Friday, February 18, 2011

Bio Pics: Life Stories & Snapshots

I recently wrote about my appreciation for the non-Epic status of the film The King's Speech in the way that it captures this small concept in the King George VI's stuttering problem, and captures his overcoming of this problem as the focus of the film. This is not an exhaustive film over the life, times, work, and death of King George VI.

As someone who is interested in the concept of biopics (as well as the role these films play on the award season), I've started to realize that there are certainly two types of biographical films. There are those that tell the story of someone's life, and those who tell a story of someone's life.

The King's Speech would really be an example of a film that tells a story.

I can think of some successful examples of films that have told more complete biographical snapshots that tell the story of some one's life, an example that quickly comes to mind in recent years is the film The Aviator. The story of this film, while not exhaustive tells many stories about Hughes spanning probably at least 20 years.

Another pairing of films that came out around the same time as The Aviator were the films Ray (about Ray Charles) and Walk the Line (about Johnny Cash).

These films about musical celebrities spanned decades, and told much of the same stories as one would expect to hear on an A&E Biography episode about the real lives of these people.

Now, don't hear me wrong. I enjoy all three of these films, but one of the challenges of these episodic life stories is that very few tie up into perfect little happy endings. That doesn't mean that they don't have redemption, but you see these celebrity biopics and it's not uncommon for them to be the stories of childhood pain or obscurity that finds life-changing stardom, followed by surprise life changing self-caused tragedy, that ends in a mess of an ending.

On the otherhand, I find there to be something quite magical that can happen in the film that decides it's just going to tell a story.

Since I've focused on 2004 with The Aviator and Ray it seems appropriate to mention Johnny Depp's performance in Finding Neverland as J. M. Barrie during the time he was creating the story Peter Pan. J. M. Barrie's life was more than just this story, but the magic of this film was it's focus in telling a story of this moment and experience, not the biography of Barrie.

Similarly, this was accomplished in the film The Queen, in which Peter Morgan did not write a script about the life of Queen Elizabeth II, but instead he told the story about a period of just a few days and how the Queen dealt with death of Princess Diana.

Different lives call for different treatments, but more than anything, I commend the screenwriter who is able to write the screenplay that tells a story in a way that is compelling, engaging, and true. And certainly, there is value to the full biography, and there are certainly times when telling a more complete story adds value, I don't think anyone can critique the full package life story films.

Yet at least for myself, I enter the film season with a basis towards the biopic that takes someone who's story is less known and whom we will gain a glimpse of someone's story, even if just a small snapshot.

(Pictured Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles; Joaquin Phonix as Johnny Cash; Johnny Depp as Sir James Matthew Barrie; Helen Mirren as HRH Queen Elizabeth II)

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