Historic Lives Onscreen

The fall film season continues a trend exploring real life

Steve James pays a heartfelt tribute to late film critic Roger Ebert in 'Life Itself.'
Steve James pays a heartfelt tribute to late film critic Roger Ebert in 'Life Itself.'


fter an awards season in 2013 dominated by a series of inspired stories ripped from the historic record — Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, The Wolf of Wall Street, Dallas Buyers Club (with its Academy-crowned acting tandem of Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey) and Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave — it is no surprise that the “real” has maintained its hold over the reels. Some of the best movies so far in 2014 have focused on the real lives of some truly phenomenal figures, although the trend has shifted from narrative features to documentaries. 

As a critic and, more importantly, a film fan, the Frank Pavich doc Jodorowsky’s Dune edges out Life Itself, Steve James’ heartfelt tribute to the richly lauded Roger Ebert. Rooted in details from Ebert’s memoir of the same title, Life Itself will likely become the standard measuring stick when we speak of a cinematic life, but Jodorowsky’s Dune, which initially aims to explore the somewhat hushed legendary tale of the greatest film never made, evolves into an altogether epic journey alongside a warped genius (cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky), the likes of which we might not ever see again. Touched in equal measures with outlandish wit and madcap grandiosity, Jodorowsky offers us an example of life that, if reduced to a narrative feature, would still be too wildly surreal to be taken seriously.

Transitioning away from the documentary realm, there is Tate Taylor’s Get On Up, this summer’s game take on the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, which features one of the most consistent and committed performances of the year from Chadwick Boseman, who has made a name for himself in the biopic genre after a breakout as groundbreaking baseball legend Jackie Robinson in 42. Boseman has slipped into the skin and footsteps of an intriguing series of men who were larger than life and has become the face of those figures for a new generation. It is a daunting and unsettling task and thought for an actor so new to the scene, especially someone looking to establish versatility. Boseman isn’t merely associated with a random assortment of characters; he is playing icons with lives that we know. How much, if any, of that can he make his own?

This fascination with historic characters has even hijacked the attention of the regional film community, thanks to Don Cheadle’s crowdsourcing efforts in order to get Miles Ahead, his Miles Davis labor of love, into production in Cincinnati. But the story proper isn’t following a strict musical biopic plot line, instead crafting its parallel narratives around the end of what has infamously been defined as Davis’ “quiet” five-year period away from the music scene and the decade he spent with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), his love and muse during that stretch. It is the kind of narrative that seemingly belongs to the literary scene where writers far more routinely use history as a jumping off point for thematic diversionary flights of fancy.

Maybe this is more of what film needs, creative departures that don’t require linguistic labeling — the “inspired by” or “based on” tags — to let us know that what we are about to be presented is “interpretive” in some shape or fashion. The stories that engage us the most, whether fiction or not, contain a fundamental essence of humanity and truth, what we generally refer to as universality that, unlike the “facts,” cannot be questioned.

Another earlier 2014 entry in the reel life procession that falls into this category would be writer-director Lucía Puenzo’s The German Doctor about an Argentinian family who, unbeknownst to them, live alongside Josef Mengele (Àlex Brendemühl), going so far as to seek medical advice and treatment from the hunted Nazi war criminal. The inconvenient truth in Puenzo’s film is that, in hindsight, this family serves as representational stand-ins for all of us. Mengele was able to elude capture thanks to an elaborate network of supporters and sympathizers but also untold numbers of people who looked this evil man in the face everyday and simply could not see him for what he truly was. Talk about a harsh life lesson. 

The arrival of fall signals the beginning of a string of high profile film festivals (Venice, Telluride and Toronto), which kick off the prestige season with releases dedicated to securing critical acclaim and awards nominations/wins along with seizing as much box office glory as possible. Many of these festival flicks feature that real-life quality, including The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game and more.

The downside, though, is that this period also triggers a reflexive push toward stuffiness and credibility. Biopics tend to be more austere and dignified, scrubbing away all of the human fallibility and foibles that made the figures interesting in the first place, leaving audiences with renderings that feel less recognizably lifelike. And, in the end, the lessons that could be gleaned from those historic lives lose most of their moral and thematic complexity.

Of course that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embark on the journey to discover what truths remain. And this year, fall challenges us — both critics and fans — to dig deeper because we have already been graced with examples of narratives and performances that have pushed and prodded at the boundaries. We have seen glimpses of the great promise and been exposed to the greater flaws in life’s rich pageant. 

Find continuing film coverage, including previews, reviews and interviews, at citybeat.com.

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