Human lives are one of the most interesting and diverse narratives available to us; each and every life presents its own unique storyline, providing filmmakers countless opportunities to explore. When it comes to the lives of the rich and famous, there is an incentive for fans of their work to find out more: this includes the lives of historical figures from ancient civilisations, to musicians who have risen to fame in the recent past, to the everymen who end up doing something extraordinary. Biopics are a genre of cinema that try to focus on facts rather than fiction like, for example, telling the story behind Tolkien before he was inspired to write Lord of the Rings.
Films set in a historical setting aren’t a recent phenomenon. It has been happening since the earliest days of cinema. A film depicting the sinking of the Titanic (Saved from the Titanic) was released less than 30 days after the demise of the infamous cruise ship. It proved rather popular, drawing interest from all corners. The historical picture allows audiences to engage in a period of time and culture that they might not know much about, a way for large numbers of people to be presented with what is – to them – new information.
Without some of these representations, the contributions of many would be less well-known to the public. Even some of the lives of the historically famous, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Queen Anne, would have aspects of their story missing. Biopics help to educate people on events and our collective history. There is also an increasing variety in what biopics tend to focus their narratives on, with several recent films portraying typically underrepresented groups including the LGBT+ community and people of colour. A growing demand for more diverse representation has drove the film industry to change and explore new avenues.
The vagueness of the genre allows for events to be presented in different ways. The Greatest Showman, Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman all showed how musical lives can be portrayed along musical lines, with biopics often taking dramatic licence to offer a more entertaining spin on history. And just because they’re not dressed up in CGI doesn’t mean they can’t be beautiful. While the biopic might not have the most explosions, the way in which other factors come into play – whether an image or line of dialogue strikes resonant with an element of the subject’s life – can mean so much to a passionate fan and show that extreme care has been taken in the portrayal of the real figure. These films often reap rewards for the filmmakers and studio, shown by the array of Oscars received by biopics, most recently the four Academy Awards won by Bohemian Rhapsody.
However, with the 21st century’s potential for burgeoning online toxicity, there is a fresh concern about the reception of biopics centred on unsavoury characters. Zac Efron’s recent depiction of serial killer Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile was criticised pre-release mainly for responses to the trailer, with some showing a propensity to romanticise the criminal because of the charming actor playing him. This highlights the different standards we hold of these films, depending on the general opinion the public has on the subject. We must separate the actor from the real-life figure, and not form our judgements on the latter just because they are portrayed by the former.
Judy Garland biopic Judy, directed by Rupert Goold, will be released in the UK via Pathe Productions on the 4th October 2019. Watch the trailer below: