The Review/List/

Born To Be Blue and the unconventional biopic

Top Five

Mar 10, 2016

How do you capture the story of someone's life in a two-hour movie? Do you start at the beginning, as Charles Dickens wrote in David Copperfield? (“To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born [as I have been informed and believe] on a Friday.”)

That approach is conventional, because it’s effective when done properly. My favourite example is Michael Apted’s 1980 film Coal Miner's Daughter, the biopic that saw Sissy Spacek age from 12 to 45 as Loretta Lynn, charting her story from dirt-poor young girl to the reigning First Lady of country music. Eschewing child actors to carry the early years, the film relies heavily on Spacek’s ability to portray innocence and weariness in equal measure, throughout the superstar’s ups and downs.

But maybe you’re a filmmaker looking to avoid those flabby three hour docu-dramas. In that case, you can focus on a singular character element - or maybe a specific event. That’s how 2015’s Steve Jobs does it, turning three major product launches in the Apple icon’s career into bottle episodes. Director Danny Boyle sidesteps the indomitable issue of having to give a full portrait of a man, opting instead to highlight a couple of essential personality traits: Jobs’ raging ego and creative vision (which, it turns out, might be the same thing).

Or you can blow the whole thing up. Forget the rules. Is there a moment that defines your subject in the eyes of history? Is the full picture even necessary? Furthermore, is it a filmmaker’s responsibility to capture that, or should they just tell us a good story?

In his Chet Baker biopic Born to be Blue, director Robert Budreau trumpets the jazz virtuoso’s life by choosing the interesting over the literal. Unlike Dickens’ approach in Copperfield, Budreau starts his story closer to the end: when we meet Ethan Hawke's Chet, it’s already late in his career, and the trumpeter is reeling after years of heroin abuse, financial loss, and public disgrace. He’s attempting to stage a comeback by starring in a film about his own infamous life.

As an audience, Chet cast as Chet gives us pause, signalling that what follows will be more complicated than a straight-up-and-down biography. This creative approach reflects Chet’s artistic imagination, and Budreau seems to be arguing that an artist's life can be depicted through themes and variations on the work, rather than just conveying the biographical facts. Don't miss a chance to see this unique portrait, now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Looking for more? Here are five excellent examples of how filmmakers have rethought the musical biopic. If anyone reading this is working on a David Bowie movie, please take notes:



It’s all right there in the name. This 1993 Canadian compilation film about the pianist Glenn Gould presents a series of short films, in forms ranging from documentaries to scene re-creations to experimental animation. The result is a video portrait of a man that can leave the viewer with 32 separate impressions, and resists the desire to reduce a complex subject to one simple narrative.


It’s easy to see a world where the Best Picture winner about composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would be a straightforward (albeit dusty) historical drama, hitting all the normal beats as it follows the young prodigy from early success to early demise. But it was writer Peter Shaffer’s brilliant decision to tell the life of Mozart through the eyes of Antonio Salieri, a competing composer forever in the shadow of greatness, that gives this film its life. Whether or not it has all its facts in order, the result is a beautiful study on the nature of creative genius.


The legitimately “unauthorized” story of Karen Carpenter, singer and drummer from the 1970s duo the Carpenters, Todd Haynes’ short film follows the last 17 years of her life before she died of cardiac arrest from anorexia. Oh, and he tells the whole story with Barbie dolls. Did we mention that? Sadly, after losing a copyright infringement lawsuit to Karen’s brother Richard Carpenter, Superstar lives on only in bootleg copies and ephemeral YouTube mirrors.


Focusing on two turning points in “Beach Boy” Brian Wilson’s life, Love and Mercy succeeds by conceding to the inherent failure in most biopics: runtime is a resource; things are omitted. In this case, twenty years are omitted: the film jumps between Paul Dano’s youthful Wilson, composing the groundbreaking Pet Sounds, and John Cusack playing Wilson as a broken, middle-aged man, trying to reclaim himself. The division allows both moments in the musician’s life to contradict and connect, alluding to an entire life that no film has enough time to portray.


Another Todd Haynes film on this list, I’m Not There features the many personas of Bob Dylan, here portrayed literally. Interwoven and overlapping, six actors play six different Dylans, from folk-singer to rock-star to outlaw. At times abstract, and only loosely tied together, this portrait of Bob is expansive and wildly incomplete, preferring the idea of the man over his biography, but refusing to offer a fixed idea of a man who has lived and created in so many spaces.