Kill the Giggler

MARLEY, SENNA, and the rise of the ‘bio-docs’

Last week saw the release of MARLEY (check out my review over at DocGeeks here), a new documentary from Last King of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald on the short but eventful life of Bob Marley. It’s a whistle-stop tour through the reggae singer’s life, covering all the bases you might expect: the influence of marijuana, Haile Selassie and the Rastafarian faith on his music; his prolific womanizing (he sired 11 children from 7 different mothers); and his role as a peace activist and cultural icon. With a nationwide distribution and the legendary status of its subject, MARLEY is the most high-profile documentary release since last year’s SENNA, and the two films certainly invite many comparisons.

Marley and Senna themselves are more similar figures than they might at first appear – both were dedicated and determined to the point of mania, and both inarguably reached the very pinnacle of their respective professions, before then in turn transcending them to become unofficial ambassadors for their respective countries.

Then there are the films themselves: both aim to be linear, comprehensive biographies of their subjects that take in practically the whole trajectory between birth and a tragically premature death. Even the titles are similar.

It would perhaps be a touch too cynical to suggest that MARLEY is directly aping SENNA – the film has been in development for years, with Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme both helming the project at different stages of development – but it’s hard not to reconcile its significant marketing push with the tremendous and unexpected critical and commercial success of Asif Kapadia’s film last year.

What this means in terms out the future of the documentary is uncertain. If ’bio-docs’ such as MARLEY and SENNA continue to be critically and commercially popular then it’s perhaps not unreasonable to assume that this is a genre that will come to dominate the format for many years to come.

Biographical elements have always played their parts in documentaries, but the comprehensive, leave-no-stone unturned through the life and times as seen in both MARLEY and SENNA, as well as Martin Scorsese’s recent George LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD is something that has become noticeably more popular and prevalent recently.

There are a few possible reasons for this – one factor may be a general malaise felt towards the traditional biopic, a genre which has existed since the very earliest days of cinema, but has now arguably reached its saturation point with a myriad of films being released in the past decade that stick rigidly to a well-worn template. You know the format – established star shamelessly baits Oscar-voters with note-perfect impersonation of a famous figure, in a plot awkwardly framed around a ‘Greatest Hits’ package of the most famous events in that person’s life.

The recent success of THE IRON LADY at the UK box office demonstrates that there is still an audience for the biopic, but there is a prevailing feeling, particularly among critics, that Hollywood is running out of lives to cannibalise, and the critical and commercial failure of J EDGAR and THE LADY just goes to prove that your biopic is ultimately only as good as your subject – not everyone is going to have the cultural cachet of a Margaret Thatcher or a Marilyn Monroe.

These biopics share more DNA with the array of superstar biographies that dominate the bestseller lists than they do with more traditional documentaries, or than they do with more narratively innovative biopics like THE SOCIAL NETWORK, I’M NOT THERE, GAINSBOURG or 127 HOURS, to name a few recent examples.

The argument could be made that the rise of Wikipedia have made these print biographies (and to, a lesser extent, biopics) less essential than they were previously – all of the information contained therein can be found within seconds on Wikipedia, and often not clouded by clumsy prose and crude hagiography.

However, when assessing somebody’s life, particularly someone of significant cultural importance, there are many who still desire an experience that is thought-proving, moving, and entertaining, and this is something that the vast majority of Wikipedia articles will never be able to fulfill.

That’s where films like MARLEY and SENNA come in – it’s one thing to read about Marley inviting the leaders of two viciously opposed architects of a violent political civil war onstage to hold hands during ‘Jammin’’, yet it’s another entirely to see the actual event take place on screen. SENNA went one step further (some have argued a step too far) by showing the moments leading up to and including the racing driver’s death.

MARLEY is probably the broadest step yet towards the bio-doc as live-action Wikipedia article. Where SENNA took a clear stance on various aspects of the man’s personality, as well as going so far as to define Senna and Prost in respective good-guy, bad-guy roles (a decision that many critics have derided as hagiographic), MARLEY doesn’t take a stance on anything – the facts and facets of Marley’s life are presented with little in the way of embellishment or theorizing about the man himself. You get to see exactly how MARLEY became an icon, but there is little offered by the filmmakers to ruminate on in terms of why.

Some would argue that this approach is exactly the correct one to take when producing an objective biography, but it makes for a curiously detached experience in MARLEY. It’s an entertaining and interesting film, even over its lengthy two and a half hour running time – it’s paced well, the music is still as brilliant as ever, and the cast of characters that populated Marley’s life are funny and articulate – but as a piece of stirring and entertaining film-making, it doesn’t come close to SENNA, a film that presents a much more subjective viewpoint of its titular hero.

It’s an interesting trade-off for documentary film-makers: the MARLEY method, where all the facts are presented accurately but with some of the emotional impact and sense of drama invariably lost; or the SENNA method, which makes for a more exhilarating viewing experience, but with the knowledge that the truth is possibly being misrepresented.

Either way, both films could prove to be important for the future of the documentary and whether its current increase in popularity is something that will be sustained. If so, could it be possible that the ‘bio-doc’ may one day replace the biopic? If nothing else, it would certainly make the ‘Best Actor’ category at the Oscars more interesting.