‘Elvis,’ ‘Andre the Giant’ debut amid wave of king-sized biographies
Television biographies of larger-than-life figures have gotten, well, larger — a byproduct of the current age of abundance, and a landscape where what once would have been saved as DVD extras increasingly makes it into the final cut.
This week features two deep-dive documentaries about pop-culture icons from HBO: “Andre the Giant,” about the wrestling star of the 1970s and ’80s; and “Elvis Presley: The Searcher,” an artfully constructed examination of Elvis Presley’s life and musical inspiration, with the cooperation of ex-wife Priscilla Presley and commentary from close associates as well as those inspired by the King, including Bruce Springsteen and the late Tom Petty.
“Andre,” it turns out, is the more standard-sized project, running about 85 minutes. The king-sized “Elvis,” by contrast, unspools over 3 ½ hours, coming on the heels of the four hours HBO devoted to “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.” They follow last year’s expansive forays into music history with HBO’s three-part “The Defiant Ones,” about pioneers Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre; and “Long Strange Trip,” an Amazon-backed Grateful Dead retrospective that lived up to the “long” part at four hours.
Documentaries, however, are only part of the biographical bounty, with more and more subjects that once would have provided the inspiration for movies becoming the foundation for limited series running three or four times the duration.
This month, for example, brings the second season of National Geographic Channel’s “Genius,” devoted to the life of Pablo Picasso, played in his later years by Antonio Banderas. The series encompasses 10 episodes and follows much the same formula — including the tumultuous 20th-century period covered — as its predecessor, which featured Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein.
For true enthusiasts, this is obviously a blessing. The length, though, can be daunting for those who might be less invested — a dynamic that might scare away those who are interested in the subject matter, just not necessarily enough so to commit four, eight or 10 hours to it.
Arguably, dealing with more traditional time constraints — holding a biography to what would be considered feature length — also imposes a kind of discipline, compelling filmmakers to decide what’s really important, and make tough choices about the parts they have to discard.
While there’s always an inclination to include more when you’re immersed in telling a story, as a viewer there’s often a value, creatively speaking, in the economy that comes from being forced to yell “cut.” Simply put, not every story is worthy of an epic.
Obviously, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for these kinds of projects. Programmers have been rewarded by teasing out certain genres, perhaps nowhere more so than in the realm of true crime, emboldened by the success of “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” and “Making a Murderer.”
Biographies are another beneficiary of this trend. But where “Elvis” is admirable, if a long sit, and each edition of “Genius” has proved a bit too leisurely and expansive, something like “Andre the Giant” — warm, nostalgic and yes, concise — feels just right.
“Andre the Giant” and “Elvis Presley: The Searcher” premiere April 10 and April 14, respectively, on HBO. “Genius” premieres April 24 on National Geographic Channel.