Big Screen | Movies

From Freddie Mercury to Pope Francis: What’s in a biopic?

Still from ‘Rocketman’

Still from ‘Rocketman’  

Several films from the past year attempted to demystify public figures by tunnelling into their lives. But did they tell the whole story?

Why do celebrities do what they do? This never ceases to intrigue us, whether it is Deepika Padukone’s brave show of solidarity with JNU students or the tragic life of Amy Winehouse. Several films in the past year have attempted to deconstruct the enigmatic lives of public figures in the hope of understanding and humanising them, but there’s one film that stood out for its empathetic and unusually therapeutic gaze: the Shia LaBeouf-starrer Honey Boy.

Written by LaBeouf and based on his own childhood, Honey Boy must have been a cathartic experience for the actor, who has notoriously been in rehab for drug addiction. In the film, he steps into his father’s shoes by playing the alcoholic and abusive parent to 11-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe), who works as a child actor and provides for the family. Going between the past and the present, the film delicately uncovers how a traumatic and loveless childhood has a long-lasting impact on your life, in ways you may not even be aware of. In several interviews before the film’s release, LaBeouf, who was diagnosed with PTSD in rehab, revealed that the genesis of the film lay in his therapy sessions. Through a fictionalised account of his life, LaBeouf reaches out to the audience for the affection and sympathy that he seldom got from his father.

Much before selfies, self-portraits have been a way for artists to immortalise themselves, through the course of art history. But in cinema, it’s not often that we see filmmakers and actors chronicling their own lives. Belgian-French filmmaker Agnès Varda is a noted exception. Last year, a month before she passed away at 90, she wrote her own eulogy on celluloid. In her documentary, Varda par Agnès, which premièred at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival, she talks directly to the camera, as if preempting her final days. It’s a self-portrait that barely gives a glimpse of her life outside her art, but through the dismantling of her work, we understand how personal her cinema, photography and visual art are, and her fascination with real time.

Still from Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

Still from Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am  

Art and identity

“Inspiration, création, partage (Inspiration, creation, sharing),” are the three words that drive her as a filmmaker, she says. Discussing a few films in her expansive career, Varda par Agnès is largely about ‘partage’: she shares her insights, choices and her journey from analogue to digital. Unlike LaBeouf, Varda maintains a distance from her life, in a way that is intimate yet critical. In her earlier and rather charming documentary, Faces Places, she traverses the French countryside with street artist JR, and presents her carefree and affable self to us. In Varda par Agnès, she is measured and fully aware that this may be her last.

This sense of finality permeates Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am as well, which was released a couple of months before the Nobel laureate in literature passed away last year at 88. The documentary is reverential towards Morrison but also welcomes the uninitiated. In present-day divided America, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary underlines the significance of Morrison’s racial identity in her oeuvre: the novelist never shied away from it in an attempt to appease white readers or critics, even as she was dismissed for “restricting her writing” to the black experience. Morrison hit back even harder with novels like Sula and Beloved, and speaks about it unequivocally, demonstrating how an artist’s identity influences their work.

Identity informs art in Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman too. This film, about musician Elton John, shows how John’s sexuality shaped him as a musician and made for a rather colourful public life. The advantage of making an authorised biography with the subject as one of the producers is the access, but there’s also the threat of self-censorship, obscurantism and sanitisation. While exploring the sex and drug-fuelled life of John, Rocketman toes the line between the two carefully, unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, which casts a rather prudish and heteronormative gaze on Freddie Mercury’s queerness.

Blind spots

The popstar’s bisexuality was an open secret, although not confirmed by the singer himself. Directed by Bryan Singer (who has denied multiple accusations of sexual abuse), the film never fully understands Mercury’s sexual fluidity but pushes for an either-or identity, while feeding into the belief that HIV is divine punishment for being sexually liberated.

Still from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

Still from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’  

Public figures do have blind spots. Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles tries to understand the goings-on behind closed doors in the Vatican in The Two Popes, while following the rise and fall of Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio aka Pope Francis. Using documentary aesthetics to blur the lines between fiction and reality, and armed with spot-on casting of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, respectively, the Netflix film navigates complicated issues of morality, modernity, tradition, faith, financial malfeasance and the sexual harassment scandals plaguing the Catholic church.

Meirelles isn’t neutral while dealing with the politics of the Church and the military dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s. While his sympathies clearly lie with Pope Francis, he humanises Pope Benedict XVI almost literally. “You’re only human,” Bergoglio says to Pope Benedict XVI in a lofty tone. The film is an apt reminder that a biopic, even if it’s a self-portrait, is an interpretation of a life lived, rather than the life itself.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 6:21:29 AM |

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