Bio Documentaries Put Big Personalities in Awards Race

Amy Winehouse documentary
Courtesy of A24

Life stories intrigue all filmmakers. This year, there are a string of outstanding biopics in contention as both documentary and narrative filmmakers tackle larger-than-life, controversial personalities.

Among the docs, Alex Gibney’s “Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine,” Davis Guggenheim’s “He Named Me Malala,” Liz Garbus’ “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and Asif Kapadia’s “Amy” enter the fray with an advantage: their subjects come with built-in notoriety, fame and keen interest from audiences.

While fictionalized bios alter timelines and sometimes take extensive dramatic liberties (inventing dialogue and combining characters), “Malala” director Guggenheim says, “Documentaries need to be authentic; they can’t be those things.”

Producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald originally bought Malala Yousafzai’s life rights with the intent to fictionalize her courageous story as a champion for girls’ education. However, the real Yousafzai proved to be such a powerful force and compelling subject that, along with Guggenheim, they opted for the nonfiction route.

Sticking to the facts does not necessarily restrict a documaker’s filmmaking process or ability to express a point of view. “They have to be true to this person’s life; but that doesn’t mean they can’t be creative in the way of constructing the film,” says Matt Cowal, senior VP of marketing and publicity at Magnolia Pictures.

“There’s so much more freedom now with documentaries. I don’t feel documentaries are defined by their restrictions, now the format is changing so much you can do almost anything,” says Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning filmmaker of 2006’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

He points to the 20 minutes of animation in “He Named Me Malala,” commissioned to recreate historical scenes where no archival materials existed, and capture the almost storybook landscape of Yousafzai’s homeland in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

Technical and post-production advances mean that innovative techniques, like animation and complex graphics, give today’s documakers an arsenal of cutting edge cinematic tools. Additionally, a surfeit of archival material — from home-video footage to private cassette recordings to news reports — is available on most famous modern-era subjects, providing filmmakers with abundant source material to cull from once they track it down.

Traditional talking-head style interviews have given way to extensive personal audio and video clips, news and perfo=rmance footage allowing deceased subjects to virtually narrate their own story in films like “Amy,” “Miss Simone?,” Brett Morgen’s “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” Stig Bjorkman’s “Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words,” John McKenna and Gabriel Clarke’s “Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans” and Stevan Riley’s “Listen to Me Marlon.”

Garbus began crafting the Netflix-funded “Miss Simone?” following an exhaustive process of discovery. She acquired materials worldwide and accrued all existing footage of the famed singer-songwriter and civil-rights activist. “I started with the archival to discover how far I could go; how much of Nina (Simone) was left behind,” Garbus says.

Before doing any present-day interviews — with Simone’s daughter and other intimates — she screened the collected material. Garbus says her intent was to keep the film, “authentically in Nina’s voice as much as I could.” The performer recorded more than 100 hours of audiotaped interview sessions over three decades. Those remarks add depth and subjective insight to the documentary, as does text from Simone’s personal journals.

Garbus opens the film at a 1970 Montreux Jazz Festival perf, where Simone’s enigmatic persona and personal demons were fully in evidence. “I wanted to show the forces she was struggling against,” says Garbus who contends “Miss Simone?” is more than just a biopic as it expands beyond the artist and her work.

“Although Nina is a transcendent individual, the film is also about the civil-rights movement and its promise; it’s about those who survived the movement,” Garbus says. “It’s also about domestic abuse, genius and being a black woman in America.”

By relying on audio-only from present-day interviews, combined with the wealth of footage shot during Amy Winehouse’s tumultuous young life, Kapadia was able to keep “Amy” “in the moment.”

Drawing a comparison with his previous film, “Senna,” the innovative biodoc about Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, Kapadia says: “Even if you know the characters, the idea was to make the audience forget the ending; the story is how they got there. I interviewed over 100 people and everyone’s stories were different. I realized that there was no one around Amy every moment.”

After so much research, he felt he became an authority on Winehouse’s life, one that could navigate its many chapters and incredible highs and lows.

Connecting intimately to the subjects and providing access to their life is key to creating a biopic that resonates with audiences. In “Amy,” the filmmakers effectively captured the mercurial chanteuse, incorporating a wide range of visual material from previously unseen mini-DV footage from her earliest performances to paparazzi’s intrusive candids.

Revealing the emotional truths of his subject’s life through the use of non-cinematic devices also forms the core of Riley’s portrait of Marlon Brando for Showtime, produced by Passion Pictures’ John Battsek. Brando’s personal cassette recordings were among the loads of “interesting material” offered by his estate to the filmmaking team.

“I listened to a small selection — including a self-hypnosis tape — and I had the trigger moment: he could tell the story himself,” recalls Riley of the film’s structure.

Brando began a highly personal documentary in the 1980s; per Riley, he was concerned about controlling the filmmaking and editing process. “Inevitably there is an interpretation of material in a documentary,” says the helmer. Over time, Riley developed a sense of obligation to the deceased star, who lived in the tabloid’s spotlight in his later years.

“I felt a responsibility to represent him as honestly and as real as possible,” he says, noting Brando’s endearing self-awareness. A fictional version of Brando’s story could potentially add to his mythic persona, but a biodoc offers something genuine. “It’s emotional and factual — a documentary can hit all the marks,” says Riley.

And the emotional connection that auds have with famous personalities — whether a troubled femme singer or a Silicon Valley superstar entrepreneur — creates awareness, one that specialty distribs can appreciate. “It’s not a 100% sell, we’re not starting from scratch,” notes Magnolia Pictures’ Cowal of the subgenre.

While Gibney’s “Man in the Machine” has been somewhat overshadowed in the media by Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s “Steve Jobs” (which makes no apologies for its dramatic license), docs do see a bump when narrative films tackle similar topics.

“People who want to know more, who want to see the real story, turn to documentaries on the same subject,” says Cowal, noting that “Black Mass” and Johnny Depp’s star turn immediately revived interest in Joe Berlinger’s “Whitey: The United States of America vs. James J. Bulger,” an investigation into the Boston mobster’s criminal career that was released last year.

Adds the exec, “For a documentary to be hit in the marketplace, that’s a big achievement. And it’s tested material that people are interested in that makes it ripe for exploitation in the narrative format.” That’s a recurring concept Hollywood lives by.

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