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.
The movie Ray sucks.