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Walk the Ray

Walk the Line is a fine movie.  I recommend it.  Joaquin Phoenix is uncanny, and Reese Witherspoon—whom, I confess, I’ve never really liked before now—is just remarkable, bringing a subtle, bitter edge to her otherwise chirpy portrayal of June Carter.

But here’s the thing.  I also liked Ray.  Jamie Foxx was uncanny, and Regina King was remarkable.  For that matter, I liked Coal Miner’s Daughter way back in 1980.  Sissy Spacek was uncanny, and Levon Helm was remarkable.  You get the idea.

Does anyone else have the sense that these music biopics have gotten a bit . . . um . . . formulaic?  The Walk the Line / Ray similarities are, admittedly, a bit strange: flashback to rural poverty and the life-scarring Death of the Brother.  Lifelong struggles with drugs and a stripped-down narrative of the Other Woman.  But even biopics about figures whose lives weren’t quite so similar as those of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash seem to me to be built on the same premise: a string of highlights and low points (ending on the former), held together (or not held together) by the lead’s ability to inhabit the body and soul of the subject.  Extra bonus points are awarded for people who do their own singing, like Spacek or Gary Busey in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story, or who know a thing or two about their instrument, like Foxx in Ray.  Audience responses to the genre of the biopic, accordingly, seem to hinge almost entirely on assessments of the performance of one or two lead actors and actresses: hence Ray, Walk the Line, and Buddy Holly draw raves, Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It and Forest Whitaker in Bird get mixed reviews, and Kevin Spacey in Beyond the Sea and Dennis Quaid in Great Balls of Fire! wind up very quickly in the 99-cent bin.  And I won’t even bother to dismiss Jessica Lange in Sweet Dreams, because (for whatever reason) she only appeared in ten minutes of that film, the rest of which was devoted to Charlie (and might as well have been called Patsy Cline:  Charlie’s Story).

Which brings up an ancillary point.  Because most of the challenge of the biopic lies in the casting, for obvious reasons, with films like Walk the Line, you’ve got a curious intertextual phenomenon going on: Waylon Payne’s Jerry Lee Lewis is far more convincing than Dennis Quaid’s, which makes it look almost as if Walk the Line is out-Jerry Lee-ing Jerry Lee’s own biopic, in a weirdly Jerry Lee kind of way.

Still, I have to admit that I would have paid good money (not counterfeit money!) fifteen years ago to see Denzel in What’s Going On?  The Story of Marvin Gaye. Hey!  When is someone going to get to work on that film anyway?

Oh, I almost forgot.  I really liked Pollock.  Ed Harris was uncanny, and Marcia Gay Harden was remarkable.

Posted by on 11/30 at 02:10 PM
  1. Check out “Good Night and Good Luck,” for a counter-example to the biopic formula. No redemption at the end, and the sense that struggles continue, even when small victories are won. Of course, this is a movie that wants us to distinguish between entertainment and history, rather than merging the two as “Ray” and “I Walk the Line” do. (That’s a false dilemma, I know, but it illuminates a point.)

    And all the actors are good IMHO.

    And black & white can look really, really good.

    Denzel Washington as Marvin Gaye? Wow.

    Posted by  on  11/30  at  03:32 PM
  2. I think you might want to see The Life of Émile Zola.  The way Paul Muni gets inside the role of the writer is deeply impressive, and Gale Sondergaard’s turn as the wife of Dreyfus is remarkable.

    Posted by JL  on  11/30  at  04:00 PM
  3. I concur with Pat, and would like to add that David Strathairn is crazy uncanny as Edward R. Murrow.

    I have a hard time with biopics about visual artists and really have yet to see one that I enjoy. For example, Selma Hayek was decidedly *not* uncanny as Frida Kahlo, but then again, the whole damn movie sucked.  I haven’t seen Pollock.

    Then there is the reversed, heavily fictionalized biopic genre, represented by such gems (cough, cough) as Girl with a Pearl Earring, nominally about Vermeer. Kinda hard to say if either Colin Firth or Scarlett Johansson are uncanny, but Johansson is certainly a dead ringer for the girl in the painting.

    My enjoyment of Ray was severely marred by the rushed ending.

    Posted by  on  11/30  at  04:43 PM
  4. To my mind, Altman’s Vincent & Theo is one of the best biopics - and it’s a visual artist. I have no idea whether Tim Roth was uncanny or not, but it was an excellent film.

    Posted by  on  11/30  at  05:19 PM
  5. Ditto on GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. Plus, you can enjoy the reverb effect of Dianne Reeves’ cool Greek chorus. An anachronistic metabiopic. Sort of.

    Posted by  on  11/30  at  05:26 PM
  6. It strikes me that some of the pleasure (for some of us...by which I mean Me! Me! Me!) in the biopic is precisely its conventionality, its formula, and its predictability (both in terms of it being a story already known and in its structure).  In that sense, “biopic” is a true genre film—like the slasher film or the western or the rape-revenge film.  It’s also more generally a conventional narrative, like hagiography (actually, it has a *lot* in common with hagiography, come to think of it—except no one’s breasts get cut off...I hope).  The success or failure lies mostly in the performances because the enjoyment is not about the *story* told but about a story *well* told, and well-told in cinematic terms is as much about performance as it is about script or direction.  (In fact, I might even go as far as saying that most viewers, even sophisticated ones, consciously notice performance first and foremost over or before other elements of film.) And in the biopic, performance is especially key as there’s a seemingly concrete measure for it.

    In short, the formula might actually be the source of enjoyment.  Originality is over-rated (so says the medievalist).

    I wonder, though, in the “biopic” genre, do we only include those movies about invidual Artists and World Historical Figures and Romantic Hero(ine)s?  Or do we include also the related “based on a true story” genre, like “North Country “or that horse movie with Tobey Maguire, the name of which I’ve suddenly forgotten, dammit.  And would the movie “Elizabeth” count, exactly?  Or what about “Dangerous Beauty”—Veronica Franco was, after all, a real courtesan, but not exactly a household name, not even after the book and movie about her.  (Side note:  ah, to have one’s dissertation become a book that becomes a movie with Rufus Sewell—now there’s a dream worth having! Ahem.)

    In other words, I wonder if conventionality is a sine qua non of the “biopic” genre.

    Posted by Dr. Virago  on  11/30  at  05:37 PM
  7. Marcia Gay Harden really is terrific in Pollock. It was a somewhat thankless part, poorly written, but it was one of the few times that she broke out of her usual “latter day Sandy Dennis” persona.

    You can tell that “Walk the Line” chose the formula route, partly as a way of carving Cash’s life into a reasonable film length, plus multiple trips to rehab screw up a narrative. Biopics seem to need heroism and/or redemption, unless there’s a three hanky end. When people’s lives miss that arc, it’s easy to leave the audience with something empty (e.g., “Lenny” which had great acting but a difficult closing).

    Posted by  on  11/30  at  05:44 PM
  8. There are also the biopic-like-but-fictional music films like Grace of My Heart (Illeana Douglas as a thinly disguised Carol King) or Georgia (Mare Winningham as a country music star whose sister, Jennifer Jason Leigh, has failed to make it in the music biz).  Grace of My Heart closely follows the generic conventions of the music biopic; Georgia is more of a departure, but still plays on very much the same territory.

    Funny that nobody’s mentioned The Doors

    Posted by  on  11/30  at  05:49 PM
  9. Me? I’m waiting for the uncanny and the sublime. Now that’s aesthetic film-making at its ... um ... most, um, theoretical.

    Posted by Tyler  on  11/30  at  05:55 PM
  10. Going into “Chaplin” I figured, “Man, the movie will write itself but no way will they find an actor to convey CC’s magic.”

    Wrong on both counts. Robert Downey was superb; the screenplay stunk.

    Er, does this qualify as a music biopic? CC did his own soundtracks, y’know.

    Posted by dswift  on  11/30  at  05:56 PM
  11. Not having seen *Ray* or *Walk the Line*, I have no right to comment, but when has ignorance ever stopped a blog commentor?

    In any case, my general problem with artist biopics is that we see a lot of “warts and all” and often too much “Definitive Childhood Trauma” but we rarely see a lot of, well, art.  Oliver “Counterforce” Stone’s *The Doors* is the best example of the Artists Without Art Syndrome: a ton of drugs and drinking, bickering and Native American spirit quests, and somehow, somewhere along the way, a bunch of songs got written, rehearsed, and recorded—but you’d never know it from the film.  I hate The Doors, but I’d like to think Jim Morrison is more than a guy who got a blowjob in an elevator.

    The difficulty, I suppose, is finding drama in the process of artistic creation.  You know, the boring, tedious, and difficult part of being an artist.  Although not their best film, the Coen Bros. still did this the best in *Barton Fink*.  Anyone trying to write a dissertation can really identify with the Coens’ protrayal of the writing process: you just have to write a stupid boxing flick, but you want to write a *great* boxing flick.  (The moral of the story, for Fink and dissertating grad students: just write the stupid boxing movie.)

    Posted by  on  11/30  at  06:22 PM
  12. Oh, Hubble ...

    Posted by Roxanne  on  11/30  at  06:56 PM
  13. Amadeus, on the other hand, was terrible.

    Do performer biopics work better than creative-artist biopics? (in which case Pollock would be an exception.) A strong performer can recapture what was exciting about Johnny Cash or Ray Charles on stage; who, with what script, could generate sparks sitting at a desk or plunking at a half-formed tune on the piano?

    Posted by rootlesscosmo  on  11/30  at  08:09 PM
  14. I have a similar question, rootlesscosmo.  It’s just not that interesting to watch someone paint (Pollock being one potential exception) or write for that matter (watching someone write might be even more boring than watching paint dry), whereas American film is such a performer’s medium that an actor can translate some of the excitement of the performer.

    I tend to avoid biopics, but I think it’s probably the case that they require the genre conventions mentioned by Dr. Virago, and Cash and Charles’ stories fit the genre incredibly well (not that I don’t appreciate Cash or Charles as performers).

    Posted by Chuck  on  11/30  at  11:51 PM
  15. Weird how Walk the Line transcended the lameness and formulaicity of its story-line to be a fine movie—I noticed this too and wondered about it. The greatness of the actors involved surely had a lot to do with it. Waylon Payne was certainly a high point. In short: “What Michael said”

    Posted by Jeremy Osner  on  12/01  at  12:01 AM
  16. I think part of the “formula” nature of biopics is unavoidable.  People have formulaic lives.  Now if there was someone who burst out of the ground a wizened old coot, and forgot everything he knew until he youthanized enough to crawl into some unsuspecting woman’s uteris and melt away over 9 months, that would make for a non-formulaic biopic.

    Sorry, but I’ve been waiting 31 years to find a venue for using “youthanized”, and this was the first opportunity.

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  01:13 AM
  17. Not coming soon to a theater near you: Blue Guitar: The Wallace Stevens bio!

    Posted by rootlesscosmo  on  12/01  at  01:14 AM
  18. Salma Hayek was decidedly *not* uncanny as Frida Kahlo, but then again, the whole damn movie sucked.

    Agreed about the nonuncanniness of Salma as Frida - millions of dollars spent on cgi, and they couldn’t have painted on a damn mustache? - but it pains me to say, my darling, beloved SneakySnu, that you could not be more wronger in that thing you said about the entire movie sucking.

    Because Frida had Lila Downs in it, that’s why, and the mere presence of Lila Downs would have been sufficient to redeem even a movie as horrible as - oh, I dunno - Tremors II.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  12/01  at  02:43 AM
  19. Hey BTW Michael, I’d be interested to know what you thought about The Squid and the Whale. I liked it though it was not a “biopic” [is this accurate? I mean it was based on a memoir so autobiographical; but I thought to be a “biopic” a movie had to tell the life story of somebody famous] and only moderately formulaic.

    Posted by Jeremy Osner  on  12/01  at  09:49 AM
  20. "Although not their best film, the Coen Bros. still did this the best in *Barton Fink*.  Anyone trying to write a dissertation can really identify with the Coens’ protrayal of the writing process”

    A good friend of mine who had just finished his thesis had to run out of the theater while watching Barton Fink.

    Me, I loved it.

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  10:02 AM
  21. Chris: Everyone went to Frida to see the Lesbian sex scenes.

    Posted by Roxanne  on  12/01  at  10:26 AM
  22. Michael:  Run, don’t walk, to rent “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” (1993). It is as far from formulaic as can possible be.  Colm Feore is stunning as Gould, and the film’s set-up is quite unusual and effective.  The soundtrack is Gould himself, as only it could be.  The film is, of course, a Canadian production…

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  11:00 AM
  23. Chris, THANK YOU for the Lila Downs site!  It is amazing.  Yet I still protest.  You simply cannot make a film about my hero Frida Kahlo that revolves around whether or not Diego is giving her the time of day.  I think I turned the film off about halfway through when I rented it. 

    Rootlesscosmo has it right:  it’s the role of performance in the biopic.  There is a seamless link in film between soundtrack and artistic performance that enables the musician’s biopic to work.  It creates the impression of a continuous narrative.  There is no conflict between the narration of the life and the process of artistic creation.  For a visual artist, the question of performance is more complicated.  It narrates the creation of a static thing*, which when completed is not very interesting to watch in a film.  The formula for the visual artist’s biopic seems to require a extra dose of virility, like Pollock running around the surface of a canvas dripping paint, or...Charlton Heston as Michelangelo.  The spectacle of the work in the making elides the difference between artistic creation and procreation, a traditional narrative trope anyway.  I find this incredibly boring, especially as an art historian.

    And what happens when a biopic is made about a woman artist?  Why, she’s subjugated by a male artist, no surprise.  The film poster for Camille Claudel says this quite literally.  Frida is compelling in the formulaic biopic genre, I contend, precisely because her physical ability to procreate is taken away and supplanted by painting, ensconced in a narrative of sexual ambiguity. 

    Help me.  I can’t think of any examples that work against this formula.  Personally, I’d like to see a biopic of someone like Carolee Schneeman.  Unfortunately, Ana Mendieta (installation & performance artist, “fell” off balcony and killed in presence of husband & sculptor Carl Andre) and Eva Hesse (sculptor, died of brain tumor) are more likely candidates for the genre. Sigh.

    *talking here about traditional media, of course.

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  11:52 AM
  24. Yeah, I’d love to see What’s Going On?  The Story of Marvin Gaye. Hey! That would be awesome.

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  12:15 PM
  25. What of biopics on writers? How do you make the writing process interesting? Has anyone done it with a degree of success? The only images evoked for me is of someone typing madly or passing out at the writing table, knocking a half-empty bottle of liquor in the process. The recent film on Iris Murdoch sent me into a coma. Still, I’d probably get suckered into a film about Nabokov, Joyce, or even Sontag.

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  12:27 PM
  26. You mean like Julia, Sophie’s Choice, The Algonquin Roundtable, Henry and June?

    Posted by Roxanne  on  12/01  at  12:34 PM
  27. Two words: Capote

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  12:36 PM
  28. That’s three words… but see Daniel Mendelsohn’s NY Review piece on Capote:

    “ There have been many films about writers writing, and generally they resort to a kind of clichéd visual shorthand to convey the agonies of what people like to call the creative process: pieces of paper being yanked in frustration out of typewriters, crumpled, and tossed into wsatebaskets. Capote is the only movie I know of that comes close to suggesting what the complex process of creating a literary work actually loks like.”

    Posted by rootlesscosmo  on  12/01  at  12:50 PM
  29. In my screenplay of “Berube,” I don’t go to the cliche of crumpled paper. I have the protagonist playing drums or taking slap shots when the writing is not going well. When the writing is complete I have him breaking out into dance numbers in a green leotard on busy city streets. It’s a dramatic risk I’m prepared to take.
    Thanks for the note on Capote—I do want to see it. And Roxanne, my thought on the films you listed are they are about writers that don’t, to my recollection, go for something about the creative writing process other than to link lived life to the life on the page. I saw “Henry and June” for the same reason most saw “Frida,” apparently. My memory of the role of writing there is pretty hazy. Other memories are very sharp and leaving wondering if the video store is open.

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  01:31 PM
  30. And Roxanne, my thought on the films you listed are they are about writers that don’t, to my recollection, go for something about the creative writing process other than to link lived life to the life on the page.

    That’s because endless shots of writers toiling at their craft isn’t visually interesting for the audience.

    Posted by Roxanne  on  12/01  at  01:42 PM
  31. An interesting (but ultimately flawed, imho) film about the writing process that’s not really a “biopic” at all (not just because it’s unconventional):  Adaptation

    Posted by Dr. Virago  on  12/01  at  01:46 PM
  32. Still, I’d probably get suckered into a film about Nabokov, Joyce, or even Sontag.

    There was a 2000 film called Nora about the life of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle in Trieste.  Ewan McGregor played a young James Joyce.  It was pretty horrible and I could not watch the entire movie.

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  02:03 PM
  33. I should also mention that Gus Van Sant’s fake biopic about Kurt Cobain, Last Days, was perhaps the worst movie I have ever seen in my life.  What dreck.

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  02:22 PM
  34. Chris: Everyone went to Frida to see the Lesbian sex scenes.

    I went for the Trotsky-related sex scenes.

    But the sex was traumatic to me. I never quite imagined myself in a theatre watching Salma take her shirt and thinking “no, this is just wrong: she’s way too pretty.” Unpleasant cognitive dissonance resulted.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  12/01  at  03:47 PM
  35. take off her shirt, rather.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  12/01  at  03:48 PM
  36. Walk the Line is the first time Witherspoon has actually acted since Election.

    Basquiat’s a good biopic. Jeffry Wright’s Basquiat is uncanny, David Bowie’s Warhol is way more remarkable than Crispin Glover’s in The Doors (which failed on so many other, more painful to watch, accounts), and Courtney Love is...Courtney Love, as usual.

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  04:27 PM
  37. I probably should go see it, since I had a crush on June Carter Cash when I was a kid. When I was 12 or 13 (and an avid watcher of Johnny Cash’s summer variety show, which at the time was the only place to see rock and roll on TV). I thought she was the ideal woman. I guess I still do. 

    Reese Witherspoon just seems like a pale reflection of my June.  And she is basically a non-singer, whereas June Carter Cash was a highly trained singer: first she learned folk music as a member of the Carter Family and later she had more formal training in classical and Broadway idioms as an acting student in NY City.  She was much more than just a naive girl from Tennessee.

    Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash is a little more acceptable: he’s a great actor who looks like Johnny--- and in fact he was a gospel and rock and roll singer before he was an actor.  (The acting Phoenixes started out in show biz as members of a family gospel act: their parents were 7th Day Adventist missionaries.)

    Posted by Tim Horrigan  on  12/01  at  05:07 PM
  38. "In other words, I wonder if conventionality is a sine qua non of the “biopic” genre.”

    I’m wondering if “music artist biopics” require a certain detachment by the audience from the source material, especially available performance based ones?  From my own personal perspective, having been blessed with seeing many of the subjects listed above live (as well as more than familiar with their life stories) a great number of times, from the 50’s on, i haven’t been particularly excited by any of the music ones. Thus i am much more a fan of the more recent obsession of remastering and releasing of live performance videos.  And when i see the attempts at presenting long ago pasts i get pretty pissy about not being given a sense of the live presence of the artists in question. 

    Likewise i think many of the films about writers, movie and TV pioneers and celebrities, and so forth, suffer from the same familiarity.  I would be interested in how others feel about the films who never saw Ray or Cash live in person; given expectations for informed interest?

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  05:11 PM
  39. (The acting Phoenixes started out in show biz as members of a family gospel act: their parents were 7th Day Adventist missionaries.)

    Actually, they were missionaries for the Children of God, which, among other things, used sex to win new converts.

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  05:27 PM
  40. And we all know how much people like to have sex.  [via Kevin Drum]

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  07:28 PM
  41. I’ve never seen Johnny Cash perform and I liked Walk the Line, would watch it again. That said, I’m not sure why. It’s not very truthful for a true story. The boozing etc is safe and consequence free, getting busted seems a quite manageable experience. The music through the theater sound system sounds a) wonderful, and b) nothing like the listening experience delivered through AM car radio speakers of the day. I’m pretty sure there are rhythm elements in the movie songs that weren’t in commercial country music of the time.

    As an overlong MTV video the story elements fit together smoothly and maybe MTV trumps the suspension of disbelief discontinuities. As biography I didn’t detect much bio. The actors more than made up the deficit.

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  09:02 PM
  42. there’s going to be another chance to test out this thesis coming up soon--I heard that Lenny Kravitz has optioned the life story of Jimi Hendrix, with the intent of playing him in the movie.

    imo, the success of the biopic being on the shoulders of the star is due to the dialectic between the remoteness of living larger than life, and the identification with the star’s human qualities. Ideally, the star will convey both qualities, so that the audience can identify as well as idealize.

    a good example of the genre for me is ‘The Rose,’ with Bette Midler--she managed to convey all of these emotions, and we could see the arc of the character’s story, without having to resort to a literal acting out the entire life story--less ‘plot’ time yielding to more in-depth character development.

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  09:17 PM
  43. Hey everyone

    I am doing my film studies cousrework and as part of my primary research I jus wanna know your opinion about HOW THE BIOPIC GENRE CREATES MEANING IN AUDIENCES RESPONSE

    please get back to me on this if you have a comment

    thanx alot

    Posted by  on  10/03  at  03:14 PM
  44. Hi,
    I liked this movie.Especially the film focuses on Cash’s younger life, his romance with June Carter, and his ascent to the country music scene, with material taken from his autobiographies.
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    Posted by alloy analyzer  on  12/12  at  01:44 AM
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    Posted by Fashion Dissertation  on  02/21  at  05:56 AM

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