A similar goal seems to animate famous actors, comedians, and singers these days, to judge by how strenuously they seek to shape the narratives about their lives and careers. Both screen and stage are increasingly awash in self-serving portraits controlled by the very performers (or their families) who are their subjects.
Not content to be the story, they want to be the storyteller, too. Talk about an unreliable narrator.
When power over how their stories are told is ceded to the famous, the predictable result is often a sanitized, hagiographic depiction, whether it be a biopic, a bio-musical, or even a documentary, a genre supposedly defined by its fidelity to the facts. Rose-colored depictions of celebrated figures often generate buckets of attention – more than objective accounts do – because their subjects gladly join the promotional machine by taking part in press interviews.
Now, I grant you that this is not the sort of thing that’s going to plunge civilization into crisis. For the most part, we’re talking about misdemeanors, not felonies.
But it’s a pernicious trend nonetheless. In their small way, these skewed portrayals of the famous eat away at cultural memory, in a nation that’s all too ahistorical to begin with. Anything that makes us distrust what we see and hear is another small hole in the fabric of our truth-challenged times. When the goal is to lionize rather than analyze, blurry lines get even blurrier.
Well, buckle your seatbelts and get ready to roll your eyes, because a fresh crop of admiring self-portraits is barreling our way. The box-office success of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018), about Freddie Mercury, has made Hollywood especially hungry for biopics about pop stars
Madonna is co-writing and directing a biopic about herself, and also participating in the reportedly intense auditions of actresses who want to play her (the Hollywood Reporter calls it “Madonna Bootcamp.”) Sharon Osbourne is producing a feature film about her and Ozzy . Cher, who had substantial input into “The Cher Show,” a musical about her that ran on Broadway in 2018-19, is one of the producers of a biopic about her that in the works. Heck, even “Weird Al” Yankovic co-wrote the screenplay for a biopic about himself that began filming in February, starring none other than Daniel Radcliffe. Neil Diamond is heavily involved in “A Beautiful Noise,” a new, Broadway-bound stage musical about him that is premiering this summer in Boston at the Emerson Colonial Theater.
Many big names and their intimates now take it as a given that they’ll be able to control or at least influence their depictions. Check the credits: If they’re listed as executive producers, as Elton John was on “Rocketman” (2019), that’s one obvious tell. Longtime Queen manager Jim Beach was one of the producers of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The late Bob Marley’s wife and children are producers on an upcoming film about the reggae legend.
For sheer take-charge authority over the telling of their own story onstage, few rival Berry Gordy, the legendary founder of Motown Records. Gordy wrote the book for “Motown: The Musical,” which premiered on Broadway in 2013, and made himself the central character. Which, in fairness, he was in real life (and the musical was based on his autobiography). Still, given that there are a number of less-flattering portraits of Gordy out there, one can not help but notice that in “Motown” he comes out looking pretty, pretty, pretty good.
Which brings me to Larry David. As an illustration of today prevailing power dynamic, consider the recent muscle-flexing by the creator and star of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Last month, a day before its scheduled premiere, “The Larry David Story,” a two-part documentary created by the HBO Documentaries unit, was abruptly canceled. Why? Because, according to Deadline, “David was not happy with the finished product” and wanted to redo it in front of a live audience.
Huh? Since when does the subject of a documentary get to decide whether or not it airs? When it’s a documentary in name only, that’s when.
It must aggravate the many genuine documentarians out there that the definition of their craft has become so fuzzy. This erosion of standards has partly to do with the old law of supply-and-demand: As streaming services proliferate, the maw that needs to be filled with content opens ever wider. Consequently, filmmakers appear willing to pull their punches in return for access to family members, friends, and colleagues. (It’s the same problem that, in the book world, has long bedeviled the authorized biography.)
The result often feels like an exercise in reputation management. For example, you can feel Amy Poehler tip-toeing around the tricky bits in “Lucy & Desi,” her new documentary for Amazon’s Prime Video about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
There are only the most fleeting and elliptical references to Desi’s frequent infidelities. At one point, their daughter, Lucie Arnaz, says that when things got bad between her parents, her father would “have his picture taken with some dame in a nightclub.” She says: “He hurt [Lucy] with his actions, and she hurt him with her words. ”
But the problems in their marriage are largely framed as arising from the work pressures of headlining the nation’s most popular TV sitcom. Does the downplaying of Desi Arnaz’s philandering stem from the documentary’s heavy reliance on talking-head commentary by Lucie Arnaz – and even heavier reliance on the home movies, photographs, and audio recordings of her parents that she provided to Poehler? “Lucie gave us incredible access to so much sound material,” Poehler told the Los Angeles Times last month.
To judge by that story, it was Arnaz who decreed what overall angle the documentary would take. The Times notes that before Poehler was attached, the film was originally intended to “explore Ball’s achievements as a performer and businesswoman who shattered the glass ceiling,” but Arnaz “was not keen on the estate entering the partnership under that framing,” because her late mother had objected to the view of her as a barrier-buster. “I said, ‘That’s not gonna fly with us,'” Arnaz told the Times, So, Arnaz said, “We finally decided what the focus should be – the relationship between the two of them and how brilliant it was, and this amazing thing they created. ”
That “us” and “we” says it all.
Joan Collins extends that proprietary concept even further in “This Is Joan Collins,” a documentary on the digital video subscription service Britbox (earlier broadcast on the BBC) where she serves as not just subject but narrator. Much of her narration is adapted from her memoirs, and Collins provided producers with access to her home movies and personal archives, according to The New York Times. (Regarding her career, Collins told the Times that she instructed the producers: “Just don’t put in too many of the nude bits.”)
And then there’s the stage. Anyone who attends musicals or plays on a regular basis is familiar with the “Oh, come on ” sensation of sitting through scenes and dialogue clearly shoehorned in to cast a flattering light on their subjects. The worst offenders can be found in the ever-mushrooming genre of jukebox musicals, whose creators usually seek permission from the legends their shows are about as well as the rights to use their songs. What sometimes results is a lot of post-facto image rehab.
An especially egregious example just opened on Broadway: “MJ,” a musical about Michael Jackson that makes only the vaguest allusions to the multiple accusations of child molestation leveled against Jackson. (He denied those accusations during his lifetime, and his estate has denied them since he died.) In the Playbill for “MJ,” its producers spell out what is already glaringly evident to anyone watching: that the musical was created “By special arrangement with the estate of Michael Jackson. ”
In “MJ,” we see Michael and his brothers relentlessly driven by their domineering father, Joseph Jackson, who at one point strikes a preteen Michael so hard he falls to the floor. But Lynn Nottage’s script provides at least quasi-justifications for the patriarch’s behavior, with Joseph claiming he’s just trying to prepare Michael for a harsh world. At one point, Michael’s mother, Katherine, says to the youth: “He’s doing this for you. It may not feel like love now. But it is. ”
Janet Jackson, the superstar sister of Michael, is an executive producer on “Janet Jackson,” a recent documentary about her on Lifetime and A&E. According to New York Times reviewer Jon Caramanica, Joseph Jackson is presented as “a beacon of hard work and discipline, not abuse.” As for the subject of “Janet Jackson,” rather than deliver an in-depth picture, the documentary uses the lure of access and intimacy. . . as a tool of deflection, ”wrote Caramanica.
Also dangling the promise of access and intimacy was “Tom vs. Time, ”a six-episode documentary on Facebook Watch in 2018 that proved Tom Brady is as adept at orchestrating the narrative about him as he is at hitting a receiver downfield.
Across multiple platforms, stars are doing all they can to ensure that their selective account of their personal history endures as the lasting account of who they were and what they did. For the rest of us, it’s awfully hard to accurately measure the weight and meaning of those famous lives when there’s a giant thumb on posterity’s scale.