Tag: biopic

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A shot from Bradley Cooper's "Maestro", depicting Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) smoking a cigarette and looking ahead.

The Artist’s Overwhelm: On Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” (2023)

Upon watching Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, what struck me was how the narrative felt like two films. In the first half, we see the young Leonard Bernstein in black and white overtaking the scenes with energy and extroversion, as he admits to loving people so much that he finds it difficult to be alone (something that would plague him when it came to composing since composition requires alone time). He even goes to the bathroom with the door open. This tidbit aside, the film is not so much about Leonard as it is about his wife, Felicia Montealegre (Cary Mulligan), whom he meets at a party one night.

The film opens with an aging, chain-smoking Leonard sitting at a piano and speaking to a documentary maker about how much he misses Felicia, who died of breast cancer in 1978. The scene is shot in color and already sets the narrative up for that of a predictable soap opera, rather than a deeper exploration of an artist. And Bradley Cooper, while rendering his performance well, speaks like he is continually congested. Add a lot of makeup and prosthetics and one knows that an Oscar is not far behind. […]

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A shot of Emily Dickinson from Terence Davies's "A Quiet Passion" (2016)

The Writing Life of Emily Dickinson: Terence Davies’s “A Quiet Passion” (2016)

It is not easy to create a clever biopic on an artist, much less one that spent most her later years confined to her bedroom as a recluse. One of the many reasons that artist biopics fail is because the writer/director chooses to include too much—sort of a crib to coffin approach, wherein we are only given surface events, rushed timelines and bad accents. This, however, does not stop the artistic mind from occasioning these films as comfort. How many films on Van Gogh do we need? Is anything new uncovered? Any insights? Probably not, yet audiences will continue to witness.

So, one can imagine my delight in learning that there was not only a biopic on Emily Dickinson, but also one that is excellent in itself. One way to measure this is to ask if the film could stand alone without the biography. Is the writing enough to carry it? For Terence Davies’s 2016 film A Quiet Passion, it is. We all know the story of The Belle of Amherst—that she did not title any of her poems, that she used random capitalization, random dashes, that she would write on the backs of receipts and napkins, and dutifully organize her poems into collective heaps tied with string. She was known to wear only white amid her later years and up to the very final days of her death, to never leave her room.

Emily Dickinson is the first poet that ever moved me, and quite possibly the only poet that could have gotten me into literature at all. Sure, this is speculation, as perhaps I would have managed another entry into literary lavishness, but for me it was Emily. I even had the Julie Harris readings on cassette, which I would play as I slept. (Given to me on my 16th birthday, I believe.) […]