fucking useful — if Pete had become famous now he would have been fine… he was a pioneer. I think he had hero qualities.

He knew so much about music, especially underground stuff, but when other people were around he would revert to his thick babe persona. He wanted to appear superficial, but he was no more superficial than [Andy] Warhol. He was a deep mother fucker.

Pete was forced in a novelty direction by the time he lived in. He demanded that the rest of the world look at, not away from, people who were different.

Pete tried to live in freedom and at least where’s gone to he will find peace."


Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.