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The Benefits of Biopics

March 30th, 2024 · 8 Comments · Movies

The Benefits of Biopics

 

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With James Mangold’s Dylan biopic currently shooting in New York with the Bobster’s blessing; and four different Beatle biopics greenlit for Sam Mendes;  and Michael Jackson’s cousin Jaafar playing the King of Pop in a coming Lionsgate production;  and Coleman Domingo directing, co-writing and starring in a musical based on the great Nat King Cole;  and Spiderman Tom Holland set to play Fred Astaire;  and Beautiful Boy director Sam Taylor-Johnson taking on fellow Brit Amy Winehouse;  and Selina Gomez’s set to play Linda Ronstadt in David O. Russell’s next film;  and Angelina Jolie has transformed herself into opera singer Maria Callas;  and Daisy Edgar-Jones’s playing Carole King in Sony’s Beautiful;  and Darren Aronofsky’s developing an Elon Musk biopic from Walter Isaacson’s biography;  and there’s a Scorsese-produced Jerry Garcia biopic in discussions;  and Variety reported this week that Jeremy Allen White is about to go from The Bear to The Boss in a biopic set around his Nebraska album;  and Oppenheimer winning Best Picture & more at the Oscars a couple weeks ago;  and Bob Marley: One Love blowing away box office expectations for the last month, it seems like a good time to talk about biopics.

‘Biopic’ comes from ‘biographical picture’ and dates to the birth of cinema.  Before that, Shakespeare popularized the idea of basing plays on real people and events (bioplays?)  As soon as moving pictures came along, the first filmmakers continued the tradition.  The great Georges Méliès made Joan of Arc in 1900, and Abel Gance made the first film using a triptych of screens with Napoleon in 1927.  When Bonnie & Clyde filled theaters in 1967, much to studios’ surprise, it signaled the birth of a New Hollywood.

By the early ’80s, Amadeus and Gandhi won Best Picture two year’s apart, and filmmakers have been crafting stories from real life ever since.  Schindler’s List, 12 Years A Slave, Malcom X, Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco, The Wolf of Wall Street, Chaplin, Erin Brockovich, The Aviator, Capote, I, Tonya, The Imitation Game, Into The Wild, Catch Me If You Can, Bohemian Rhapsody, Dallas Buyers Club, Charlie Wilson’s War, Milk, Moneyball, Maestro . . . there hasn’t been a year in the last 50 when a biopic or two wasn’t in the Top Ten films of the year.

Judging by online discussions & reviews, the more a person is a fan of an artist portrayed in a biopic the more likely they are to hate the biopic.  Fans have their own movies in their head and don’t want to see some actor playing their hero.

I have the opposite reaction.  If I like an artist or genre, I appreciate basically any interpretation/recreation of the person or period — even if the script is a bit cliché or loose with some facts.  An engrossing biopic about someone I don’t know much about almost always causes me to go dig into more about their lives.  A dramatic portrayal with contemporary actors always raises the profile of the subject and brings awareness to new audiences.  Think of how Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis put the King in front of new generations, or Robert Downey bringing Chaplin into the modern era, or how the hand-painted Loving Vincent brought Van Gogh to life.

Another thing I appreciate is how biopics can tell stories that documentaries can’t.  Even the most filmed people in history (thus the most famous) didn’t have cameras rolling when they were making life-changing decisions in a room with one other person.  We all know Dylan sang to Woody at his hospital bedside, but there’s no footage of it.  We know the astronauts went through hell in the capsule on Apollo 13, but when Ron Howard made the movie we could live it with them.  We know ‘Sully’ Sullivan landed the plane on the Hudson, but there weren’t cameras in the cockpit until Eastwood made the movie about it.

As Walk The Line and A Complete Unknown director James Mangold said recently, “The best true-life movies are never cradle-to-grave but they’re about a very specific moment.”

Two of the great history-changing moments at the intersection of politics and journalism — Watergate and the leak of the Pentagon Papers — were made as de facto biopics of Woodward & Bernstein and Bradlee & Graham.  Miracle wasn’t about hockey coach Herb Brooks’ whole life, but about the time he changed sports history beating the Russians with amateurs at Lake Placid.  Clint Eastwood’s marvelous Richard Jewel takes place only in the time he was accused of being the Atlanta Olympic bomber, but the intimate portrait reveals his whole life story.

That’s the challenge and beauty of a great biopic.  It doesn’t have to span birth-to-death, but rather can focus on one key event that shows the audience who the person is at their core.  Think of Spielberg’s Lincoln.  The movie takes place in only the last four months of his life, so we don’t see a portrayal of him being a prairie lawyer or debating Frederick Douglas — but we see those qualities in the person he became.

Basically all the great modern directors have worked in the genre including Scorsese, Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, David Fincher & Bob Fosse multiple times, plus Coppola, Altman, Attenborough, Miloš Forman, Ron Howard, Ted Demme, George Clooney, Gus Van Sant, Danny Boyle and Tim Burton to name a few.  Biopics allow great filmmakers to tell great stories that are rooted in history, and explore rich characters audiences already know.

And speaking of “rich characters,” rock stars are that in multiple senses of both words.  😁  The highest-grossing biopic in history — up until Oppenheimer — was Bohemian Rhapsody with Rami Malek’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Freddie Mercury.  Baz’s Elvis was also a global smash, as was the wonderful Rocketman, of which Elton poetically said, “It’s not all true, but it’s the truth.”

One of the most accurate-to-their-subject biopics was I’m Not There about the enigma of Bob Dylan.  He’s inhabited more characters in his music career than most actors do their’s, so it was a brilliant bold choice for director Todd Haynes to have a half-dozen different actors portray him as entirely different people.  Cate Blanchett’s Dylan circa 1965 earned her an Oscar nomination and is one of the great biopic performances of all time.

And just like fame in music, for every Amadeus, Maestro or Ray hit, there’ve been multitudes who didn’t crack the Top 10.  Clint Eastwood’s Bird brought Forest Whitaker to the world but not many people to theaters.  Chadwick Boseman brought James Brown to life in Get On Up, as did Don Cheadle for the jazz legend in Miles Ahead, but neither were cinematic Milestones.  My favorite of the never-made-its was My Dinner With Jimi, the comic off-beat tale written by The Turtles’ Howard Kaylan about their sudden rise to fame and for a brief moment being the toast of the exploding music scene in London in 1967.

Biopics transport us to the personal spaces of historic or cultural figures we’d otherwise never get to see.  Once directors & actors commit to bringing a subject to life, they obsess with factual accuracy, often working with the person (if they’re still alive) or their families or the most well-versed historians.  When Morgan Freeman made Invictus about Nelson Mandela, the president’s longtime personal assistant thought it was her boss talking when the actor spoke and had to ask him to stop walking like Mandela so she could tell them apart.  Spielberg recorded the ticking of Lincoln’s actual watch for the scenes where Daniel Day-Lewis is looking at it.  Richard Brooks filmed In Cold Blood in the actual house where the murders took place.  You can read a person’s memoir or watch countless interviews or all the documentaries you want, but what none of them can do is tell the story from an objective point of view with every scene captured whether there was a camera there or not.

If somebody made a 2-hour biopic of your life, what scenes would be in it?  Which moments were the dramatic turning points?  Who were the key characters that changed the trajectory of your life story?  Your life is a movie as much as anybody else’s.

Filmmakers are storytellers.  Life is a story.  And cinema is the most complete way of telling one — from the script to the actors to the sets to the soundtrack.  Fictional characters are wonderful composts of human qualities, but only biopics work from an existing person or persons’ story, foibles and all, and are thus closer to the real human experience than anything else captured on screen.


Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

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Here’s a list and brief summary of 75 biopics that were pretty impactful and successful.  If you have some favorites that aren’t on the list yet, by all means please recommend.

Here’s my top 68 filmmakers and their films

Here’s tips on over 100 of the funniest Comedies.

Here’s all the times Jack Kerouac was portrayed on screen – which includes lots of variations on biopics from Pull My Daisy to Big Sur . . . 

 

Here’s the most complete collection of Beat Generation dramatizations anywhere online or in print.

Or here’s a nice riff on appreciating the artform of film.

 

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by Brian Hassett

karmacoupon@gmail.com   —  BrianHassett.com

Or here’s my Facebook page if you wanna join in there —

https://www.facebook.com/Brian.Hassett.Canada

 

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8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Allen Cassady // Mar 31, 2024 at 11:09 PM

    I didn’t notice one about ME! (Ha ha)

    Brilliant as always! Josh Lucas sure looked like Dad in Big Sur, but my favorite is still Thomas Jane in Last Time I Committed Suicide. Keep the Beat.
    All best,
    John

  • 2 Deb Reul // Apr 1, 2024 at 11:29 AM

    I remember you & I both loved Eric Brockovich when it came out. Sounds like there are a bunch of good new ones coming. Thanks for keeping us ‘toasted’ (as you say).

  • 3 Tanya Armstrong // Apr 1, 2024 at 7:23 PM

    Cate Blanchett inhabited Bob Dylan.

  • 4 Brian Hassett // Apr 1, 2024 at 10:41 PM

    Yeah, Tanya! When I was jammin on this piece and thinking, “What is the quintessential biopic image? . . . What’s the *one* performance that should be the face of this for its online sharing?” And then it hit.

  • 5 Thomas Brunner // Apr 2, 2024 at 5:48 PM

    A Biopic I own and always moves me when I watch is TEMPLE GRANDIN.

    An autistic woman (Claire Danes) who with a uniquely supportive mom (Julie Ormand!) and an inspiring teacher (David Strathairn) comes of age on different levels and drags the world with her recognizing the possibility of the GIFT of Autism!

  • 6 Allan Robinson // Apr 2, 2024 at 7:43 PM

    I just saw a list of 10 biopics that are in the works.

    I saw Spotlight when it came out. Great film.

  • 7 Brian Hassett // Apr 2, 2024 at 9:08 PM

    Yeah, Allan — prolly the Variety story, right? I incorporated some of that into my piece.

    https://variety.com/lists/upcoming-biopic-movies/

  • 8 Antonis Greco Imdb // Apr 6, 2024 at 5:32 PM

    You articulate what I’m thinking.

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