Biopics have always been with us and they always will: the lure of inbuilt audience familiarity, coupled with a ready-made narrative structure, amounts to a gift-horse that no sane producer would look in the mouth for very long. With numerous examples of the genre either in cinemas now (The Imitation Game, Get On Up) or released in the next month (including Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, about the Olympic athlete turned Second World War PoW Louis Zamperini, and The Theory of Everything, which focuses on the early years of Stephen Hawking), here is a selection of recent stand-out biopics which took a chance and did something innovative with the form:
Just after the animated opening credits in which Serge Gainsbourg swims among chain-smoking fish, but before he is menaced by a four-armed anti-Semitic caricature which has torn itself from a Nazi propaganda poster, it strikes you that this may not be your run-of-the-mill biopic.
A masterpiece among modern biopics, François Girard’s glancing, fragmented approach about the genius pianist avoids all the pitfalls of the genre. “The main temptation is to try to cram everything about a life into one film,” he said. “What you need is a radical idea or perspective; if you decide to show the whole journey, you’re condemning yourself to staying only on the surface. Evocation, rather than being descriptive or exhaustive, is the key. Evoking a territory is preferable to trying to cover it all.”
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)
Todd Haynes has been drawn repeatedly to the musical biopic but his preference is to hide in plain sight: his Bob Dylan movie, I’m Not There, features lots of Dylan music and six vastly dissimilar actors as the musician at different stages of his career, but never mentions its subject by name, while Velvet Goldmine has characters modelled on David Bowie, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop. His 43-minute imaginative essay on the Carpenters singer who died of anorexia is more upfront, though no more conventional – it has a cast of Barbie dolls, as well as digressions into the effect of the rise of kitchen appliances on appetite and consumerism.
Ron Shelton’s largely straight-shooting biopic departs from reality notably and brilliantly when the baseball outfielder Ty Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones) is watching a montage of his career highlights at a Hall of Fame dinner. While the other guests applaud his sporting triumphs, Cobb can see only a showreel of lowlights from his violent, alcohol-fuelled rages.
Paul Schrader’s impressionistic portrait of the life and death of the novelist Yukio Mishima views its subject’s life through the prism of his art, foreshadowing the technique used in Love is the Devil (John Maybury’s film about Francis Bacon starring Derek Jacobi and Daniel Craig) and the underrated Kafka (by Steven Soderbergh).
Part of a new movement – the faux-biopic – which seeks to get at the essence of truth through a tissue of lies. Shadow of the Vampire proposes that the actor Max Schreck, played here by Willem Dafoe, didn’t have to put in too much research to play a bloodsucker in F W Murnau’s Nosferatu since he was, in reality, a vampire himself. This fast-and-loose irreverence, which has its roots in Ken Russell’s bad-taste 1970s biopics such as Savage Messiah and Lisztomania!, can also be found in the completely fictitious Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.
Frank Cottrell Boyce has a wealth of biopics to his name, including films about Jacqueline du Pré (Hilary and Jackie), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Saint-Ex) and Coleridge and Wordsworth (Pandaemonium). 24-Hour Party People is his cleverest, notable for a scattershot structure befitting its subject (Manchester’s Factory Records), and a heightened self-awareness dictated by its hero, the late Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan). Typical of its flagged-up fabrications and post-modern tomfoolery is the moment when Howard Devoto (of Buzzcocks and Magazine) turns up to denounce as false a scene we are in the process of watching.