Biopics are pesky things, full of impersonations masquerading as virtuoso performances. A recent exception was Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” which was ostensibly the story of Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike, but which radically rewrote the biopic rules. Most of the dialogue was elided, and the contours of a simple story became the jumping-off point for all kinds of formal badassery.
So I’m actually intrigued that McQueen’s second film is going to be another biopic: “Fela,” about the life and times of Fela Kuti, the one African musician whose name everyone knows.
There’s plenty of Big Milestone stuff to latch onto in Kuti’s life — James Brown said he originated funk, he ran for president of Nigeria, married 27 women in 1978. — all of which I suspect McQueen will ignore or once again use as a launching pad for more dazzling visuals. Not that “Hunger” disregarded Sands — if anything, the last third’s overly reverential — but its primary goal wasn’t just your typical resume recap.
I wish more filmmakers took that approach to the biopic. If you really want to push the boundaries of narrative and still have some kind of a budget, what better way to do it than with a ready-made tale everyone entering is at least sorta familiar with?
Every biopic has its own internal signposts and marks that need to be hit, but otherwise, where the movie goes and how it’s made is up to the director. Instead, the genre’s still stuck in the ’30s mode of the great man going from one event to another (think especially of Paul Muni, who made a whole career — “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” “The Life of Emile Zola” et al. — out of this nonsense).
Beside McQueen, the only other filmmaker I can think of who’s really tackled this problem with any kind of verve is Milos Forman. “Amadeus,” “The People Versus Larry Flynt” and “Man On The Moon,” with varying degrees of success, are all assaults on their ostensible project, playing up the gap between what’s being depicted and the actual modes of representation.
“Amadeus” trashes its meticulous period design with incongruous American actors (Tom Hulce, Jeffrey Jones) and anachronistic vulgarity; the latter two films bring in all kinds of people as “themselves,” just much older, and refuse to attempt any kind of psychological explanation for what’s going on, making a virtue of their shallowness. There’s a whole world of potential in this showboaty genre, just waiting to be exploited.
Not that, you know, that kind of arty project makes getting financing any easier. Still. Just saying.
[Photos: “Hunger,” IFC Films, 2008; “Amadeus,” Orion Pictures Corporation, 1984]