Bio Movies: Dramatic vs Documentary

When presenting a story about a famous person on film, which is better: a scripted dramatic film starring professional actors or a documentary film featuring actual footage of the person with comments from friends, family and other associates?

This question comes to mind after seeing films during the last year about Freddie Mercury, David Crosby, Miles Davis, Linda Ronstadt and Judy Garland. Also, the Ken Burns PBS series about country music caused me to recall dramatic movies about Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash, among others.

My examples listed here are music stars but the question also applies also to films about well-known individuals in other walks of life. It’s my belief that each style (dramatic or documentary) has its own virtues.

In a dramatic telling of a person’s life story or, as with the Judy Garland movie, a brief period of a person’s life, the filmmaker has the opportunity to massage the facts to present a coherent narrative with elements of conflict, romance and the ups and downs of life. Timelines can be condensed or expanded. Events that may have seemed inconsequential at the time can be presented as key turning points.

In a documentary film, the filmmaker also has the ability to shape the content that makes it to the screen, but he or she is working with actual events and real people. Is a documentary biographical film the complete and unvarnished truth? No. It is a version of the truth. But with archival footage and present day commentary, it has a level of authenticity. The best documentaries, I believe, have a point of view and may not present all sides of a story.

A successful biography type film, be it dramatic or doc, adds to our understanding of an individual and our appreciation for that person’s challenges and accomplishments.

Of course, a key consideration is money. Production costs for Bohemian Rhapsody are estimated on imdb.com at $52 million. The film’s worldwide gross is nearly one billion dollars. Documentary costs or revenues are never anywhere close to those numbers. For that reason, producers may be more quickly willing to risk an investment on a documentary about a person such as Linda Ronstadt whereas a dramatic telling of her life/career story would be a much riskier proposition.

With both styles of storytelling, there will always be complaints that a real life event was depicted incorrectly or that certain events or people are totally omitted. But, hey, you can’t please everybody.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

42

Like most recent crowd-pleasing biopics, 42 presents a series of opportunities, challenges and successes for its hero. As we saw in films about Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, and now here for Jackie Robinson, talent and determination win the day.

Jackie Robinson is played ably by Chadwick Boseman. The movie’s depiction of Robinson reveals few flaws, other than a temper. No addictions, no womanizing here. He has a wife, but few other characteristics that flesh him out as a real person, not just a ballplayer.

The story of Jackie Robinson is also the story of Branch Rickey, the white man credited with bringing Robinson to the bigs. Harrison Ford plays Rickey with restraint. Not many of those intense tirades we’ve seen in other Ford roles, but a couple of good speeches give Ford his moments to shine.

After Rickey determines that Robinson has the guts and the self-control to handle the abuse, Rickey deals with managers and players who aren’t happy that Robinson is part of their team.

Acceptance is slow in coming, but winning ballgames helps heal some of the hard feelings. Robinson leads the Dodgers to the 1947 pennant, is named Rookie of the Year and the audience leaves the theater with a warm, Hallmark Channel-like upbeat feeling.

Following Django Unchained, hearing the “n” word in a mass market film like 42 is not so shocking. I heard the word four times through the first half of the movie. But after Robinson joins the Dodgers, he hears the word many more times—mostly from Phillies manager Ben Chapman. Chapman is played by Alan Tudyk, who was Steve the Pirate in Dodgeball.

42 attempts to capture the feeling of 1946 and ’47. On some levels, that goal is achieved with the typical tools: cars, phones and costumes of the era. What the film fails to communicate is how big baseball was in those days, as compared to other amusements. The depictions of real ballparks of the era are partly successful. The film has a major anachronism with a shot of modern seating in a minor league ballpark.

42 is not a great movie, but tells its story in an entertaining enough way to click with many groups of moviegoers: men and women, white and black, baseball fans and non-fans. Like Ray and Walk the Line, 42 is destined to be a crowd-pleaser.