News Column

St. Joseph News-Press, Mo., Shea Conner column

November 15, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 15--Being a classic rock fan, an entertainment reporter and someone who occasionally reviews movies, I've had two biographical films on my radar for a couple of years now. Sadly, only one has fully developed.

News came out in July that heralded comedic actor Sacha Baron Cohen was dropping out of a project in which he would play the late iconic Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. It was a passion project of Cohen's, and he had been working on the film since 2010. Deadline.com reported in July that he backed out over creative differences. The surviving members of Queen, who have script and director approval on the project, envisioned a family-friendly PG movie, while Cohen "was counting on a gritty R-rated tell-all."

Last month in Rolling Stone, however, Queen guitarist Brian May told the magazine that the real reason for Cohen's exit was that his personality was simply too big for the part.

"What led us to that conclusion was the last three movies that he's made -- 'The Dictator,' 'Les Miserables' and 'Hugo' -- in which he makes outstanding performances, but they're very much Sacha Baron Cohen performances," May said. "And we thought there has to be no distraction in the Freddie movie. You have to really suspend that disbelief -- the man who plays Freddie, you have to really believe is Freddie. And we didn't (think) that could really happen with Sacha."

No matter who's telling the truth, it's a darn shame. I always thought this was a role Cohen was born to play. He has proven in the past -- with "Borat" and "Bruno" -- that he'll totally sell out for a role. He also has shown off an outstanding voice with his performances in "Sweeney Todd" and "Les Miserables." And have I mentioned there's a striking physical similarity between both Cohen and Mercury? Oh, well.

As bummed as I am about Cohen's departure from the Queen movie, I'm just as excited about another rock biopic that's starting to make the rounds -- and it's been collecting a bunch of superb reviews along the way. This one is called "All Is On My Side," and it stars Andre Benjamin (who remains best known as one half of the fantastic rap duo Outkast) as the greatest rock guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix.

The film covers Hendrix's early years as he failed to find footing in the U.S., found his mojo in England and then returned to America with ferocious guitar chops that were the stuff of legend. The movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September and immediately garnered great reviews from the likes of Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter and The Boston Globe. In fact, its Rotten Tomatoes score still sits at a perfect 100 percent. As the reviews pointed out, the film works because of Benjamin's surprisingly good and fittingly soft-spoken performance and because writer and director John Ridley crafted the film differently than most biopics.

I can't speak for the movie. I haven't seen it yet and plans for a wide theater release have yet to be revealed. But I will say that I'm happy to read what I have about the movie because biopics that narrow their focus often feel more captivating and authentic than those that don't.

Biopics have long suffered because they have to cram too much into a two-hour time frame. They largely have to chronicle the subject's greatest lifetime achievements and the hurdles they had to clear to reach them. And to top it all off, these movies also require insight into this well-known figure's private personality. Only a few have genuinely pulled off the feat of encapsulating a legend's entire life in one movie. "Malcolm X," "Ray" and "Milk" all come to mind.

But they fail more often than not. Just take a look at "J. Edgar." Leonardo DiCaprio gave one of the best portrayals of his career, but the movie felt as if it were too nice to a man who was often considered horrible, intrusive and aggressive.

In this era, when the lives of public figures are more subject to exposure than ever before, we've all become more skeptical about biopics. We know when they're cutting corners. We know when they're being a bit too kind to someone's legacy. We know more about the huge splashes of fiction that spill into the script (check up on the 1971 T.C. Williams Titans and tell me how much of "Remember the Titans" was reality).

That's why the most successful recent biopics have balked at the opportunity to tell a person's entire story and have, instead, honed in on a defining episode. This allows filmmakers to give audiences a more intimate and truthful look at the subject. "Capote" depicted the eccentric author only as he was writing the classic "In Cold Blood." More recently, the Oscar-nominated "Lincoln" put the spotlight on the 16th president's abolition of slavery as the Civil War began winding down.

With recent announcements that an Elton John biopic will star Tom Hardy, a John Belushi biopic will star Emile Hirsch and that Ben Whishaw replaced Cohen as Freddie Mercury, I can only hope that the directors of those movies follow suit. Sometimes, small tales are the best ones.

Shea Conner can be reached at shea.conner@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.

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(c)2013 the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.)

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