Yesterday, in posting the trailer for Gus Van Sant’s Milk, I remarked that Harvey Milk’s story was one that deserved to be told, and then I took a sideswipe at the Ray Charles biopic, Ray, calling it “bullshit.” This led one commenter to complain that this was just more “baseless douchebaggery from Gabe.” Sure. Except that my douchebaggery is not baseless. My douchebaggery is very very based. Ray is a shitty movie, and while I’m not going to argue whether or not Ray Charles’s story “deserves” to be told, I can say that I don’t think that it “needs” to be told or is “worth” telling, at least not on film. Not that it’s Ray Charles’s fault, or even the fault of the movie itself. Ray sucks because biopics suck, almost uniformly. And here is why:


Biopics Do Not Add Anything To Art
When biopics deal with an artist, such as Ray Charles, they do absolutely nothing to increase one’s appreciation of the artist’s work. If anything they’re distractions. That’s not to say that someone who loves Ray Charles and wants to know everything there is to know about Ray Charles isn’t encouraged to go and learn about him and read actual books about his life, but for the casual fan we do not tap in to some greater depth of emotion because we see re-enacted depictions of a heroin-addicted womanizer.

Now, an argument could be made that, for example, the depiction of Ray’s depression over his brother’s death could create a subtle and affecting subtext in which to re-hear his music, but even Ray Charles himself admitted in his own biography that while he was greatly affected by the event, it wasn’t the cause of his drug addiction or a source of lifelong depression. It was a calculated attempt on the part of the filmmakers to generate their own pathos in direct contradiction to the artist’s own statements, which is simultaneously disingenuous, mildly insulting, and boring.

Biopics Are More About The Lead Actor/Actress Than About The Subject
When Ray was released, all of the focus was on Jamie Foxx’s performance (for which he won an Oscar), which I guess was a good performance? I don’t know. Acting like people who actually lived and of whom there is copious amounts of documentary footage seems thisclose to a Satruday Night Live sketch about that person. The boundary between serious interpretation and parody is heavily blurred, to say the least. Starring in a biopic is the purest form of Oscar bait there is. Take for example this clip, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays an over-the-cliff obsessive compulsive Howard Hughes (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator:

UGH. You can almost hear his brain screaming “ACTING! I’M ACTING NOW!” To make matters worse, actors will never come out and say that they’re doing it for the awards, it’s always about “honoring the incredible life of INSERT INCREDIBLE LIFE HERE.” Such bullshit. What a bunch of fucking liars.

Biopics Do Not Teach Us Anything
All biopics are lies, even the decent ones (a note on the decent ones below). As with the aforementioned Ray Charles dead brother thing, biopics construct “powerful,” “emotionally stirring” narratives by exploiting small details or even fabricating facts. Actual biographies by actual writers trained to do actual research and present actual facts don’t have the imaginative luxury of filmmakers, and so reading a book about a historical figure or a favorite artist can be illuminating and also teach you about what actually happened. Movies, even movies such as these, are just entertainment, and they will stoop to any lie to entertain you. That’s why it’s possible to make A Beautiful Mind (for which Russell Crowe was nominated for an Oscar) look like fucking Fight Club meets Good Will Hunting for the first hour, with all the “your Harvard roommate is Tyler Durden,” and “let’s go draw elaborate mathematical equations in grease pencil on the library window because that’s a thing that happens.”

A Note On Limited Event Biopics
There are biopics, as Milk looks to be, that focus on historical characters in a specific time frame. The narrative arc is limited to a period or accomplishment rather than the (often uninteresting and unnecessary) span from childhood to death. These biopics still suffer from the same problems of over-eager actors, fabricated dramatic tension, and wobbly grasps on the truth, but they’re more defensible in that they tend to illuminate a moment of deep historical impact for a particular group of people, say lawyers with AIDS (for which Tom Hanks won an Oscar), or England (for which Helen Mirren won an Oscar). I tend to enjoy these biopics more, if you can even call them biopics, because they have smaller ambitions and are more likely to open a conversation about a political or philosophical viewpoint. By focusing on the personal in a public event, you can actually understand the forces behind major social upheavals or political reversals. But these movies kind of suck too most of the time. They’re either too reductively emotional (this is sad, this is happy) or overplay the actual importance of the historical event (like the movie equivalent of the book Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. Shut up, Cod). As with all biopics, one would probably be better off reading an actual book on the subject so that one didn’t sound like such a jackass when he or she tried to bust out the biopic-informed trivia at the cocktail party.

In Closing
The movie Ray sucks.

Comments (25)
  1. Yes. I made many of these same comments just the other day after a painful viewing of “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.”

  2. Yep, agreed, although embarrassing moments of impersonation aside I thought Leonardo DiCaprio was really good in “The Aviator.” Actually, I liked “The Aviator” in general because even though a lot of the boring conventions of the traditional biopic were firmly in place, Hawks’ life was just bizarre enough as it occurred for the movie to not totally suck or be totally boring. Plus: lots of pretty, pretty clothes.

    To me the apex of biopic suck is Kinsey. Never has a biopic’s focus on the birth-to-death trajectory been more pointless or tedious.

  3. jchilders  |   Posted on Sep 4th, 2008 +2

    “Never let nobody or nothin’ turn you into no cripple”

    That line in the first scene of Ray gave it an automatic F to me. Nothing that comes after could redeem that saccharine shit.

    However, Ray should be condemned primarily for adding to the planetary mass of Jamie Foxx’s ego, a dark force that threatens to consume us all.

  4. Kevin  |   Posted on Sep 4th, 2008 -4

    Gabe just hates black people.

  5. In Closing
    The movie Ray sucks.

    I was worried about you for a moment there. I thought you had written an entire post without any biop-zings.

  6. in recent biopics, there’s also a tendency to elevate contact with other famous people into some sort of defining moment (johnny cash met elvis!) or wink at the future. i think these are supposed to be gestural shorthand (johnny cash developed drug problems because all those guys used drugs) but if you’re older than 16 they come off only slightly better than sitcom guest appearances.

    that said, i think you might have to go see W anyway, even if it makes you want to chase oliver stone with a helicopter until he gets tired and lays down.

  7. Chadams  |   Posted on Sep 4th, 2008 0

    Agreed on “The Aviator” actually being good. There’s no overt implications that you should root for Howard Hughes or empathize with him as there are in “Ray”. That’s the whole point of that type of rah-rah biopic and sadly it enraptures a large baseline audience.

  8. Josh  |   Posted on Sep 4th, 2008 +1

    I thought “American Splendor” was amazing.

  9. Jonathon  |   Posted on Sep 4th, 2008 0

    thank you for articulating all the seething resentment I’ve felt for biopics for so long… i wisely avoided Ray, but got tricked into seeing Walk the Line (ugh)

  10. Ward Stradlater  |   Posted on Sep 4th, 2008 0

    Agreed. I think biopics should be required by law to state the varions ways in which they have diverged from the facts. I remember being inspired by the relationship between Nash and his wife in “A Beautiful Mind,” only to find out when I read the book that she actually left him. Which was sort of the whole point of the story, you know, that she stayed with him in spite of his illness. Which she didn’t actually do. So I’m not real clear on why they made the movie. Oh, money.

  11. Carolynn  |   Posted on Sep 4th, 2008 +2

    Walk Hard was the greatest movie ever fucking created.

  12. dafs  |   Posted on Sep 5th, 2008 0

    “Acting like people who actually lived and of whom there is copious amounts of documentary footage seems thisclose to a Satruday Night Live sketch about that person.”

    I remember saying this around Oscar time in protest of all the Oscar buzz for the star of Booty Call. The only problem, that was an entirely biopic heavy year. Foxx in Ray, DiCaprio in The Aviator, Depp in Finding Neverland. Personally, I was rooting for Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine, but he didn’t even get a nom.

    • Ward Stradlater  |   Posted on Sep 5th, 2008 +1

      Finding Neverland is another great example. So JM Barry has this redemptive relationship with these children. Awesome. Except that there is some degree of evidence that he molested them. Which for some wierd reason — probably just time, you know, to make the movie shorter — didn’t make it into the movie. Because it undermines the entire premise.

    • Audiosuede  |   Posted on Oct 9th, 2008 0

      Actually, I have to completely agree with you here. I thought Jamie Foxx did a good job for what he did, but Jim Carrey gave a career-shattering performance, a breaking of the mold that’s all too rare in hollywood today.

  13. Your entire opinion of biopics is bound to change when you see “Flash Of Genius.” Because if there is one person that’s crying out for a biopic to be made about them, it’s the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. Greg Kinnear is a National Treasure (TM).

  14. I don’t think biopics are *that* bad. I’d rather see an honest documentary, but I disagree with this:

    “Biopics Do Not Add Anything To Art
    When biopics deal with an artist, such as Ray Charles, they do absolutely nothing to increase one’s appreciation of the artist’s work. If anything they’re distractions.”

    Before I saw “Ray”, I didn’t understand why critics and fans referred to him as “genius”. I still don’t fully agree, but I certainly do understand because the movie showed me some of his work I was not familiar with. Some with “Walk the Line”.

  15. tommytimp  |   Posted on Oct 9th, 2008 0

    Topsy-Turvy fucking rules. Even if you don’t like Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s incredibly lush, rich moobie-making.

  16. Audiosuede  |   Posted on Oct 9th, 2008 +1

    Yeah, this is pretty much the dumbest article on film I’ve read in years. Biopics raise appreciation of artists’ work quite a bit, by making the artists feel real to the average person. Would I ever have a chace to meet Ray Charles? No (especially now). But this film, completely truthful or not, makes him seem more real to me, and thus gives his music a personal context that did not exist before I saw the film. The same is true for countless other biopics. Now, are they all classics? No. And I agree that acting awards for biopics have gone way too far in taking away from notable original performances (with a few notable exceptions, like Marion Cotillard). And Ray Charles’s story is an inspiration to people of disability around the world. So fuck you, and your douchebaggery.

  17. I agree with Audiosuede about La Vie en Rose. I think it succeeds even on your terms, although I think your terms kind of miss the point since the value of a biopic is hermeneutic: an interpretation, however creative, of a life lived. Of course, that just makes simplistic schmaltz like Ray even less forgivable.

  18. here here, Ray sucks

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