Biopics are Bad

This was originally going to be a review of My Name is Dolemite. I started the movie the day it came out (or, rather, the evening it came out) and got an hour into it (even taking notes!) before shutting it off and going to bed, intending to finish it the following day. I never got around to it, because I a) didn’t want to watch it and b) knew my review would not be kind to it, and as I’ve noted in the past trashing Netflix movies just isn’t very fun. But, more than that, it felt unfair to write a poor review for a movie that was fine on its own merits and falls into, instead, a genre I think is… to be generous, not meant for the movies. At least in its current iteration. 

Which is to say, I think biopics are bad. Across the board, bad. It’s because they all follow the same formula, and because that formula is not conducive to movies. I don’t know where the formula originated, or why they’ve all stuck to it so closely. But it’s essentially a series of checkmarks – here are the famous events of this person’s life, or even just the formative events, and we’ve got to hit each of them, and then at the end, once we’ve hit each of them, we’re done!

I know I’ve said before the best piece of screenwriting advice (writing advice in general?) I ever received was that each scene must feel like an immediate consequence of the previous scene. Biopics never do. Strangely, by laying out a series of events that the characters have to race to and meet, they strip the central figure, the person who the biopic is meant to illuminate and color-in, of nearly all their agency. They don’t feel like they’re driving their own story, but instead that their story is rushing to meet them, crashing into them over and over again in a series of disconnected moments instead of a single fluid narrative.

I’m reminded of another biopic by Netflix, one that was so horrendously unenjoyable I simply stopped writing the blog for a number of months (though I did sit through the whole thing). A Futile and Stupid Gesture was such an incredible chore to get through because it felt only like a series of disconnected scenes. There was no momentum or progression. Things changed, yes, but in the periphery, not because the characters changed them but because of the next scene required a progression in the status of the world around the characters. For example: Doug Kenney gets married, and then the next time we see him and his wife, their marriage is falling apart. We’re never really treated to a scene or exploration of what exactly came between them (though, of course, in a time-saving manner we are told what came between them). Why include the marriage at all? Only because it is a footnote in his life story – was divorced – and therefore needs to be included. It has no consequence and no weight because it’s not driven by the characters, and is not the focus of the story. It’s included for the sake of being included.

It’s how I felt about Dolemite too. Take for example the scene at the bar where Dolemite recruits Lady Reed. It’s a nice scene, truly, and well done (and frankly Dolemite is a well acted movie, and well written, on the micro scene-to-scene basis). But it doesn’t feel like it’s a consequence of the scene before it- we’re not really sure why, in this particular moment, Rudy takes an interest in Lady Reed. We might be able to imagine why he decides to help her, but what’s more important is the first half, actually: why in this moment? While the following scene is sort of a consequence of the scene at the bar, it’s only sort of, in the sense that Lady Reed has joined Rudy on stage. The movie doesn’t follow this thread, however. Which isn’t to say that Lady Reed needs to be in the next scene and in every scene after to justify her inclusion, just that the next scene should feel like an accumulation of all the scenes proceeding it. The next scene is instead a call from the record company, telling Rudy he has hit the charts. Is this a result of Lady Reed? Not that I can tell. So why include those scenes there, at that point in the movie? Mostly because it’s something that had to happen, because it is a checkmark in the Dolemite life. There’s no connective tissue, and therein lies the problem of all biopics, in my opinion. They aren’t complexly woven narratives. They can have wonderful scenes (most of Dolemite) or terrible scenes (most of Futile Gesture) but it doesn’t matter if the scenes aren’t part of a larger tapestry and are instead part of a barely stitched together patchwork quilt.

I used to think that this was an epidemic brought on to biopics because they tried to cover too much ground, and ignored so entirely Aristotle’s Poetics’ unity of action, unity of place, and unity of time. You can’t tell a story about three random days in a person’s life: 30 minutes while they’re young, 30 minutes while they’re middle aged, thirty minutes while they’re dying. It’s not the same character. They’re not living in the same world. They’re not doing the same things and facing the same problems (this was, actually, my argument against Moonlight for a time, though as noted below I’ve changed my mind slightly). But I think biopics, and any movie, can actually ignore unity of time and place as long as they adhere to unity of action, and it’s a deep hollow lack of unity of action that drives the issue with biopics. The characters aren’t trying to do one thing. They’re trying to do a lot of small things in each individual scene that has to happen. It’s why my previous argument against Moonlight is flimsy – although the story jumps through massive amounts of time and place the central drama or action remains essentially the same.

Or, an even better example, because it resembles a biopic even if it’s really not at all a biopic: Amadeus. You can argue that, given the distance from the subject matter, Peter Shaffer and Miloš Forman felt they could take more liberty with their subjects, could build a unity of action. They weren’t checking boxes of things that need to happen, they were looking at the unity of action (the rivalry) and only including scenes that were absolutely essential to the progression of that story – so that each scene is a consequence of the previous. The concept is on full display here, and it highlights how sorely missed it is in most biopics. Fudging the facts (Saliari and Mozart were, as is widely known as a piece of trivia about this film, in real life perfectly cordial and perhaps even friendly) to tell a better story is perfectly acceptable in film. It’s expected, actually – random nuggets of trivia from someone’s life is just their chaotic life – film is what we use to focus the chaos into meaning.

Maybe you’re thinking it’s unfair of me to write off a whole genre (I don’t think biopics have as many rabid defenders as Marvel, but who knows!) and that maybe is fair. I didn’t even finish Dolemite (I do still plan to, I just imagine I won’t have anything to say about it). I would never watch Rocketman, or Bohemian Rhapsody, unless someone I loved begged me to. The latter two, from what I’ve read, suffer from the quick checkmark approach in their own right, by streamlining and reducing some of the more important aspects of their subject’s lives. Complex dynamics cost time, and biopics don’t have time to engage with them properly, because they need to get on to the next thing.

As I say with the Disney Live-Action reboots, I’m not rooting against these movies. A lot of lovely people put time and effort into them, and quite a few parts of them work. They are still, in theory, good stories. Biopics don’t have to be bad. A person’s life, a famous person’s life, has lots of dramatic unity of action in it. But until filmmakers begin picking and expanding the proper interests, instead of surveying them all, the films simply won’t have much appeal to me.

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