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Breaking the biopic rules.

Breaking the biopic rules. (photo)

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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).

12082009_amadeus.jpgBeside 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]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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