Saturday, November 12, 2016

Why most biopics suck

I seem to have reviewed a fair number of biopics in the last year or so -- Brian Wilson, Miles Davis and Edward Snowden, to name a few -- and I always find myself either using or resisting the urge to use what has now become a cliched descriptor for them: "cradle-to-grave." The standard construction of a biopic is so very standard -- showing us the subject from early years to usually premature death -- that it becomes relevant to talk about it, no matter whether the movie in question is adhering to or deviating from those norms. Essentially, you're mentioning it every time, if you let yourself.

But there's another thing that makes the standard biopic dull, even when it eschews the subject's childhood and teenage years, as more and more are seeming to do.

Simply put, just watching a person jump in and out of marriages, drug addictions and fights is pretty damn boring.

That's the fatal flaw with the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light. The saving grace even of movies with that second blueprint is that they are at least supposed to give us good exposure to the subject's art or other contribution to society. But I must say I don't have that much better of an idea of Williams as an artist as I did before I started watching.

Yeah, you get minute-long clips of Williams singing this song or that, to add flavor. But the thing it's adding flavor to is bland, and the flavor added is also bland.

Tom Hiddleston does his best. So does Elizabeth Olsen. In fact, I Saw the Light provided the occasion for me to contemplate -- not for the first time, of course -- how good an actress Olsen actually is. She even makes thankless material sing. ("Sing" is probably the wrong term for this particular character, a would-be vocal accompaniment to her husband who just doesn't have the talent.)

The acting is not usually the problem in a biopic, since they usually get good actors to appear in them.

No, it's all that drinking, whoring and fighting.

Actually, I think there's only one fight -- one physical fight, anyway -- in I Saw the Light. But the scene is so contrived that it stakes a claim to a larger share of the film's overall triteness. It comes in the film's first ten minutes, when a random audience member decides to start talking shit about Williams even though he has done nothing to provoke it. When Williams finally responds with a comment that is totally innocuous, it angers the blood of the spectator so much that he rushes the stage and tackles Williams. Perhaps there really was an incident like that in Williams' life -- it's hardly an interesting enough incident to include in the movie, so its details hardly need to be correct -- but it is executed so poorly that it rings utterly false. On the other hand, in the wake of Donald Trump's election, a hick who gets angry for no reason and resorts to violence feels depressingly true to life.

From here it's a bunch of "I love you Hank, I don't love you Hank, I'm leaving you Hank, I'm giving you another chance Hank, I promise to stop drinking, I can't stop drinking, I promise to stop cheating, I can't stop cheating." Yawn.

It makes a person question the value of the biopic as an art form at all. This is probably an accurate depiction of what Williams' life was like. But it doesn't translate into compelling material. If we can't tell the truth about somebody's life (this movie) and we can't tell fiction about somebody's life in an attempt to make it more interesting (Miles Ahead), then what can we offer?

I guess some of it depends on the skill of the filmmakers. Maybe writer-director Marc Abraham is not all that skilled, despite being a producer on one of my favorite films, Children of Men. Perhaps Bill Pohlad and his writers on Love & Mercy, Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, are that much more skilled, giving Brian Wilson's life the dynamic treatment that Abraham couldn't for Williams.

I Saw the Light ends with one last reminder of the built-in problem of most biopics, and indeed, many films in general where the character needs a last scene but doesn't know it will be his or her last. Williams died of what was diagnosed as a heart attack while in the back of a car, being driven to a gig. His actual death appears off-screen, reported at the gig by a shaken promoter. But before he drives off, Williams parts from his loved ones (who don't love him much anymore by this point) with a long, sad, significant look in his eyes, a consummate "This is the last time I will see you" look. The character couldn't know that, but the actor, the director, and everyone else involved certainly did.

As I suggested, it's a problem of many films where characters die unexpectedly. But I guess the problem with biopics is that they tend to take on the most cliched elements of all films, and present them to us in one uninspired package.

In almost all cases, the subject deserved a better tribute.

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