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Film...Celluloid lives: the good, bad and ugly


Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia

Musical biopics: James Brown’s life has been documented for the big screen.

Musical biopics: James Brown’s life has been documented for the big screen.

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in 'Walk the Line' (2007).

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in 'Walk the Line' (2007).


Lawrence of Arabia

To the objective observer, James Brown's life sounds like a film-maker's dream. There's the prerequisite dreadful childhood, drugs, guns, race politics, car chases and bad marriages - what more do you want? But biopics are tricky things, and in the wrong hands can easily become inadvertent comedies, so it's nice to report that Tate Taylor's new film Get on Up is tremendously entertaining.

In what will no doubt be a star-making performance, Chadwick Boseman plays Brown, who grows up lean, mean and hungry for success after surviving abuse, a broken home and a stint in a brothel. During a stretch in jail in 1952 for a minor offence he meets a young musician, Bobby Byrd, and together they form soul band The Famous Flames. Brown's electrifying stage style is inspired by the trance-like dances of southern preachers, and he and the Famous Flames quickly achieve national success.

But the Flames soon become Brown's backing band, and as his star rises James runs his career with a rod of iron and proves more than a match for the white promoters and moneymen. Get On Up suffers a bit from the over-neatness that sometimes afflicts biopics that try and cram a whole life into two hours, but it's a worthy film that sincerely tries to depict its subject warts and all. And as such it joins a select band of biopics that have managed to do justice to their illustrious subjects.

Sometimes films are mislabelled as biopics. Citizen Kane, for instance, is often included on lists of great biographical movies, but whom is it a biopic of? William Randolph Hearst? Orson Welles? Neither in fact, because it's a work of fiction and so doesn't qualify. And while Schindler's List does tell the story of a real person, it seems disingenuous to call it a biopic of Oskar Schindler, because he's only a small part of a very big story.

Abel Gance's silent masterpiece Napoleon (1927) is most definitely a biopic, and followed young Master Bonaparte from his days as a chippy cadet at military school to his triumphant campaign in Italy. Gance planned this to be the first of six films that would cover Napoleon's entire life but that never happened, and the movie he made was cut to bits and almost lost before it was lovingly restored in the 1970s.

Danish director Carl Dreyer attracted the ire of French nationalists and the Catholic Church by taking on the story of Joan of Arc. But his Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) was an astonishingly bold and passionate retelling of the teenage heroine's final days.

In order to make his film look more realistic, he banned his actors from wearing make-up and shot them in unflattering close-ups. His poor star Renée Jeanne Falconetti was forced to kneel on cobblestones for take after take with an expressionless face in order to create the sense of inner turmoil, but it certainly worked, and Dreyer's film is among the greatest biopics - and films - ever made.

Sergei Eisenstein's film Ivan the Terrible isn't too shabby either, but landed him in all sorts of trouble. It was always going to be a tricky commission: the great director was approached by the Kremlin and Stalin himself to make a biopic of the legendary 16th century Russian autocrat. Ivan IV was the great Russian unifier, but also a controversial figure responsible for massacres and the murder of his own son.

He was also a personal hero of Stalin's, and Eisenstein's set was closely watched. Eisenstein had imagined his project as a three-part film, and Part I, which heroically depicted Ivan's conquests of Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberia, went down very well indeed in Moscow. But when Stalin saw Part II, which was completed in 1945, he was incensed by its portrayal of Ivan as a mad and bloodthirsty despot, and banned the film. Eisenstein was already at work on a third chapter when production was halted by the Kremlin, and all footage was confiscated, never to be seen again. Sergei Eisenstein died of a heart attack soon afterwards, at just 50, but his films survive, and Ivan the Terrible Part II is a terrific piece of cinematic drama.

David Lean experienced no such interference on the set of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and was given a year-and-a-half and a massive budget to complete his sprawling historical epic based on the life of desert hero T.E. Lawrence. It was Lean's actors who suffered, wilting in the midday heat on location in Jordan and Morocco while their notoriously perfectionist director insisted on take after take.

The New Yorker's resident attack dog Pauline Kael would later dismiss Lean for making films that looked like animated picture postcards. But though she had a point, this is not entirely fair, and Lawrence of Arabia remains a breathtaking spectacle, especially if you're ever lucky enough to get to see it on the big screen.

Robert De Niro had to badger Martin Scorsese into making Raging Bull (1980), as the director hated sports and detested boxing in particular. But Scorsese was eventually won over by the tragic story of 1940s middleweight boxing champion Jake LaMotta, whose anger and jealousy destroyed his life.

Robert De Niro learnt to box, then gained 70 pounds to play LaMotta in later life. And Scorsese daringly decided to shoot his film in black and white, and accompany his beautifully orchestrated slow motion fighting scenes with the operas of Guiseppe Verdi. The result was extraordinary.

If Raging Bull is one of the greatest biopics ever made, Colm Feore's Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993) is definitely one of the most unusual. Director Colm Feore felt that the notoriously eccentric concert pianist was such a complex person that a conventional chronological narrative just wouldn't work. So he made a film in 32 segments that included documentary interviews, short animations and dramatisations of Gould's life. It's a mesmerising film.

Ed Wood has sometimes been called the worst film director ever, but Tim Burton's stylish 1994 biopic of him is full of love and affection. Blissfully aware of his own limitations, Wood (Johnny Depp) befriends forgotten horror star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) and sets out to make Plan 9 from Outer Space, the movie he believes will be his masterpiece. It's not quite that, but Wood's never-say-die enthusiasm is infectious.

Musicians are always great fodder for the biopic-makers, because their lives tend to involve spectacular ups and downs. James Mangold's Walk the Line (2005) starred a well-cast Joaquin Phoenix as a young Johnny Cash, who crashes out of his marriage when he falls in love with country star June Carter. And Olivier Dahan's wonderful 2007 biopic La Vie en Rose charted the operatically unhappy life of Parisian chanteuse Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard), a busking street kid who's spotted by a nightclub owner and catapulted to international success.

In 2005, two exceptional biopics were made about southern writer Truman Capote. In Capote, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman somehow shrunk himself to brilliantly embody the diminutive author, as he begins the 'nonfiction novel' that will ultimately destroy him - In Cold Blood. That book documented the senseless killing of an entire Kansas farming family by a pair of drifters, and the same events formed the basis for Infamous, a very fine and somewhat overlooked biopic starring Toby Jones as Capote.

Painter Julian Schnabel began dabbling in film-making in the 1990s, but no one expected his 2007 biopic The Diving Bell and the Butterfly to be quite so exceptionally good. Schnabel used his visual flair to brilliantly tell the difficult story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), a high-flying magazine editor who suffered a massive stroke that left him conscious but totally paralysed. But he somehow finds the strength to begin communicating by blinking his left eye, and slowly write a memoir.

Paolo Sorrentino is the best of Italy's contemporary directors, and only he would have had the nerve to take on the life of seven-time prime minister Guilio Andreotti. In Il Divo (2008), Tony Servillo delivered a terrific performance as the master politician, a contradictory character who had links to the Mafia and was often accused of corruption.

That's one thing Abraham Lincoln was never accused of, but his life and achievements have become so ossified by admiring historians that in Lincoln (2012), Steven Spielberg faced a huge challenge in presenting him as a flesh and blood man. His film was based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's historical biography, Team of Rivals, and followed Abraham Lincoln's dogged and wily campaign to push an amendment banning slavery through Congress while managing the endgame of the Civil War.

In other words it was crammed full of history and politics, and could easily have become an absolute bore. Luckily for Speilberg, he had Daniel Day-Lewis in his corner, whose wry and meticulous portrayal of Abe Lincoln brought America's greatest president vividly to life.

Five of the worst

Jim Morrison and Oliver Stone proved a deadly dull combination in Stone's dire 1990 biopic The Doors, a grandiose drama involving hallucinations, witchcraft and a very flaky portrayal of Morrison by Val Kilmer. Milos Forman's Amadeus (1985) may have won eight Oscars but it is one of the silliest biopics ever made. As portrayed by Tom Hulce, Mozart emerges as a tittering, potty-mouthed child.

Amadeus, though, is nothing as bad as Amelia, Mira Nair's 2009 film based on the life of Amelia Earhart. Hilary Swank was blandness personified in the lead role of a film that went from bad to worse. Pablo Picasso was not primarily known as a comedian, but in the 1996 Merchant/Ivory film Surviving Picasso Anthony Hopkins played him as a gurning buffoon. It's a terrible biopic, as is Copying Beethoven, a ridiculous 2006 film starring Ed Harris as poor Ludvig, whose final struggles are rendered unintentionally comical.

Indo Review