24 Hour Party People (2003)

Usually, historical biopics about artists & musicians are a waste of time for anyone not already in love with their work, as they’re often kids-gloves hagiographies only meant to promote their subjects’ cultural significance without any genuine interrogation or nuance. 24 Hour Party People is a major exception to that rule. A meta-historical comedy tracking the unlikely transformation of the Manchester music scene from punk to new wave to raves, 24 Hour Party People is just as impressive for its multimedia playfulness as it is for its willingness to portray its cultural icons as total buffoons who had no idea what they were doing. Its protagonist, an obnoxiously pretentious record producer played by Steve Coogan, is booed and called a “cunt” in practically every room he enters, despite being majorly responsible for fostering the U.K. punk scene’s post-punk longevity. Seemingly untouchable, tragic icons like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis are equally razzed for being music-scene dorks who’re absurdly full of themselves, despite the saintly aura cultivated over the decades since their professional flameouts or deaths. It’s easy for biopics to lose track of the recognizable humanity of long-canonized artists when attempting to capture what made them special. 24 Hour Party People pulls off an amazing trick of portraying its music-scene legends as highly fallible buffoons while also maintaining the enigmatic Cool of their art. You don’t have to already be in love with New Order, The Durutti Column, or Happy Mondays to love this movie. It’s about something much more universally relatable than those bands’ cultish fandoms suggest: how all human beings are self-centered fuckups, especially artists.

I did wonder for the first third of this film whether it was appealing to me solely because I was such a sucker for the soundtrack. I can only hear so many Siouxsie, Buzzcocks, and Joy Division needle drops before my punk-youth nostalgia outweighs my critical skepticism. That question was answered decisively by the time the punk scene melted away into new wave and then was usurped entirely by rave culture, something I personally know nothing about. While the first half of 24 Hour Party People tracks its asshole protagonist’s involvement in the recording & promotion of Joy Division—a band I very much love—its back half does the same for an ecstasy-flavored jam band called Happy Mondays — a band I frankly had never heard of despite their apparent popularity. That shift in subject did not throw off my interest at all, though, since the film was less about recounting the Wikipedia highlights of its music-scene legends than it was about the unfocused, self-destructive hubris of Coogan’s would-be record label tycoon (Tony Wilson, figurehead of Factory Records). 24 Hour Party People mixes in enough real-life archival footage, winking cameos from People Who Were There, and glowing memoirs of poorly-attended Sex Pistols shows that inspired dozens & dozens of legendary disciples to appear to be the exact kind of for-fans-only historical biopic that bores the shit out of anyone not already on the hook. With time, it proves itself to be a much sharper, more incisive peek into the kinds of high-ambition, low-empathy buffoons who drive those legendary flashes of music-scene youth culture. And it turns out that getting to know the bullies, lushes, and narcissists behind the scenes doesn’t make the music sound any less cool; it just makes the story behind it a lot more believable and relatable.

No amount of praise for this film’s radical honesty or messy multimedia formalism could fully capture what actually makes the whole thing work: it’s damn funny. Even though nearly every single character is a self-centered asshole, they also come across as charming goofs. The biggest moral conundrum at the center of the story—as defined by Coogan’s suffocatingly narcissistic narrator—is how to make a name for yourself without “selling out”. Every character wants to make it big without losing their hipster cred, which only becomes more absurdly amusing as they age out of the adolescent years where that kind of pretentiousness is acceptable (the ones who survive into adulthood, anyway). Every gag is at the expense of one of these beloved artists’ self-serving quest to become beloved. Not for nothing, every gag is also successfully hilarious. Maybe the key to making a decent historical biopic about an arts scene is having a critical sense of humor about the legends you’re trying to depict. That’s at least a good first step in the direction of acknowledging their humanity, and one I can only recall being repeated in the recent black metal satire Lords of Chaos. Even that example isn’t nearly as impressive, though, as it’s poking fun at fascist metalheads who commit literal murder, whereas 24 Hour Party People profiles seemingly affable chaps who just happened to not be as Cool as you’d expect based on their classic records.

-Brandon Ledet

Bright Young Things (2003)

It’s incredible that I didn’t catch Bright Young Things when it was still fresh in the mid-aughts. I was in college at the time, and hopelessly attracted to mid-tier indie films about queer libertines who made fabulously debaucherous lives out of indulging in drugs & gender-fuckery: Party Monster, Breakfast on Pluto, The Naked Civil Servant, etc. (as well as their better-funded equivalent in titles like Velvet Goldmine and Hedwig & The Angry Inch). A portrait of wealthy 1930s socialites enjoying the lull between wars with some lavish drag parties, booze, and cocaine, the semi-historical biopic Bright Young Things would have majorly appealed to me at the time. It’s basically a slightly classier, extremely British version of Party Monster — distinguished only by its staggering cast: James McAvoy, Michael Sheen, Emily Mortimer, Stockard Channing, Dan Aykroyd, David Tennant, Jim Broadbent, Peter O’Toole, Richard E. Grant, Jim Carter, and one-time director Steven Fry. Even watching it for the first time now, I enjoyed the film far more than I should have. If I had seen it as an impressionable young lush in desperate need of fabulous, crossdressing wastoids to look up to, I almost certainly would have worn that cheap-o second-hand DVD to dust.

Smartly, the film chooses an outsider who aspirationally looks up to the Bright Young Things as its audience-surrogate protagonist, matching the wide-eyed admiration of its target audience. It’s easy to piss away your youth and inherited wealth if you’re born into affluence. It’s a much more difficult trick to pull off for a starving artist who’s living a Bohemian lifestyle because of their class rather than their whims. The best our protagonist writer in search of a steady paycheck can hope for is to be taken in as an amusing pet by his fabulously wealthy friends (while scrounging up some chump change publicizing their decadence in the tabloids under the pseudonym Mr. Chatterbox). It’s a grift that can only last so long, which works out fine since the Bright Young Things themselves could only use London as their personal playground for as long as the world was willing to sit idle between wars. It’s a brilliant POV for the film to take, since the writer’s main motivation is to tag along as his crossdressing, gin-guzzling friends quip and party-hop from one novelty amusement to the next. His “journey” as their adopted working-class pet lands close enough to the ideal audience’s POV to highlight the film’s main attractions (boozy fancy dress parties where jaded artsy types complain “I’ve never been so bored in my entire life” despite the never-ending carnival enveloping them), while also bland enough to not get in their way.

There’s probably an excellent movie to be made about how privileged, unfulfilling, and spiritually toxic the real-life Bright Young Things’ debauchery truly was, but this isn’t it. It makes some last-minute gestures towards that kind of criticism as the party inevitably ends, but its heart really isn’t in it. The movie is much more vibrantly alive in its earliest stretches where everything is champagne, cocaine, drag, and roses, which makes it more of an aspirational wealth fantasy than anything genuinely critical or introspective. And that’s okay! The cast is brimming with delightful performers, all allowed by Fry’s hands-off direction to be as exuberantly charming as they please (with only Tennant being tasked to play a slimy turd so that there’s a vague shape of a villain to feign conflict). I might have been charmed to the point of obsession had I caught this aspirational lush fantasy as a teenager, but even now I was charmed to the point of enjoying the film far more than it likely deserves. Everyone loves a good party, and unfortunately it takes a certain amount of money & lack of self-awareness to throw one. As a frivolous adult who has worn a tuxedo & lipstick combo to a party this year (pre-COVID, mind you; I’m not a monster), I was helpless to enjoying the spectatorship of these staged parties in particular, despite my better judgement.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Shirley (2020)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss the revisionist-history biopic Shirley (2020) and the three powerful women at its core: director Josephine Decker, actor Elizabeth Moss and, of course, author Shirley Jackson.

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTubeTuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Capone (2020)

I’m not sure that Josh Trank bounced back from his career-imploding misfire Fant4stic (2015) with a better film, but he’s certainly returning to the scene with a more memorable & entertaining one. Trank’s misshapen Al Capone biopic stands alone in a genre defined only one other film to date: Venom (2018), by which I mean it’s a tragically bland nothing of a movie that Tom Hardy’s bizarro performance transforms into a riotous good time through sheer force of will. Trank wrote, directed, and edited Capone himself, so you think you’d be able to credit some of the film’s entertainment value to his guiding hand. Yet, his dialogue, direction, and editing choices are all so aggressively uninteresting that it’s a miracle any audience could sit through the entire picture without slipping into a coma. Tom Hardy alone is the source of that miracle, and it’s his batshit performance that transforms Capone into something truly remarkable, even if just remarkably laughable.

Capone covers only the final year of the notorious gangster’s life, which he spent under house arrest while left senile by neurosyphilis at the age of 48. Trank attempts to use this syphilitic madness as a device that allows the narrative to surreally drift through time & space as Capone’s mind wanders through his own memories, feeling immense guilt over the violence he commissioned at the height of his Chicago crime boss days. There’s no sense of purpose or immersive atmosphere to these drifts through Capone’s subconscious, though. When the movie’s over you’re left pondering if it had anything to say about violence, guilt, syphilis, Capone, or anything at all. The movie has no discernible reason to exist except in giving Tom Hardy the freedom to run wild in the titular role. Luckily for Trank, Hardy more than makes up for any & all filmmaking deficiencies by turning Capone into a one-man freak show. Against all odds, the film truly is a spectacle.

With none of the film’s stylistic or narrative elements being compelling enough to get in his way, Tom Hardy is given the greenlight to transform Capone into a series of Nic Cagian stunts. His demented vision of the titular gangster is horrifically grotesque. He mumbles incoherently in a garbled growl more appropriate for a talking trash can than a human being. He dresses in old biddy drag, fires pistols at alligators, belts out his showtunes from The Wizard of Oz, and fires a gold-plated Tommy gun at his friends & family while aimlessly wandering the grounds of his mansion in a soiled diaper. Admittedly, all these stunts were written into the screenplay, so it’s not as if Hardy ad-libbed the film’s saving graces. He’s just responsible for making them fun to watch in a bewildering sideshow act kind of way that we normally only allow Nic Cage to perform. It has got to be the most compelling, amusingly outrageous performance you’ll ever see where a main character pisses, shits, and pukes themselves for the entire runtime while staring directly at the audience with grotesquely bloodshot eyes.

I’m embarrassed by how much fun I had with Capone. By most reasonable metrics, it’s a terrible film, one that’s only dragged down by the eye-rolling decisions made by its commanding auteur. Why hire El-P to produce a score if his work is going to be so anonymous that the audience forgets that factoid immediately after seeing his name in the opening credits? Why cast eternally loveable performers like Linda Cardellini & Kyle MaClachlan just so they can sit around watching Tom Hardy do his thing? Why the fuck do you think the world needs a ~spooky~ rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “Blueberry Hill?” Who is any of this for? It ultimately doesn’t matter. All things considered, this is a much more memorable, entertaining, and overly ambitious take on the pathetic-mobster-geezer-regretting-his-evil-deeds story than the infinitely more competent The Irishman, so it really doesn’t matter how it got there. I would watch Tom Hardy shit his pants on an infinite loop if the results were always going to be this fun.

-Brandon Ledet

Judy (2019)

The new Judy Garland biopic is exactly what you’d expect it to be: a safe, pleasant-enough novelty built entirely around highlighting its lead, titular performance. And since Renée Zellweger won all the awards she was gunning for with the role—including an Oscar and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Lead Actress in the same weekend—I suppose it’s inarguably a success. If the performance is the movie, that means Judy is too weirdly uneven to praise with any enthusiasm. In her worst moments Zellweger awkwardly apes Garland’s broadest mannerisms while wearing the same obnoxious false teeth that won Rami Malek an Oscar for Bohemian Rhapsody. At her best, she stumbles into a stupor while recreating Garland’s late-career stage performances that somehow entirely transcends the caricature of the rest of the film to approximate some kind of spiritual possession where she legitimately is Judy, however briefly. In either case, it’s effectively pointless to critique the finer points of Zellweger’s movie-defining performance at this stage, as it’s already carried off the Oscar statue in its Dorothy-replica picnic basket. All there is left to do is single out the stray points of interest that distinguish this picture from other Safe, Award-Winning biopics – of which there are only a precious few:

  • Judy’s sole distinguishing choice on a creative level is its device of setting all its flashbacks to Garland’s youth on a studio lot sets, emphasizing the disorienting artifice of her non-childhood. Instead of following a birth-to-death biopic structure, the film saves time by starting with a pilled-out, extravagant but nearly homeless Garland during a final string of London concert dates preceding her death. It periodically cuts back to the abuses of the Studio System that landed her in such a delirious state, painting her Old Hollywood teen years as a surreal, Oz-like nightmare of pure artifice. She genuinely cannot tell which foods, romances, or inner thoughts are The Real Thing and which are stage props, thank to studio ghouls who control her every movement. This all-encompassing gaslighting operation really colors how we see the ridiculous stupor she stumbles through in later in life. An entire movie set in that kind of reality-obscuring saccharine nightmare might have actually been interesting as an art object, or at least more so than the actor’s showcase we got instead.
  • It’s uncomfortable to dwell on this observation for too long, but Judy is partially fascinating in its parallels to the current professional haze of its star. At only 50 years old, Zellweger has already been effectively discarded by her industry for being too “old” & loopy to be worthy of Lead Actress status. Until this awards campaign, the most use the Hollywood star-making machine had for her in recent years was as tabloid fodder to shame her for undergoing Noticeable cosmetic surgery. Zellweger emerged from this mistreatment understandably wobbly, which is best illustrated in her loosey-goosey Oscars acceptant speech that praised Martin Scorsese, Venus & Serena Williams, firefighters, and Harriet Tubman all in the same breath. Judy Garland was only 47 years old when she died. As much as we like to think the entertainment industry has evolved for the better since that tragedy, the parallels between Zellweger’s portrayal of that fallen star and her own offscreen behavior are . . . alarming.
  • This movie had to acknowledge Judy Garland’s significance in the LGBTQ community in some way (it is on a first-name basis with the star, after all), so it was enthralling to see how it’d go about satisfying that requirement. It hurriedly decides to store al its gay eggs in one homosexual couple’s basket, making time for Garland to befriend a same-sex British couple who wait outside her concerts for autographs. This gamble works fairly well when she spends an intimate evening with the ecstatic lads in their cozy apartment, but less so when their arc is quickly resolved as a stinger of comic relief. In either case, choosing one couple as a stand-in for All Gays Everywhere makes for an interesting tension that’s worth some careful scrutiny.
  • Jessie Buckley’s in this! She’s even second billed in the end credits, despite taking on a thankless role as Judy’s befuddled assistant. It’s nowhere near her finest work, but unlike Beast & Wild Rose, it’s a movie people will actually see.

Outside these few points of interest and the idiosyncrasies of Zellweger’s weirdly uneven performance, Judy is the exact movie you’d expect it to be based on its poster & premise. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of safe-bet indulgence, really, but it does feel like the movie has already outlived its purpose now that it has its Best Lead Actress Oscar secured on Zellweger’s trophy shelf. The best it can hope for at this point is a few basic cable broadcasts & Redbox rentals before it’s forgotten forever. In that context, it’s pretty alright.

-Brandon Ledet

Rocketman (2019)

I should have known better than to venture out to the theater for the Elton John biopic Rocketman. I was at least smart enough to skip last year’s big-deal musical biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, even before I knew it had a notorious rapist attached as its official credited director. The uncredited director who was tasked to save that drowning production (when Bryan Singer was rightly booted from it), Dexter Fletcher, promised a little more cohesion & stage-musical fantasy in this follow-up, but everything else about Rocketman looked just as cheesy & false as Rhapsody. If I’m being totally honest, the only real reason I was curious about Rocketman was the news reports after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, which slated it as the fist-ever major studio Hollywood production to feature onscreen gay sex. I had to see (and support) that decades-late “achievement” for myself, but it put a lot of unfair pressure on the film to, em, perform in that one specific way, setting me up for disappointment before frame one. Very few people are wholly successful in their first full-on gay sex encounter, so I’m not sure why I expected Hollywood to be any different.

Rocketman was only willing to give me wholesome showtunes gay when the material at hand clearly called for drunken, sweaty dive bar gay. The framing device of this post-Walk Hard biopic is an AA meeting where Elton John looks back on his life in sappy, musical flashbacks while gradually stripping off a gorgeous bejeweled-devil stage costume to reveal the vulnerable man underneath. His narration continually reassures the audience that his life was ravaged by sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, but everything we see onscreen is musical theatre kids playing dress-up in squeaky clean sound stage environments. Taron Egerton does a decent-enough job embodying Elton John both onstage & off, except that his vocal performance is more Broadway musical than coke-addled rock ‘n roll. As I should have expected, the onscreen gay sex early reports promised is similarly neutered. The most intimate, extensive scene of two men bonin’ is accompanied by the least sensual Gospel soundtrack imaginable and quickly averts its eyes just when the room is steaming up. Later, an expressive, Old Hollywood musical staging of a pansexual orgy is intercut with childhood memories & returns to the AA frame story, zapping the moment of any potential titillation. Elton John reports in the picture that he “fucked everything that moved,” “abused every drug there is,” and “enjoyed every minute of it,” but it all amounts to the effect of a “Footage Not Found” title card, a classic case of telling-not-showing.

That’s not to say there’s no fun to be found here. Bryce Dallas Howard is an unexpected hoot in a career-high role as John’s cruel alcoholic-housewife mother, essentially a half-speed Mommie Dearest drag routine sponsored by Quaaludes. There are also a few Baz Luhrmann-esque poetic breaks from reality among the musical numbers, the highlight being a moment of communal levitation at John’s first American concert. Even those moments are hindered by Fletcher making the safest choices possible, though. For instance, when John announces “For my next trick, I’m going to kill myself,” and overdoses at the bottom of a swimming pool, he’s greeted there by a childhood version of himself singing “Rocketman” – not the obvious, more daring choice of “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself.” Other sordid, sweaty rock ‘n roll numbers like “Dirty Little Girl” & “Sweet Painted Lady” are missing in favor of safe Greatest Hits tracks, which are further softened with musical theatre, Bollywood dance homage, and – I swear to God this is true – second-wave ska. Elton John’s life story is honestly not all that interesting. He’s a blue-collar kid who worked hard to develop his talent, did a few too many drugs when he first got famous, and is now happily married with kids and a swelling bank account. When you remove the sweaty, hedonistic danger of the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll from that template there isn’t much left worth an audience’s time. I didn’t show up to celebrate a millionaire’s (albeit admirable) success in sobriety; I showed up for gay sex & fabulous costumes – of which only the latter satisfies.

-Brandon Ledet

Lords of Chaos (2019)

“Based on truth, lies, and what actually happened,” Lords of Chaos is a half-fictionalized profile of the infamous Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, joining the ranks of other aggressively subjective, post-modern biopics like GoodFellas; Love & Mercy; Elvis & Nixon; and I, Tonya. Directed by a former black metal musician (Swedish music video auteur Jonas Åkerlund, formerly of Bathory) and based on an eponymous book detailing the real-life events it depicts, Lords of Chaos should carry an air of authenticity to its true-crime recollection of Mayhem’s rise-to-power and spectacular downfall. Instead, it takes great liberties in its selective memory and revisionist history for the sake of making a larger point about the type of shithead metal nerds it’s lampooning, whether or not they resemble the real-life people whose names are attached. In particular, Lords of Chaos is a little too forgiving to Mayhem “mastermind” Euronymous, the POV protagonist played increasingly humanely by Rory Culkin. It’s also guilty of going light on the Nazi rhetoric vocalist Burzum infused into black metal’s core philosophy, a grotesquely fascist self-contradiction in a movement supposedly built by anti-establishment subversives. Personally speaking, though, historical accuracy has never been something that’s prevented me from enjoying a movie as long as it has something true or interesting to say, which is the idea at the heart of the subjective, post-modern biopic. In this case, that truth comes in the form of a darkly funny true-crime satire about how hardline shithead metal nerds are mostly just trust fund kids with loving parents & purposeless suburban angst. It zaps all the supposed Cool out of the church-burnings, murders, and animal cruelty of black metal lore to expose them as the edgelord posturing that they were. And as lightly as it treads on Euronymous’s own faults and the seriousness of the movement’s Nazism that Burzum helped foster, it’s very clear in condemning them for escalating that edgelord behavior by preaching hateful rhetoric for the sake of “fun” & self-promotion.

The genius of making a film about Mayhem in the first place, of course, is that the band’s “break-up” story involves a spectacularly violent murder that made worldwide headlines. On its surface, the film is a tragic true-crime dramedy about a Norwegian teen’s ascent from the suburbs to self-made heavy metal legend. In that regard, Lords of Chaos reads as a toothless, formulaic, immorally misguided canonization of an over-glorified troll – which is how most pro critics have assessed its merits. For me, Mayhem’s story itself is only a convenient, sensational platform the film exploits to stage its true intent: broad, brutally unforgiving satire of gatekeeping edgelord teens in the black metal scene & beyond. There isn’t much difference between the “dark, evil” trolls of this film and the brand-building influencers of Instagram today, especially considering how many of the online contingent’s stories end at horrific meltdowns like Fyre Fest, Japanese suicide forests, racist-slur controversies, and criminal indictments for fraud. They spout hateful, destructive rhetoric for the press it gets them as shock value peddlers to boost record sales, then are horrified to discover that their most dedicated fans actually take their word as unholy gospel. Satanism, Nazism, and advocation for murder are less their personal philosophy than they are an opportunity for angsty teens to piss off their loving, supportive parents. The black metal musicians of Lords of Chaos aren’t selling a new pop music subgenre so much as they’re selling a lifestyle brand. Their quest to define the difference between “true metalheads” & “posers” becomes increasingly, darkly hilarious as they’re all literally posing for pictures & press. The only zealot who takes the philosophy seriously (Burzum) ends up being the trigger for their tragic downfall, so they’re effectively destroyed by their own edgelord posturing & verbal bullshit. Lords of Chaos does for the 1990s black metal edgelord what the Tim Heidecker picture The Comedy did for the 2010s Brooklyn hipster: costuming itself as a fan & a participant only to tear the entire enterprise down from the inside.

It’s impossible to tell whether the affectation is sincere or satirical, but one of the more amusing impulses Lords of Chaos pursues is in disguising itself as the kind of hyperviolent horror media its subjects would watch for entertainment. Their headbanging parties are shot with the fish-eye lenses & low-fi camcorder immediacy of 90s skateboarding videos & MTV footage. The pummeling blastbeats of their performances are illustrated with quick-edit montages that flash jump-scare horror imagery like a strobelit haunted house. In their spare time, the fascist trolls of Lords of Chaos watch gory splatter comedies like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, which the film itself matches in the intense practical gore of its own murder scenes. However, unlike in a Dead Alive, the real-life murders are not at all cartoonish or fun to watch. The camera uncomfortably lingers on the brutal displays, recounting each ugly stab & slice in grotesque misery. Similarly, the heavy metal party footage is comically undercut by the godawful sex, cheery suburban homelives, and image-conscious corpse paint posing that define these cruel nerds’ day-to-day, pathetic personae. Even the supposed badassery of their penchant for burning churches is soured by the churches in question being centuries-old structures of fine art majesty, not just provincial boxes with a steeple attached. Aesthetically speaking, Lords of Chaos matches the philosophical con-artistry of its subjects; it’s dressed up like “terror incarnate,” but just below that surface is something miserably, pathetically uncool. Whether that was the film’s intent is irrelevant at this point, but my personal reading of it as a satire leans to that bait & switch as being purposeful & weaponized.

As much as I appreciated Lords of Chaos as a post-truth biopic & an edgelord satire, I’m not at all shocked to see that most pro reviews of the film have been tepid at best. Spending two hours with these miserable, hateful shitheads is a thoroughly unpleasant experience, even though they are consistently the butt of a righteous joke. Whether or not Åkerlund could’ve been tougher on specific characters who were even worse shitheads in real life, I greatly enjoyed watching him give all gatekeeping black metal edgelords everywhere a collective noogie. It’s the exact fate these lowly nerds deserve.

-Brandon Ledet

White Boy Rick (2018)

The opening shot of White Boy Rick is of a child plunging their hand into a popcorn maker for a snack, then running onto a gun show floor room to lead the audience to a character whose life’s dream is to sell enough guns to open a VHS rental store. Everything you need to know about the film’s balance between thematic daringness & easy entertainment value is contained in that introduction. Based on the true story of a white teenager in 1980s Detroit who was recruited as an FBI informant before transforming into a kingpin drug dealer on his own, White Boy Rick is extremely well-behaved in its style & structure as a biopic, approximating what Good Time might have felt like if it were a mid-90s VHS rental at Blockbuster instead of a modern stylistic freak-out. This is the kind of movie your aunts & uncles are asking for when they say they just want “a good story” without all the artsy-fartsy stuff getting in the way, the kind best enjoyed on the couch with a bowl of microwave popcorn. The story it tells lends itself to potentially complex, challenging themes of legal corruption, the failed War on Drugs, white privilege, and the cycles of poverty, but the movie is much less interested in slowing down to pick apart those topics than it is in repeatedly asking “Isn’t this crazy?” as it crams in every possible detail from its (admittedly crazy) true-life story. Director Yann Demange & his team of three credited screenwriters seemingly decided that the real “White Boy” Rick Wershe’s life story was entertainingly absurd enough on its own to need no further embellishment or thematic examination beyond being presented as-is in dramatization, that the movie practically makes itself. They’re not wrong.

Like with most well-behaved biopics, White Boy Rick’s greatest faults result from the compulsion to cram every possible real-life detail into a rigid two-hour structure that can barely contain it all. It’s understandable why the film’s small screenwriter army would indulge in that compulsion here, as Rick Wershe’s life between the ages of 14 to 17 in mid-80s Detroit was wild to the point of incredulity. In just three years, he embodied a range of functions within the “Just Say No” Reagan crack epidemic era as varied as arms dealer, drug kingpin, undercover narc, and convicted criminal – all before becoming a legal adult. It’s the kind of life story that makes for a great journalism piece (and has in this 2014 Atavist Magazine profile) but is overwhelming to tackle in full in under two hours of screen-time. The result of that information-compression is a drama too rushed to make an emotional impact, one that must rely on archetypes like The Stoic Drug Dealer With A Hidden Temper & The Tragic Cold-Turkey Junkie to move its story along at a manageable pace. Anyone looking for White Boy Rick to examine the corruption & deep-seated racism of a legal system that would elevate & protect a white teenager in order to take down a network of poor black people operating in a drug market they helped foster will leave the movie deeply disappointed; it simply doesn’t have the time. Instead, White Boy Rick chases capturing each beyond-belief beat of Rick’s short biography as a big-name hustler, focusing on telling “a good story” instead of a meaningful one. Its thematic material sticks with you about as along as it would take to read a mid-length profile of Ricky over your morning coffee. You only have time to say, “Whoa, that’s crazy” before the movie ushers you along.

What White Boy Rick lacks in thematic complexity it more than makes up for in the humor & specificity of its character work. Newcomer Richie Merritt plays the titular hustler as a sweet, hapless idiot too naïve to fully grasp the severity of the game he’s playing. There’s a quiet tragedy to the way he looks to his older junkie sister for wisdom & life advice, but Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) plays her as such a feral, inhuman goblin that the character takes on a Jerri Blank-esque humor, however dark. Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, and RJ Cyler (Power Rangers) all match those siblings’ sweetly pathetic energy in a way that finds intensely uncomfortable comedy in the daily tragedies of urban poverty. White Boy Rick works best when it functions as a Seinfeldian absurdist farce, with self-absorbed, delusional characters yelling at each other over minor grievances like pancakes, dead rats, frozen custard, and Footloose while the world crumbles around them. It’s only through that disarming humor that the drama makes any impact, since the swift brutality of the violence that disrupts it is in harsh juxtaposition. The film plays like a less challenging, non-meta I, Tonya in that way, reveling in the discomfort of finding dark humor in poverty’s violence & absurdity. There’s also an easy beauty to its recreation of mid-80s Detroit sounds & fashion, especially when it gawks at the fur coats, gold chains, and neon lights of the social scene at the local roller rink while Detroit soul & early hip-hop breaks cheerfully blare in the background. The clash of those indulgences against the medically accurate fallout of a gunshot wound or the grim step-by-step process of making & distributing crack is almost jarring enough for White Boy Rick to masquerade as an Important Drama, when it’s truly a character-driven farce.

It’s important to find balance in your movie-going habits. While I understand the urge to champion challenging art like I, Tonya, Good Time, and You Were Never Really Here over the more pedestrian payoffs of this Based On A True Story drama, there’s room in your diet for both. A few eccentric, character-based performances & “a good story” are more than enough to entertain as for-their-own-sake indulgences and there’s something adorably old-fashioned in White Boy Rick’s contentment to not reach any further than that. You can practically smell the popcorn popping & hear the VCR whirring in the background, as it’s incredible this movie wasn’t made in the Blockbuster Video era – both because of its simplistic artistic ambitions and because it’s absurd that Wershe’s life rights weren’t optioned decades sooner.

-Brandon Ledet

Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (2017)

I’m gradually warming up to the idea that the biopic as a genre is being reinvigorated by recent formal experiments. Besides stray outliers like Ed Wood & Kinsey, I’ve never especially cared about the traditional biopic as a storytelling medium, but there have been a few recent releases that have shaken up my prejudice against the genre’s tendency for birth-to-death, Wikipedia-synopsis biography. Last year’s woefully overlooked Tom of Finland was a lyrical, playful experiment in time & tone. The oil painting-animated Loving Vincent adapted the genre to an entirely new visual medium. Straight Outta Compton was a glorious indulgence in highly stylized spectacle. Love & Mercy recalled the experimental casting of past biopic works like Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. It’s unclear exactly where the recent French production Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge falls within this trend. Covering only the perilous five-year span between the infamous scientist’s two Nobel Prize wins, Marie Curie isn’t exactly the birth-to-death, Wikipedia-in-motion biopic cliché we’ve been trained to expect. However, it does feel line an adaptation of a singular subsection of the historical figure’s Wikipedia page: Scandals.

Opening the film with Marie Curie’s first Nobel Prize in 1903 is a convenient way of introducing the audience to the bullet points of her legacy. It’s announced up front that she’s the first woman to ever earn the prize, thanks to her discovery of & experiments with radium in tandem with her lab partner/husband. The earliest crisis in the film is in the ways this sudden fame & attention distract from the couple’s radiation research, which is essentially aimed to cure cancer. Things get much more complicated from there when the husband dies in a freak carriage accident and his absence puts the research project in peril. For the first half of the film, Marie Curie struggles to establish her right to be included & respected in a male-dominated, stubborn scientific community that sees radium research as a fad & her deceased husband as the true genius in the family. The second half of the film is concerned with a different matter entirely: Curie’s evolving love life. After proving herself worthy among her colleagues, she finds her research at risk again because of a love affair she sparks with a married man, a scandal that’s gleefully eaten up by newspaper gossip columns. The movie is unsure which Marie Curie it’s more interested in, the scientific mind or the scandalous sexual being, and feels clearly bifurcated in that uncertainty.

There’s nothing revelatory in the suggestion that sexual scandal is more inherently cinematic than scientific research, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that The Courage of Knowledge would get distracted by Marie Curie’s highly publicized adultery. Indeed, most of the fun to be had with this film is in its tabloid-friendly back half: Albert Einstein shamelessly flirting with Curie, her married lover referring to her as “my beaming radium queen,” his wife pulling a knife on her and calling her “a laboratory rat.” It’s exciting stuff. It’s also more than a little insulting to the legacy of a scientist who the movie wants you to know was the first person to earn two Nobel Prizes and still the only woman to ever do so. In a way, that exact unease is the film’s contribution to the evolution of the modern biopic. Its flowing transitions between scenes and occasional stylistic flourishes (like backwards rain) recall the art direction of a music video, but not enough to feel like any kind of unique breakthrough in form. The film is most remarkable in its willingness to avoid a traditional birth-to-death biopic narrative to instead focus on a steamy, scandalous romance that almost derailed its historical subject’s legacy.

There’s nothing wrong with an occasional trashy period piece romance and I enjoyed the movie as such. I don’t know how helpful that indulgence is in reshaping the art of the biopic, though. It’s also questionable in its level of professional respect it affords one of history’s most notable female scientists. Maybe, in this case, a more traditional Wikipedia-in-motion biography where the affair were a mere footnote would have been the more tasteful, appropriate route, but the film is still enjoyable all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Tom of Finland (2017)

I can probably count on one hand the number of biopics that have struck me as phenomenal, formally impressive cinema. Stray examples like Ed Wood & Kinsey leap to mind as I attempt to recall biopics I’ve instantly fallen in love with, but for the most part the genre feels like an endless line of passable-but-unremarkable exercises in filmmaking tedium. Tom of Finland has joined the ranks of biopics that have transcended that mediocrity for me. Depicting the adult life of the Finnish illustrator/pornographer Touko Valio Laaksonen as he drew his way into queer culture infamy, Tom of Finland excels as a kind of filmmaking alchemy that turns an unlikely tonal mashup of Cruising & Carol into the feel-good queer drama of the year. Its high class sense of style & lyrical looseness in narrative structure feels like the best aspects of Tom Ford’s features, but without his goofy storytelling shortcomings. While its sexuality isn’t quite as transgressive as the leather daddy-inspiring art of its subject, it’s still a passionate, celebratory work that sidesteps the typical pitfalls of queer misery porn dramas, yet still manages to feel truthful, dangerous, and at times genuinely erotic. It’s hard to believe the film is half as wonderful as it is, given the visual trappings of its subject & genre, but its leather & disco lyricism lifts the spirit and defies expectation. The only disappointment I have with Tom of Finland is that most audiences don’t seem to be on its wavelength, dragging my enthusiasm down with bafflingly unenthused reviews.

Part of the reason Tom of Finland is so impressive in its transcendence of biopic tedium is that it entirely forgoes the birth-to-death trajectory of that genre’s traditional narrative structure. Glimpses of the artist as a successful older man, a reluctant young soldier, a closeted adman living with his sister, and a smitten middle age romantic who happens to generate pornography, mix in a cyclical, sublimely lit intersection of vignettes that play like sardonically funny paintings in motion. The domestic softness of Laaksonen’s home life mix with the transgressive, leather-clad brutes of masculine sexuality that define his pornographic artwork and invade his daydreams as horny, in-the-flesh hallucinations. War-related PTSD becomes inextricable from the erotic, as he fetishizes a handsome soldier he killed in battle as a young man. Orchestral sweeps find divine beauty in the danger of cruising men in public & producing illegal, sexually charged art. Tom of Finland jumps time & skims consequences, trusting its audience to follow along without being held by the hand. It’s a delicately sweet portrait of an artist that’s often interrupted by queer disco reveries & seas of hairy men posing in the leather getups that turned Laaksonen on so much that his depictions of them inspired an entire spectrum of sexual fetish. If arranged in a linear order or stripped of its playfully hallucinatory erotic fantasies, Tom of Finland could easily be the middling biopic its critical consensus reports it to be. Instead, it’s a gorgeous, dreamlike drift through the life of an artist with one of the mostly highly dedicated, specialized cult audiences imaginable.

I might understand the complaint that Tom of Finland isn’t brutish or sexy enough to fully convey the transgressive spirit of its subject’s work if it at all seemed like Laaksonen was as wildly over the top as his drawings. The tension between his mild-mannered demeanor and the over-sexed aggression of his art is one of the film’s more rewarding charms. He’s far from a sexless character, shamelessly flirting with men and discussing his work in blatantly honest terms like, “My cock is the boss. If I have a hard-on I know it’s good.” Like most people, though, Laaksonen is portrayed to be not nearly as wild as his sexual fantasies might suggest, which makes it all the more amusing when he’s delighted/dazed to see his work come to life in the “heavy leather” queer kink communities they inspired in New York City & San Francisco. The sudden deluge of this dedicated fandom hits the audience with the same jolt of surprise, its accompanying disco soundtrack feeling just as surreally out of place as the imagined sexual fantasies that intrude on the physical spaces of his daydreams. The contrast between this playfulness and the high art cinematography & production design make for one of the more exquisite biopic experiences I can ever remember having in my lifetime. Normally, I’d worry if the fact that I saw this at a New Orleans Film Fest screening made me more enthusiastic because of the excitement of the environment, but a faulty stop & start projection and a fussy late night audience was actually more of a distraction than an enhancement. Given the less than ideal screening where I watched this beautiful film, it’s a miracle I enjoyed at all, much less instantly fell in love. Now I just need to figure out exactly why so few people seem to be on the same wavelength.

-Brandon Ledet