Challenge of the biopic, Redux

Back in July I posted about biopics and about the tensions inherent between fact and fiction in what is, essentially, a dramatisation. Despite this – despite the fact that I know I can’t rely on them for the facts – I like biopics. Of course, I don’t like all biopics, and there are some I like more than others. The reasons I like them are, I was going to say, rather capricious, but perhaps idiosyncratic is a better word. Depending on the particular film, I may like it because:

  • I am interested in the person; and/or
  • I am interested in the subject (literature, dance, theatre, music, etc) or the era (World War 2, the Regency or Tudor periods, etc); and/or
  • I like the director; and/or
  • It is simply a good film!

In the case of biopics I’m a bit more relaxed about quality – and when I say this I mean I am more relaxed regarding cinematic style and innovation. Being relaxed about quality though doesn’t mean I like poor performance, poor scripts, poor direction. It just means I’m more tolerant of, shall we say, less cinematically challenging films if they are biopics. This probably doesn’t make sense to anyone else, but there you are!

And, I have to say, that most biopics we see are of the conventional variety. That’s not to say that there aren’t innovative biopics out there  – because there are  (such as, for example, the relatively recent and exciting I’m not there about Bob Dylan) – but most, it seems to me, are not. This is certainly the case with the one I saw this weekend, Mao’s Last Dancer. It is conventionally told – but the story itself is so powerful, who cares? From my memory of the book, the film is “true” to his story even if the facts have been stretched here and there for dramatic effect. It is, anyhow, worth seeing for the three actors who play Li Cunxin, and for the gorgeous dance sequences choreographed by Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon.

Image courtesy Clker.Com

Image courtesy Clker.Com

It just so happens that in the October issue of Limelight is an article by Lynden Barber called “Hollywood goes classical”. It’s about biopics of musicians. In it he quotes Australian composer Nigel Westlake as saying:

I don’t think there would be any historian who would consider these films anything more than entertainment and as about as historically accurate as Gladiator.

Well, I ask, why would an historian, or anyone, expect a biopic to be historically accurate? A biopic is not a documentary but a dramatisation. Do we read/see Shakespeare’s history plays for history? No! And neither should we look to biopics for verifiable historical fact. We can, though, expect them to provide some truths. In the case of Mao’s Last Dancer those truths include the resilience and mental strength exhibited by a boy removed from his home at a young age by “the state” and forced to make his own way in the world.

I am of course being somewhat disingenuous here. A biopic does need to be reasonably factual – otherwise, why not make a film about a completely fictional character – but we should not expect it to be citable fact. This makes it a rather slippery beast – and one that is fun to talk and write about!

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