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Film on Film: Is Now the Time for Showbiz Movies?

I’ll admit that I’ve never really understood why Hollywood is so preoccupied with showing the rest of the world how show business works. It was announced today that the book I’m Dying Up Here will be getting the film treatment. That particular bestseller offers a behind-the-scenes look at the early days of the New York stand-up comedy scene, culminating in the famous strike over pay. The characters on screen will be any number of world-famous comedians, from Tim Allen to Robin Williams. Part of me wonders if the recession is a suitable time for this sort of Hollywood introspection.

You may be dying up here, but the celebrity-based bio-pic is alive and well...

Don’t get me wrong, the story is fascinating. As are any number of other real-life stories. This isn’t to begrudge solidly made celebrity biopics like Ray or Walk the Line, just to remark that big name celebrities and showbiz institutions seem disproportionately represented among biographies or historical dramas. For example, Invictus this year represents the highest profile attempt to bring Nelson Mandela’s life to the big screen (yes, there have been smaller indie examples like Goodbye Banafa). You’d imagine that Nelson Mandela would seem more worthy of a screen biography than Johnny Cash or Ray Charles.

Maybe it’s a reflection of our celebrity-conscious society, with our fixation on things like Brangelina and various other portmaneau celebrity pairings. Maybe these celebrities bring a dash of glamour to these biographies that world leaders and politicians can’t really compete with. In fairness, not all of these movies are necessarily about celebrities – there’s a great deal of coverage of the inner working of any number of show business organisations. We all remember the dueling shows 30 Rock and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – the former of which is on the air, and a critical darling.

It appears that the fascination draws in even those known for the common touch. Judd Atapow seemed to alienate his fans – drawn in by his everyman comedies Knocked Up and the 40-Year-Old Virgin – with Funny People, a dramedy about the lives of stand-up comics starring… a bunch of comics. It was generally observed that there was more than a hint of self-indulgence about the film, which was also notable for its length (over two hours).

So what is with this on-going fascination with show business? I’m not necessarily complaining, as some of the stories can be well handled, but in the hands of less talented writers (or even Aaron Sorkin) they can seem ham-fisted. So, is it that audiences want to see these movies – to lured away by the glamour and fantasy of a life in showbusiness, or even just to be reassured that such a life can fall apart (as it does in so many films) – or is it simply that these writers and directors very enthusiastically want to share their day-to-day lives with the world, like some sort of eager-to-share relative you only see once in a while?

Or maybe it’s just that these situations and scenarios involve an easier-to-spot recipe for good drama. Politicians and world leaders often find themselves facing more mundane problems than sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. They’re also far more divisive. Make a political drama about any president except Richard Nixon and you’re pretty much assured that half the country will hate it – it’s hard to find a group that would so energetically protest a film about a musician or actor. You could also make the argument that celebrities and their work is far more international than most world leaders – how many people outside America would be particularly interested in a drama exploring the mid-term elections of 1994, for example? Apart from me, obviously. And how many major studios would invest in a biography of Eamon DeValera, the prolific Irish statesman, as opposed to (god forbid) Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance? Not many, I imagine.

I don’t know. Part of me wonders whether the climate has changed. How will recession audiences react to a film about current a-list celebrities going on strike, even if it was perfectly justifiable at the time? In an even broader sense, do these sorts of moves which glamourise the excesses of fame risk alienating their audiences in these rough times, or do they offer a gleam of escapism which is truly needed in the economic climate of the moment? Confessions of a Shopaholic didn’t really do the business over Valentine’s Day last year and sparked a discussion of whether Hollywood was out of touch with mainstream tastes, do these sorts of indulgent showbiz pictures risk a similar fate?

I don’t know. Up In The Air gained considerable praise for actually exploring the recession in some detail, and for actually recognising the reality of the global economic situation. You might make the case that the recent spate of apocalyptic dramas – Book of Eli, The Road, 2012 among others – represent a similar change in mood, but I’m not sure it’s so easy to psycho-analyse cinema audiences.

In fairness, the movie version of I’m Dying Up Here just entered production, so maybe it’s too early to be thinking such things, but it got me thinking.

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