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Film Analysis-Final Paper

In: Film and Music

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Biographical Films

Jenna Nelson
December 12, 2014
JASS 248
Professor Erik Marshall

Analysis Essay-The Five Heartbeats; The Film Genre of Biopics

The Five Heartbeats (1991), directed by Robert Townsend, is a movie that I know all too well. This film effectively portrays the highs and the lows of the music industry and how it affects the members of a group. In this essay, I will analyze the cinematography, mis-en-scéne and the importance of music in films such as this one. I will also expound upon the genre of biographical films and how they contribute to society.
Biographical films, or “biopics” represents the life history of an actual person or group. Unlike documentary film, biopics employ actors to play the roles of these individuals: they are dramatized, fictional films. Biopics are often marketed as being “inspired by” or “based on” the lives of famous people including entertainers, royalty, scientists and even criminals.
Dennis Bingham conducted a study on biographical films and discusses and history of the biography. He also looks at the various forms of the biopic, including theatrical releases, made-for-television movies and short films. Bingham argues that biopics of women are structured so differently from male biopics as to constitute their own genre. The conventions of the female biopic have proven much more intractable than the male biopic. This is due to society’s difficulty with the very issue of women in the public sphere. The difficulty kept female biopics in a cycle that constantly represented women’s lack of success and their mistreatment. He also argued that the biopics of women are weighed down by myths of suffering victimization and failure perpetuated by a culture whose films reveal an acute fear of women in the public realm. Female biopics can be made empowering only by a conscious and deliberate application of a feminist point of view.
The Five Heartbeats is a biographical film that was loosely based on the famous groups The Temptations and The Dells. The opening scene with Donald (Duck) Matthews receiving the Rolling Stones magazine is a key indicator that he had once been apart of something truly incredible. There is no audible dialogue in the first one and a half minutes of the film, although we can notice Duck saying goodbye to the mailman. The scene at Duck’s home at the beach most likely suggests that he is at a peaceful place in his life; a place of serenity. It is now that we begin to see Duck reflect and have a moment of nostalgia. Within the first ten minutes of the film, we are able to get a description of all of the members of The Five Heartbeats. Dresser is the dancer, Choir Boy is the one who is the most shy out of all of the members and has the least amount of experience, JT is the ladies man and the player, Eddie is the one with the gambling problem and the other issues, and Duck is the songwriter and the leader of the group.
The cinematography of The Five Heartbeats is definitely unique, which is why I chose the film. Townsend definitely uses filters and lenses as a way to capture the intensity of the scene he is filming. The black and white slow motion scenes were important as well because they were still photos of the Sergeant working on dance moves with the Heartbeats. Sound is another important form of cinematography that Townsend uses because this is a musical drama. They do not break out into song in the middle of a dialogue, but the music definitely helps to convey the message of the movie a little more. For example, at the end of the movie, Eddie Kane and Baby Doll are singing “I Feel Like Going On”. Eddie Kane had been through a lot throughout the movie, from being let go from the group and replaced by his archenemy Flash to being on drugs and losing the love of his life Baby Doll (they reunite at the end of the movie). This song represented Eddie Kane’s will to be a better person, and it signified his commitment to remaining clean of drugs and alcohol.
The instrumental music in the film was also important because it enhanced the scenes, as it does it in all films. Music in films has always played a major role in how people view the film and it also plays a big role in the overall outcome of the film. Music enhances the scene and has the ability to manipulate emotions and make the viewer feel what the actor is feeling.
The one argument that I have with this film is the editing. If you watch closely, the lip-synching that is done by the actors could have been better because it was not that great. You could tell some of the actors did not know all of the lyrics to the songs. In the scene when “A Heart is a House for Love” is sung, Bird and the Midnight Falcons and the Heartbeats were inaccurate with their lip-synching and unfortunately the editor captured each moment of it.
Some of the implicit meanings that I noticed were that Eddie Kane and Duck wore green in almost all of their performances. I think that this was meant to signify their leadership roles in the group; Eddie Kane was the lead singer and Duck was the composer and songwriter. The big dramatic interest centers around Eddie, who has the real star power in the group, and whose ability to break out of a song and really let go has the fans in the front rows swooning. But Eddie is not simply the star; he’s also the one with the most vulnerable ego, the biggest problems with self-regard, the almost inevitable attraction to drugs. He begins to screw up and miss dates, and eventually the group has to drop him - leading to a painful scene outside a club, where the Heartbeats are getting into their limo as Eddie comes stumbling up like a bum. Eddie Kane’s demise can be compared to that of David Ruffin of The Temptations. Flash is eating up every moment of it, as he enjoys seeing Eddie in this state of desperation. Eddie’s ultimate fate is the counterpoint for everything else in the movie. The saddest scene in the film was the death of their manager Jimmy.
The broad outlines of this story are familiar from a lot of other showbiz biographies, maybe because this is more or less the way it happens with a lot of performers. What Townsend adds that’s special is the way he sees each of the five group members as an individual with his own problems and destiny. This is not only a biography with music, but also a thoughtful look at the way five young men from a poor but nurturing black neighborhood find success, and deal with it.
The Five Heartbeats takes the notion of a musical biopic one step further than usual. His movie is not only the rags-to-riches story of a group of guys from the neighborhood who become big stars, but also the story of what happens to them next.
Their ultimate destination is not simply stardom, which is fairly easy for them to attain, but maturity and happiness, which are a lot harder, but was achieved at the end of the film when they all join together one last time at the JT’s house for a family barbecue, They battled racism, being taken advantage of by Big Red and dealing with the death of their manager. The Five Heartbeats story is a movie that showed that groups in the music industry go through many ups and downs, but in the end, family and relationships is the most important thing.
The point is simply this: The biopic is a genuine, dynamic genre and an important one. The biopic narrates, exhibits and celebrates the life of a subject in order to demonstrate, investigate or question his or her importance in the world; to illuminate the fine points of a personality; and for both artist and spectator to discover when it would be like to be this person, or to be a certain type of person. The appeal of the biopic lies in seeing an actual person who did something interesting in life, known mostly in public, transformed into a character. Private behaviors and actions and public events as they might have been in the person’s time are formed together and interpreted dramatically. At the heart of the biopic is the urge to dramatize actuality and find in it the filmmaker’s own version of the truth. The function of the biopic subject is to live the spectator story. The biopic has evolved and gone through life-cycle changes and continues to do so, from the studio era to the present; these phases have sometimes themselves become subgenres. The biopic is an endlessly fascinating genre. Some of the greatest biopics include Malcolm X (1992), directed by Spike Lee, Ray (played by Jamie Foxx), Gregory Nava’s Selena (1997), Richard Attenborough’s Ghandi (1982) and Jobs (played by Ashton Kutcher) the Steve Jobs biopic.
Malcolm X is a 1992 American biographical drama film about the African-American activist Malcolm X. Directed and co-written by Spike Lee, the film stars Denzel Washington in the title role, as well as Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman, Jr., and Delroy Lindo. Lee has a supporting role as Shorty, a character based partially on real-life acquaintance Malcolm "Shorty" Jarvis, a fellow criminal and jazz saxophonist. Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and future South Africa president Nelson Mandela have cameo appearances.
The film dramatizes key events in Malcolm X's life: his criminal career, his incarceration, his conversion to Islam, his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam and his later falling out with the organization, his marriage to Betty X, his pilgrimage to Mecca and reevaluation of his views concerning whites, and his assassination on February 21, 1965. Defining childhood incidents, including his father's death, his mother's mental illness, and his experiences with racism are dramatized in flashbacks. Malcolm X's screenplay, co-credited to Lee and Arnold Perl, is based largely on Alex Haley's 1965 book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Haley collaborated with Malcolm X on the book beginning in 1963 and completed it after Malcolm X's death.
Malcolm X was distributed by Warner Bros. and released on November 18, 1992. Denzel Washington won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. In 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". When director Spike Lee introduced us to Detroit Red, he reminded the world of a specific time in American history more readily forgotten by some than others. Based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Lee (in typical fashion, with a brilliant score and with the grand influence of French cinema throughout) brought us the story of a troubled boy who could have easily become any unknown black man in the ‘60s—who indeed, almost did until he committed his life to Allah and The Nation of Islam. Denzel Washington perfectly, eerily embodied the role of the young Detroit Red who would become Malcolm X. As a team, Lee and Washington (along with Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz) created the perfect biopic, where all that we assumed about an icon was troubled or complicated by this new translation of his life. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi is often described as a huge, sweeping epic about the man that lead India to its independence from Great Britain in 1947. And it is. A little over three hours long, the film chronicles not Gandhi’s entire life, but his journey towards non-violence as a form of protest which in turn allows him to gain equal rights for Indians in South Africa and the eventual independence of India from Britain. Everything about this film works wonderfully together: there’s an all-star cast (Ben Kingsley, Daniel Day-Lewis, Candace Bergen and Martin Sheen, to name a few), the film itself is beautifully shot and makes good use of India’s natural beauty and the film’s music has the notable distinction of being composed by none other than Ravi Shankar. And so it should come as no surprise that in the year following its release, that Gandhi won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Writing and Best Actor in a Leading Role.
The Social Network chronicles the rise of social media, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, and it also shows us the initial fall of the founder’s own social life starting with the break-up of his romantic relationship with Erica Albright and ending with the sad end to his friendship with co-founder Eduardo Saverin. It’s interesting that, according to this movie’s depiction of Zuckerberg, that the founder of Facebook, the person who essentially revolutionized human social interaction as we know it, seemed to have his own trouble connecting with others in his personal life. And therein lies the humanity amongst all of the algorithms. And with Sorkin’s trademark quick-witted writing and Jesse Eisenberg’s compelling portrayal of the iconic social media founder it is no wonder this biopic received a total of eight Academy Award nominations and won three of them: Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score.
The actor is the cornerstone to the biopic’s edifice of historical allusion. His/her performance is the emotional hook for the spectator’s investment in the biographical narrative. However, the actor’s very presence can equally obstruct the suspension of disbelief demanded by film representation, especially when he/she is playing a contemporary figure. The study of performance in the contemporary biopic both draws on and departs from debates. Bingham outlines three possible categories of biopic performance in mainstream cinema: embodied impersonization, stylized suggestion and the star performance. The biopic trades on a sense of authenticity that stems from the actor’s body itself. Makeup and hair, costume, and especially voice and gesture need to meet a set of expectations shaped not only by an audience’s knowledge and emotional response to the person portrayed, but also, more often then not, by a history of previous representations—what could be called a collective social memory or even “icon” memory.

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