I Saw the Light: Historical Biopics Need to Stop

Ever since Daniel Day-Lewis confirmed his third Academy Award as Abraham Lincoln, in the ingeniously named Lincoln, biopics have spread like wild fire in the hope of burning bright enough to catch an elusive Oscar too. Selma, Trumbo, Joy, The Danish Girl, Steve Jobs, The Theory of Everything, Mr Turner, Get on Up and The Iron Lady are just a smattering of the recent films built around historical personas. The sole purpose of these films is to push for awards and promote their central actors as revolutionaries of agency in the mould of Olivier and Brando. Yet for all their noble intentions, the biopic genre has become a synonym for the bland, predictable and uninspiring.

The recent Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light featuring heir apparent to Bond’s tuxedo, Tom Hiddleston is symptomatic of the genre’s flagging appeal. Taking cues from Johnny Cash and his cinematic treatment in Walk the Line, I Saw the Light treads the familiar path of exploring the troubled artistic genius. Sadly, even Hiddleston, who shows there’s more to him than bashful grins and disarming laughter, can’t save I Saw the Light’s song of mediocrity. It’s a film that lacks brave characterisation, innovative storytelling, cohesive story and, most harmful of all, a distinctive voice.

"LINCOLN" L-001131R Daniel Day Lewis stars as President Abraham Lincoln in this scene from director Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" from DreamWorks Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox. Ph: David James, SMPSP ©DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.  All Rights Reserved.

Daniel Day-Lewis ponders who to portray for his next Oscar

Williams’ may have been a pioneer of country music but his story is one of vague generic statements and familiar failings. Director Marc Abraham aims for the profound, typified by film’s opening acoustic rendition of Williams’ ‘I Saw the Light’, but ends up hitting all the familiar bum notes. The film yearns to paint Williams as a Southern musical prodigy of the people, with a unique understanding of life’s hardships, as well as a flawed alcoholic, philanderer and depressive entity with Freudian mother issues. We never feel blinded by the light of Williams’ musical talents, nor do we abhor his apparently vindictive streak, and so he lapses into a bland protagonist failing to capture the immersive qualities of tragic heroes Don Draper, Randle McMurphy, Michel Piccard or Richie Fenestra.

Enigmatic and volatile in equal measures, Hank Williams is a prime candidate for the cinematic makeover. Unfortunately his transition to the silver screen is ruptured by a crippling bout of complacency. It feels as if biopics, just by the presence of a significant historical figure, have claimed a divine right for critical and commercial success. Selma’s bitter outcries at being snubbed at the 2014 Oscars reek of misplaced outrage. The Martin Luther King biopic was a decent, noble film but to demand an Academy nomination is scandalous arrogance.


Martin Luther King – good, but not Oscar material

Similarly, lavishing actors with hysterical applause for historical portrayals is a misplaced cop out. The prime example being Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Physical transformations have long been a crowd pleaser, and certainly Redmayne’s was a striking one, but it’s far easier to embody a real character than cultivate one fresh. Historical figures, from Sid Vicious to Steve Jobs, are identifiable, relatable and open to imitation which gives them immediate resonance with audiences. We know these characters, we’ve seen and read about them which makes them familiar and, perhaps most importantly, their performance measurable in our eyes. Even Abraham Lincoln, a relative mystery to the modern world, exists in a legend that’s instantly recognisable. Biopics, by virtue of their debt to reality, can’t help but lapse heavily into predictability. They’ve become tedious safe bets that lean on their protagonist for success rather than innovative filmmaking or novel storytelling. Instead of witnessing the next Travis Bickle, Norman Bates or Vince Vega we’re left lamenting another glossy period piece that aspires to convince as an archive documentary. Jesse Owens, Lyndon B. Johnson, Pele and Edward Snowden are just a few of the life stories hitting our screens this year, but, judging from the trailers, none appear to escape their own interchangeable blend of period detail and underdog triumph.

That’s not to say that all biopics are worthless causes. David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood and George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are all biopics that bend the rules of reality and create films that embody, or at least reflect, their subject matter. Just like the oversaturated repetition of superhero films, biopics desperately need a hefty boot up the arse. The recent ubiquity and success of historical biopics has promoted an environment discouraging risk – why try anything else when a period piece recounting events with chronological efficiency and a famous face does the trick? Let history influence and inspire film, not dominate and dictate it.


John Hurt and his brilliant portrayal of the tragic Elephant Man

Federico Fellini called a film “a dream we dreamt with our eyes open” but in the current malaise of reboot, repackage and reissue it’s beginning to seem like cinema has forgotten how to dream itself. Safety first appears to be the moviemaking catchphrase these days and the biopic genre is one that lives rigidly by such an unambitious motto. “Say hey, good lookin’ – what ya got cookin’?” Hank Williams once famously yodelled. Let’s just hope for Hank’s sake it’s not another uninspired historical biopic with the same hackneyed, stodgy ingredients.