A short way into the new film Gainsbourg—just after the animated opening credits in which Serge Gainsbourg swims among chain-smoking fish, but before he is menaced by a four-armed anti-Semitic caricature which has torn itself from a Nazi propaganda poster—it strikes you that this may not be your run-of-the-mill biopic. This year has already brought one example of the way in which this time-honoured true-life genre is being shaken up: that was Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, starring a seemingly-possessed Andy Serkis as Ian Dury. Poised for release are films about Howard Marks (Mr Nice) and Joan Jett’s early days (The Runaways), as well as a second Coco Chanel movie (Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky).
All of which makes it laughable that the genre was given the last rites a few months ago in a Newsweek story (“Are Biopics History?”) which complained that “in the last five years, the biopic has begun to feel as dusty and outdated as the set of Encylopedia Britannicas in your parents’ attic.” This is rather like declaring Usain Bolt to be on his last legs at the very moment that he steams across the finishing line. The mistake Newsweek made was to take its biopsies of the biopic from the mainstream alone: moribund works such as Amelia, Invictus, The Young Victoria and Creation (not all of which are strictly biopics, which should span a life, so much as true stories). Small wonder the biopic looks cadaverous. Hollywood certainly doesn’t know what to do with the genre, other than throw awards at it: fifteen of the Best Actor or Actress Oscar-winners of the past 20 years got their trophies for playing real-life figures.
Peer over the edge of the mainstream, though, and it’s evident that the biopic is where the most experimental filmmakers come to set up shop these days. Much of the chutzpah of Gainsbourg comes from its source material, a graphic novel by its writer-director Joann Sfar, who is the latest artist to use the biopic as an entrance into cinema. Marjane Satrapi co-adapted her own graphic novel, the autobiography Persepolis, for the screen. The photographer Anton Corbijn (Control), and the artists Steve McQueen (Hunger) and Sam Taylor-Wood (Nowhere Boy), have all made their debuts with biographical studies, while four of the five films directed by the painter Julian Schnabel (including Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) have been biopics of sorts.
The crown prince of the post-modern biopic—or the po-mo bio, if you will—has to be Todd Haynes. First he populated his 1987 featurette Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story with Barbie dolls, and not just because they don’t tend to ask: “What’s my motivation?” Then he made a Bowie biopic manqué (Velvet Goldmine) before casting seven actors (including Cate Blanchett and Richard Gere) as aspects of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. Probably the most radical of modern biopics is François Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, which breaks the Canadian pianist’s intense life into concentrated fragments, leaving the assembly to the viewer. Not far behind is 24-Hour Party People, notable for a scattershot structure befitting its subject (Manchester’s Factory Records), and a heightened self-awareness dictated by its hero, the late Tony Wilson. Typical of its flagged-up fabrications and post-modern tomfoolery is the moment when Howard Devoto (of Buzzcocks and Magazine) turns up to denounce as false a scene we are in the process of watching.
Frank Cottrell Boyce, an old hand at the genre after writing 24-Hour Party People, Hilary and Jackie (about Jacqueline du Pré), Saint-Ex (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) and Pandaemonium (Coleridge and Wordsworth), thinks the free-form biopic can be the truest kind. “The structure of a film is incredibly conventional,” he says, “but life isn’t like that. So you can chop up the life to fit the structure. Or you can do what I prefer, which is to throw the life up against it and make the structure collapse.” He singles out Walk the Line as an example of how not to make a biopic. “That really shrinks Johnny Cash, doesn’t it? Here was a man who struggled with the cosmos, who cared about being justified in the face of God. And what the film gives you is a guy who had some issues with his father. If you want to celebrate the complexity of a human being, you’ve got to bust it all open, and I hope that’s what 24-Hour Party People does.”
When François Girard began writing Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, he recognised the pitfalls of the genre. “There are many traps,” he reflects. “The main temptation is to try to cram everything about a life into one film. What you need is a radical idea or perspective; if you decide to show the whole journey, you’re condemning yourself to staying only on the surface. Evocation, rather than being descriptive or exhaustive, is the key. Evoking a territory is preferable to trying to cover it all.”
If you want a measure of how unorthodox Girard’s picture is, try this: it’s a biopic of a pianist in which we never actually see the subject’s fingers touch the keys. “That’s part of its genius,” observes the actor Colm Feore, who plays Gould. “You see me fondle pianos, talk about them, even prepare to play them—but I never actually do. One problem, of course, is that in my life I occasionally get invited to play a little something at the induction of a new syllabus at the Royal Conservatory. I feel like saying, ‘Have you even seen the film?’” It was for entirely practical reasons that Girard kept performance off-screen. “I didn’t know how to show Gould’s distinctive playing style, so I decided not to show it at all. How would you get, say, an actor today to play tennis on film like Rafael Nadal? You couldn’t. My advice for anyone planning to tell Nadal’s life story would be: Stay away from the tennis court.”
Whereas conventional biopics tend to be organised around a shopping-list of biographical incidents, the po-mo bio aims to capture an essence, even if it’s at the expense of objective truth. “I couldn’t care less about the truth,” Sfar said recently. “I love Gainsbourg too much to bring him back to the realms of reality. [The film] is full of lies, because I love lies.” Think also of Cobb, Ron Shelton’s largely straight-shooting biopic, which departs from reality when the baseball outfielder Ty Cobb is watching a montage of his career highlights at a Hall of Fame dinner: while the other guests applaud his sporting triumphs, Cobb can see only a showreel of lowlights from his violent, alcohol-fuelled rages. Or Shadow of a Vampire, which imagines that the actor Max Schreck didn’t have to put in too much research to play a bloodsucker in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. This fast-and-loose irreverence, which has its roots in Ken Russell’s bad-taste 1970s biopics such as Savage Messiah and Lisztomania!, is fast becoming irresistible to modern filmmakers, as is the artist-viewed-through-the-prism-of-art approach seen in Mishima, Kafka, Love is the Devil (about Francis Bacon) or the completely fictional Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.
Oren Moverman, who co-wrote I’m Not There with Todd Haynes, relished the freedom that comes with a freewheeling structure. “Biopics can get hung up on authenticity, but our film is constantly lying—it’s clearly not a truthful representation of Dylan. His name isn’t even mentioned. I can appreciate the frustration of someone who complains that they don’t learn anything about Dylan from the film, but that’s actually true to the experience of trying to understand Dylan; it’s what Dylan himself would want.” Moverman is now writing a film about Kurt Cobain, which will address the musician’s life, rather than just the suicide that inspired Gus Van Sant’s Last Days. “It’ll be raw and chaotic, which is what Cobain’s life was like, but it’s more linear than I’m Not There; it’ll take you from A to Z. People know the shortcut version—he took a lot of heroin, wrote ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, became the biggest rock star in the world and killed himself. Those known things about him are to me the least interesting.”
“What matters more than anything,” Girard insists, “is to be faithful to the spirit of your subject rather than to the facts.” Colm Feore witnessed first-hand how this brought Thirty-Two Short Films… closer to the core of Gould. “I remember talking to Gould’s father after he’d seen the film, and he said: ‘How did you know about the ice?’ He was referring to the shots that bookend the film, with Gould walking in this great white nowhere. I said to the old man, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘That’s what Glenn loved to do—to wander on the ice at Lake Simcoe. He’d just take the dog and go.’ François and I looked at each other in amazement because we had no idea. François had known that he had to bring Gould out of the inner void somehow, so the artist in him came up with that. He was so in tune with Gould that he intuited this truth.”
Cottrell Boyce cites Girard’s film as one of his favourite biopics, as well as an influence on his own Hilary and Jackie. “What’s great about Thirty-Two Short Films… is that it tells you a lot about Glenn Gould, it celebrates his music, but it basically concludes that everybody is a lost continent and no one’s got the map. It’s that Citizen Kane idea of people being unknowable. You can’t ever really fathom someone—you can only enjoy them. It’s important for biopics to challenge the idea that there’s a fixed interpretation. I mean, there might be a definitive truth about the partition of Poland, but not about a human being.”