• Luiza Ribeiro

Hollywood's obsession with biopics

The movie Blonde (2022), a project that depicts the rise of icon Marilyn Monroe, has been receiving much backlash due to the form it portrays the 1950s movie star. Over the past few years, we have seen various biopics such as Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), Rocketman (2019), King Richard (2021), House of Gucci (2021), Spencer (2021), Elvis (2022), and now Blonde - and these are just the ones I have watched, there are many more. It's surely a Hollywood staple at this point, which leads us to wonder why the film industry is seemingly obsessed with biopics. The following article will dive into the history of this film genre in Hollywood as well as provide an analysis of the biopics mentioned above - even Blonde, which I don't even consider to be an actual biopic.


What is a biopic?

Before analyzing all of these projects, let's unpack one thing first: what is a biopic? In short, the term means a depiction and interpretation of the story of a non-fictional person. It will focus its entire narrative on the major events of that person's life. With that being said, biopics aren't documentaries, so a director has the artistic freedom to remove people, change locations and even the order of events if they judge it will add more depth, drama, and entertainment to the film.


The history of biopics

While the production of biopics has seen an exponential rise over the past couple of years, it is not a new genre in Hollywood. In the early 20th century we had Joan the Woman (1916), Judith of Bethulia (1914), and Napoleon (1927) - just to name a few. Interestingly, many of these movies help highlight current events as well as reveal a nation's social layers and norms. For instance, during the World Wars, biopics celebrating brilliant and perseverant men like Abraham Lincon and Thomas Eddison, who were responsible for helping establish a modern world that people were supposed to be 'grateful' for living in, were created to not only stimulate nationalistic pride but to also remind the warriors who they should be fighting for. Even biopics of women were created - although, not surprisingly, weren't as celebratory and optimistic as the male biopics were. The movies made about them were replenished with suffering, victimization, and failure - foreshadowing a movie I will talk about later (can you guess which one?). Albeit, biopics progressed, and they stopped being these cradle-to-grave type movies, where a film tells the entire life of a subject, and started to focus more on a significant chapter of someone's life. The critical acclaim and success biopics have seen in Hollywood is one of the primary reasons directors have been pumping out so many currently. Additionally, most of the biopics we have seen portray the lives of celebrities in the 20th and early 21st century - that is, before the age of social media. This means we have little knowledge of many of these people's lives, and as the popularity of reality TV has shown us, we are curious and nosey people, which is why these types of movies appeal to us. Bohemian Rhapsody is a great example - accumulating over $900 million dollars worldwide, the Freddy Mercury biopic also received 5 Academy Award nominations, winning 4 of them.


Bohemian Rhapsody

Speaking of Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie is the oldest one on our list, so we'll start our analysis with it. The 2018 movie directed by Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher goes over the formation of the iconic band Queen. It focuses on the lead singer, Freddy Mercury, and his interactions with the band, his personal life, and the creative process of their music creation. It's a typical biopic that isn't very creative in the way it tells its story, and the cinematography or editing isn't very compelling either. And although I don't really care much about these things in a movie, I must note that the editing is one of the weakest points of this picture. The way some of the scenes were cut was jarring, unpurposeful, and had bad pacing. Typically the purpose of editing is to set the pace of a movie or to build tension, but Bohemian Rhapsody isn't able to achieve either of those things. The movie also has a 60% on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn't great. One of the main critiques from specialists is that it is a basic cookie-cutter biopic - and I agree. Keith Garlington states that "You end up with a very safe and conventional biopic that aims more at being a crowd-pleaser than an in-depth character exploration". As Keith mentions, the movie doesn't delve into Freddy Mercury as a person all that much, which is why we aren't that emotionally attached to the main character. Rami Malik, however, is worth mentioning, as he is possibly the highlight of the movie. The actor gives an electric performance of the iconic singer and he almost disappears in his role (nonetheless, I would say he has the worst performance out of the other two "singer-inspired" biopics I will discuss). You would think I hated the movie given my review, but I didn't, I actually really liked it. As the critics noted, it is a people-pleaser movie and I was pleased. The movie is light and fun overall, and I would recommend it if you have nothing better to do in your day.

Final Score: 2.5/5


Rocketman

Rocketman is much better than Bohemian Rhapsody in every aspect, and should've been given more recognition. The movie is a telling of the one and only Sir Elton John. Its story blends in magical realism (nod to Mr. Greg for teaching me what that is), into the journey of the conflictous life of the rock legend. In the beginning of the movie we are introduced to the main character at the lowest point of his life. He says he's an alcoholic, a cocaine addict, bulimic, shopaholic, has a problem with weed, and anger-management issues . With this established, we can sympathize for the character and this emotional connection is already built. As I mentioned earlier, magical realism is inserted in this movie and it helps the audience fully grasp what Elton was feeling at the moment. When he starts playing the piano in front of an audience for the first time, for example, he starts floating, insinuating this feeling of lightness he felt while doing what he loves the most. Many of the songs played are fused with the moment, making us almost experience what Elton was feeling and it makes us truly invested in the story. While the film progresses, our main character suffers with his neglecting family, failed love life, and leaving behind his only friend to completely submerge himself in drugs and alcohol. But in the end he's able to come to terms with himself and accept who he is, and that is pivotal for his growth and development. With this, the movie ends with the iconic music video of I'm Still Standing - which honestly sent chills down my spine because we're able to feel genuinely happy and proud that Elton John managed to turn his life around and get back up. The critics and public also seem to have loved the movie as it sits with an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. They note how dazzling, colorful, and bold the movie is, as well as rave about the subpar performance by Taron Egerton - the actor that plays Elton John. As you can probably assume, I loved the movie, and I would definitely recommend it.

Final Score: 4.5/5


King Richard

Hey look, another biopic that has garnered an Academy Award for Best Actor. Interestingly, in a biopic where you have Serena and Venus Williams, the sisters and tennis superstars, you would think the movie highlights them, but it actually focuses on their father. Richard Williams is his name and he's a persistent, humorous, and virtuous man, but also very stubborn and close-minded. Nonetheless, I love that about this character because he's so nuanced and we grow to be interested in his convoluted figure. We come to understand where he comes from and how the circumstances surrounding him shaped Richard to be who he is. I appreciate how the movie also focuses on how their family, as black people, entered this white society that have never interacted with people like them before. It shows the struggles he faced trying to get his daughters to be coached, but seeing them finally succeed is very gratifying. The movie also takes time to flesh out the other characters and their family dynamics. The mother especially - played by Aunjanue - delivers an incredibly strong performance confronting Richard and it's overly satisfying. I wish we had more scenes that focused on their family because this movie seems to overfocus on Richard. King Richard has a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, being universally acclaimed at how it transcends the typical biopic formula and delivers a nuanced narrative. All in all, it's an incredibly beautiful film filled with spectacular and realistic performances, and you should definitely go watch it - right now.

Final Score: 4/5


House of Gucci

Father, son, and House of Gucci. I'm sorry if you enjoyed it, but this film is an absolute mess. I watched it quite skeptical because numerous people claimed it was awful. In Rotten Tomatoes it sits at 62% and one of the main criticisms people pointed out was the weird juxtaposition between the "campy-like" scenes clashing with the more typical dramatic scenes, creating a weird contrast and making us unsure if we're supposed to take this film seriously or not. It has a star-studded cast consisting of Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, and Al Pacino - but not even they could save this disaster. The movie revolves around Patrizia Reggiani, a woman who marries the heir to Gucci, Maurizio Gucci, played by Adam Driver. They go through many problems - rich people problems, that is - that help build the tension and troubling relationships that will eventually lead to murder. The first half was fine, light, satirical almost, and quite enjoyable to watch. A big problem for me, however, was its choppy transition from one major scene to the next, but the main issue of the movie was the plot itself. The lack of detailing of what and who Gucci is left much to be desired from - Guccio Gucci, for instance, was the founder of the luxury brand and I wished they had gone more in depth about his character. Someone I wish, however, that wasn't heavily focused on was Paolo Gucci, played by Jared Leto. While many people loved his portrayal of Maurizio's brother, I thought his performance was overly comedic and his fake Italian accent was very jarring and even "Mario-like". The icing on the cake is how dreadfully long the movie was without being able to thoroughly delve into the troubling relationship between the family. In short, yes, I don't like the movie, and no you shouldn't watch it - unless you really want to, then I'm not going to stop you (but you have been warned).

Final Score: 1.5/5


Spencer

Unlike the films mentioned above, I watched Spencer in the theaters, therefore having the full cinematic experience. It is a biopic of the hassling life of lionized princess Diana, portrayed brilliantly by Kristen Stewart. But let's settle one thing first: the cinematography. This movie is absolutely gorgeous, all the way to the visuals to the beautiful costume designs. It is shot on film, which I think makes any movie look better due to the color and the nostalgic appeal it has. Again, as all the actors in this list, Stewart delivers a master class performance, which even garnered her an Academy Award nomination. She's able to truly depict how suffocated Princess Diana felt having to conform to royal standards. Bulimia, self-harm and depression are all problems she has to deal with, and we are able to empathize with her character. She's humanized, not victimized or villainized, but we're able to see all the tones to her persona. Another enthralling aspect of the movie is the contrast between the parenting style of Princess Diana, and Prince Charles (King Charles now, which feels weird to say). While she values family above all else and has genuine care and concern for her children, the other seems to view duty above all else, strictly conforming his kids to the roles they are subjected to. My favorite part of the whole movie is the dinner table scene. Everyone sits together in a very scripted and uncomforting way - as if they were all strangers. We could cut the tension and anxiety that was created with a knife. We could also feel the subtle judgment everyone had towards Diana, since nobody viewed her as a human being, and the stunning pearl necklace she was wearing - gifted by Charles who also gave the exact same necklace to his secret lover - started to suffocate her. Diana reacts to this by tearing the necklace apart; the pearls fly everywhere, including in her soup bowl, which she continuously eats together with the pearls - all of this while staring deeply into the soul of Queen Elizabeth herself. The movie reveals this was in fact all a fantasy, cutting to her running towards the hallway with the necklace intact. Critics in Rotten Tomatoes seem to rave about this movie as well, especially regarding the acting performances, as it has an 83% on the Tomatometer. Nonetheless, I can understand why one may not like this movie, finding it tedious and dull. I myself wouldn't want to watch the movie again since I felt agonized and uncomfortable all throughout (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, I felt that way with many movies I love, such as the Silence Of The Lambs). With all of that being said, I truly think this is a gorgeous movie, and if you want more insight or a respectable portrayal of the 'People's Princess', then I would recommend Spencer.

Final Score: 4/5


Elvis

[Insert screaming noises]. The 2022 biopic of the King of Rock 'n' Roll directed by Baz Lhurman is a glittery, dazzling, and breathless look into Elvis Presley's life. It focuses heavily on the incongruous relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks), while delving into the inspirations and cultural force that Presley had in American pop culture. Oscar incoming for Butler? - I would hope so. The actor that portrays Elvis, Austin Butler, has been receiving all the accolades for his masterful, nuanced, and convincing performance of the singer. We can see, through him, the passionate and yet broken soul of the rock star. What is great about this biopic is that it shows the roots of Presley's work. Right in the beginning, we see young Elvis being tantalized by the black gothel music he was constantly bewildered by. This crediting of African American songs is something I largely appreciate and addresses the common criticism that Elvis stole black people's music. The movie truly shines during the performances - where they were able to perfectly recreate the real life scenes, thanks to the surreal and chilling acting by Butler. We all know how influential Elvis Presley was at the time, but we don't really understand it. What I think the film does an excellent job in is illustrating the flamboyant and boisterous reactions the crowd had while seeing him. Additionally, we also saw the political and controversies Presley was in due to his hip movements and interactions with black people, as the society he lived in was very conservative and racist. While some people had a problem with Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Tom Parker due to his weird accent, I thought he was fine and really captured the manipulative ways of the Coronel. With a 77% on Rotten Tomatoes, one of the criticisms that people had was that it was way too overbearing and flashy - characteristic of Baz Lhurman films. While I can understand why people would say it drags by the end (it is a 3 hour long movie, after all), I didn't feel the time pass as much. All in all I really loved the movie, and if you have HBOmax and 3 hours to spare in your day, definitely check it out.

Final Score: 4.5/5

Blonde

Oh boy, where do I even start? Social media went pretty crazy over the release of Blonde, and not for good reasons. The movie was accused of abhorrent things such as victimizing, sexualizing and insulting the image of Marilyn Monroe. With a 42% on Rotten Tomatoes (and a 31% on audience rating), this movie is being dragged through the mud. When I first heard they were making a biopic of Marilyn Monroe, I was quite excited, since I had always wanted to know more about this controversial figure. So, on September 16th, at around 7:00 PM, I turned on Netflix and immediately saw Blonde on the Home Page. At roughly 9:00 PM, I was fast asleep on my sofa. Now, I'm a person that typically sleeps during movies - even exciting ones - but Blonde is boring at best and atrocious at worst. I was appalled and deeply concerned by the sheer amount of unnecessary full-on nude scenes of Ana de Armas - the actress that plays Marilyn. Speaking of her, let's first acknowledge the only good thing about this movie before I start ranting about it. Ana de Armas does a great job portraying the icon and it is a shame her talent was wasted on such a disturbing movie. Now that we got that out of the way, let me fully explain to you all the problems with this project. Blonde is based on a book of the same name. It's a fictional story written by Joyce Carol Oates interpreting the events that happened in Marilyn's life, in a very sensationalistic and exaggerated form. The text of the book itself is quite controversial, so it is no wonder that the movie was polemic. To make matters worse, Andrew Dominik, the director of the movie, seems to have no respect for the figure it portrays as Monroe's character comes off as childish, ditsy, and miserable. Speaking of miserable, the film heavily and exclusively illuminates the traumatizing events in Marilyn's life: suffering, abuse, violence, and coerced abortion - thus creating a tiring cycle that makes the movie dismal and hard to watch. The cinematography of the film also makes this project unwatchable. The aspect ratio is constantly changed and certain scenes that are in black and white add no depth, meaning, or progression to the narrative. Some shots, however, are beautiful, and the costume, as well as makeup design, are commendable - perfectly depicting the real images they were trying to replicate. Unfortunately, this is overshadowed by how terribly it portrays the main character. And I'm not going to delve into the pro-life message Dominik was attempting to make by using the fetus inside Monroe's belly to make her feel bad for aborting - it is simply ridiculous (especially given the fact that she never aborted). Unlike House of Gucci, this is a movie I strongly advise not to watch, you won't get anything from it aside from Ana de Armas's magnetic performance - but not even that, I'm afraid, makes Blonde worth watching.

Final Score: 0.5/5


Final Ranking

  1. Rocketman

  2. Elvis

  3. King Richard

  4. Spencer

  5. Bohemian Rhapsody

  6. House of Gucci

  7. Blonde

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