Despite This Season’s Oscar Bait, Biopics Were Reinvigorated in 2014

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Photo: Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Classics, Open Road Films

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the 2007 spoof starring John C. Reilly as a Johnny Cash–like singer, so aptly skewered the biopic’s dreary formulas that it exposed the absurd phoniness of the entire genre and its lazy conventions. It didn’t, however, stop biopics from continuing to proliferate — and from maintaining adherence to standard-issue clichés, as evidenced by two of this year’s Oscar front-runners, The Imitation Game (about code-breaker Alan Turing) and The Theory of Everything (about scientist Stephen Hawking). Both of those character studies go out of their way to maintain the mold set by their predecessors, taking a safe, superficial approach to their subjects and, in the process, delivering portraits of brave, intellectual men that are, themselves, timid and simplistic. Their shared failure stems from a fear of showing life, and people, as they really are — and from a concurrent belief that telling a story in a predictable manner is the best way to satisfy audiences. And they’re all the more dispiriting because, thanks to a stellar trio of movies, 2014 was the year the biopic finally re-energized itself.

Those three films were John Ridley’s Jimi: All Is by My Side (about Jimi Hendrix), Tate Taylor’s Get on Up (about James Brown), and Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (about the English painter J.M.W. Turner). Each of these works takes the opposite approach to autobiography as The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything (as well as to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken) by retelling true tales in inventive, warts-and-all-honest ways. They don’t hew to easy one-to-one explanations about their characters’ personalities and motivations, as The Theory of Everything does by ham-fistedly linking Hawking’s (Eddie Redmayne) desire to find a “grand unifying theory” for the universe with his love of girlfriend/wife (Felicity Jones), or as The Imitation Game does with its stock flashbacks to Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) adolescence. They don’t engage in dim psychoanalysis, as Unbroken does by turning the platitude “If you can take it, you can make it” — first told to youthful Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) by his brother — into his life’s guiding ethos once he’s captured during WWII and sent to a POW camp. They don’t sand down their subjects’ rough edges to make them (and their stories) more palatable, as The Theory of Everything does with regards to Hawking’s social/physical struggles, and The Imitation Game does with regards to the turmoil Turing experienced suppressing his homosexuality. In other words, they don’t squeeze, squish, and deform chaotic, complicated lives to fit neat-and-tidy boxes.

Rather, they upend such business-as-usual practices in order to get to the genuine, mixed-up heart of those figures upon which they focus. Of the aforementioned three films, Jimi: All Is by My Side is the least successful, if only because the absence of actual Hendrix songs (as a result of objections from his estate) turns out to be less of an unconventional device than an elephant-in-the-room distraction, preventing us from actually witnessing the guitar god (André Benjamin) create the very music that made him a legend. Nonetheless, by narrowing its focus to the 1966-1967 period Hendrix spent in London right before his breakthrough album’s release, the film sidesteps a familiar rise-to-greatness arc, as well as any potential theorizing about how childhood traumas or momentous events forever made him who he is. It’s a uniquely limited study of an artist on the precipice of greatness — one that, despite its apparent fictionalizations, captures a sense of Hendrix as a multifaceted, occasionally abusive man whose musical genius didn’t preclude him from also having his fair share of (uneasily reconciled) personal failings.

That refusal to make its subject wholly likable, and to show that his bad behavior was eventually rejected and atoned for, is similarly exhibited by both Get on Up and Mr. Turner. Whereas The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and Unbroken (and ancestors like Ray and Walk the Line) find it next to impossible to depict their protagonists as anything short of saints — and, more specifically, as saints who achieved their divinity by ultimately transcending their darker drugs-and-violence-and-adultery impulses — both Get on Up and Mr. Turner make no bones about, respectively, James Brown’s conceited selfishness and Turner’s cold callousness. In the former’s case, Brown is presented as a man who rose up from horrible circumstances through sheer, dogged determination, and the fact that he stepped on the toes of his friends, remained bitter toward the mother who abandoned him, and eventually went a little crazy merely reinforces the force-of-nature willpower (and force-of-personality dynamism) that also made him an icon. His faults aren’t to be celebrated, but neither are they to be easily sanded over and remedied; courtesy of a sterling Chadwick Boseman performance that embraces the character’s many sides, Brown comes across as both magnetic and mean, charismatic and kind of cuckoo. In other words, real.

The same is true of Mr. Turner’s J.M.W. Turner, whom the magnificent Timothy Spall embodies with endless grunts and more than a fair share of nastiness. That’s especially evident during two stunning scenes in which his famous 19th-century landscape painter begrudgingly meets with the ex-wife and two daughters he’s long since abandoned, and shows them no kindness — and then, later, roundly denies to others that he’s ever been married or had children. Mike Leigh’s masterwork begins with Turner as an adult and makes no claim to know, or explain, him via the prism of his childhood (i.e., there are no Ray-like dead siblings whose memory he must finally come to grips with). On the contrary, from the outset he’s a fully functional adult, and one whose titanic artistic gifts are shown to be in constant, thorny interplay with his convictions about the art world’s business side, as well as his attitude toward people — who, as in his paintings, strike him as far less important than grand ideas about nature, light, and God.

Leigh conveys such knotted-up ideas about Turner via a story told in chronological fashion, albeit one that makes no concessions to obvious cause-effect arguments; insights into Turner’s opinions about love, sex, integrity, duty, and religion slowly emerge from the juxtapositions of various encounters and incidents. As such, Mr. Turner is spiritually aligned with both Jimi: All Is by My Side and Get on Up, even as Tate’s James Brown biopic goes the extra step and invigorates its portrayal via astute flip-flopping between the past and present, a free-association-style structure that captures the singer’s wild-man energy. Whether employing a sequential or fractured form, however, all three of these films are linked by their rejection of the very genre hallmarks — the denial of ugliness to better craft an uplifting narrative; the crude psychoanalysis; the bland this-happened-and-so-then-this-happened plotting — that films like The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and Unbroken so heartily adopt, to unconvincing ends. Shining an unwavering light on the darkness, madness, and less-than-noble aspects of their artists, and recognizing that doing so only enhances our understanding of (and interest in) who they were, this year’s finest biopics prove, to their genre’s great credit, that nothing is more compelling than a life rendered in all its messy, conflicted glory.