There’s something sort of freakish, I suppose, setting someone up on stage apart from all the rest.’ says the Woody character from I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’ film about Bob Dylan. And indeed there is something singular about the stories of famous musicians that makes for good cinema. Perhaps it’s the larger than life characters, perhaps it’s the trials and tribulations of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle. At any rate, from Clint Eastwood’s Bird (on Charlie Parker) to Nowhere Boy (John Lennon), musical biopics continue to grab the attention of viewers.
They are a goldmine for film-makers. In a literal sense because they provide a fan-based audience that is won over before the film is even made; in a narrative sense because they provide a subject-matter that is familiar to the audience. This is important because a film is by necessity a crude simplification, a snapshot of a story, where everything is subordinated to the result and manipulated for the purposes of dramatization. Since viewers come to the biopic with prior knowledge, the film-maker is able to glance over passages of little dramatic substance. For a form of art whose length should, to quote Hitchcock, ‘be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder’ this is a significant advantage.
Of course any simplification of a true story will open a whole Pandora’s box of subjectivity and misrepresentation. But when you’re dealing with people who have become that iconic shouldn’t the legend be treated as well as the individual? And in that case does accuracy really matter? Some biopics even make the rumors about the subject central to the narrative. Take I’m Not There, inspired by ‘the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan’ in which six actors interpret different facets of the ultimate beatnik. Many, if not most, of the scenes in the film are apocryphal, such as when he is attacked by a disappointed fan. But to try to depict someone as unfathomable as Dylan in a veracious fashion would be missing the point entirely – let alone be possible.