07 September 2008

The Biopic and the Assembly Line

What We Do Is Secret – dir. Rodger Grossman – 2007 – USA

Riddle me this. Biopics are lame. Biopics about people of questionable artistry are even lamer. Sure, first time writer/director Rodger Grossman does little to justify a film about The Germs’ frontman Darby Crash, played here by Shane West of A Walk to Remember and television’s ER and Once and Again (punk, indeed), but all cinematic inabilities aside, what’s truly bothering me is the functionality of a biopic. For what purpose does a biopic about an influential (or in the case of this film, a not-so-influential) person living or dead do for the person in question? For some filmmakers, the biopic serves as an elegy. Anton Corbijn’s Control beautifully depicts the rise and fall of a respected artist, Ian Curtis, someone Corbijn knew quite well. Control is aesthetically appealing, dramatically gentle and absolutely hypnotic when depicting Joy Division performing, which is really crucial in the conviction of necessity. Certainly Ian Curtis’ life mirrors that of many tortured musicians who’ve served as the subject of a biopic, but unlike Johnny Cash, Tina Turner or Ray Charles, Curtis dies within the film’s scope.

The rigid formula of the biopic, which separates itself only when a director chooses the linear or non-linear path, ultimately reduces the individuals someone deemed special enough to make a movie about to little nothings, or people who unremarkably defeated their demons. With the tendency for melodrama and the well-equipped, ever-suffering spouse at hand (mind you, it’s almost always a woman, except in the case of The Hours, but that film exists more in a fictional realm), the formula turns these people’s hard lives into, as I said above, unremarkable triumphs (as a side note, I’m using my triptych of non-linear musician biopics, What’s Love Got to Do with It, Ray and Walk the Line, as my prime examples, though you could probably throw La vie en rose in there too). Thankfully, there exists the small area of the “biopic” which finds little interest in a person’s life as a whole as much as their life in moments. Capote, The Queen and Erin Brockovich could qualify, even if all three at times feel like Oscar performance baiting.

For music films (or any film that deals with an artist), the application of formula commonly becomes at odds with itself. Often the subject of the biopic has defied conventions in some way to have left their mark on the industry. For The Germs, their only real claim to fame was that they might have recorded the very first punk record in Los Angeles. Grossman, who used former Germs guitarist Pat Smear as a consultant, never hides the fact that most of the members weren’t musically inclined but at least attempted to show some appreciation for the balls-to-the-wall live antics of the band. It was a failed attempt at both appreciation and visceral raucousness, but if we’re to overlook these slights, it seems to be the intention to show that Darby Crash had a voice and presence that were defiant and abrasive. In molding Crash’s story into familiar territory, does this not overshadow the intentions and spirit of the singer?

What We Do Is Secret employs many overly accustomed characteristics of the music biopic, not the least of which being Grossman’s use of talking heads to both fill in the blanks and express the appreciation he was unable to elicit from his subject (the fiction music film Brothers of the Head finds its only struggle in getting away from the mockumentary). So why is it that this film (which also uses no flashy camera tricks) would suit a man someone believed to have been progressive, historically relevant and defiant of the establishment? I think one must ask themselves, “would Darby Crash even like this film?” The question shouldn’t be posed as if he were alive today, because age can tend to soften one’s explicit demeanor, but it should be posed as if it were shown to him during the height of his career, before committing suicide.

I suppose what is bothering me most lies in this question of suitability. Certainly wondering whether or not the subject of the biopic would like their film wouldn’t work for everyone. God knows if anyone made a biopic about Courtney Love, she probably wouldn’t be too happy if some riskier choices were made. However, why do filmmakers feel the need to put their subjects through the assembly line? Wouldn’t it be more potent if the film actually mirrored the subject’s spirit, instead of reducing them to formulaic traps? Todd Haynes understood this completely with I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine, even though the latter happened to be thinly-veiled fiction. All this aside, I still anxiously await Gus Van Sant’s Milk, as his abandonment of the Hollywood system and return to his roots has made for some spectacular films in the past few years. Though a tale of Harvey Milk would require a different handling, as his contributions weren’t of an artistic form, it’s long overdue for a respectable filmmaker to shake the sad state of the biopic. And, no, Ron Howard doesn’t count. And, no, don’t get me started on Oliver Stone.

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